Tasting Israeli Olive Oils
Louie Gonzalez, a taste panel leader for the California Olive Oil Council, judged oils at Terra Olivo, The Mediterranean International Olive Oil Competition held in Israel, in May, 2011. It was the second year of this competition. Producers from eleven countries submitted 113 oils. (The California producers Bozzano, California Olive Ranch, Egg Ranch, Lucero, and The Olive Press all were awarded medals.) The judges were from a variety of olive-oil producing countries, and Louie was the only panelist from the United States.
After the competition, he visited some of the producers who had participated, traveling in a rental car through horn-honking traffic that seemed to have little regard for speed limits and right-of-way conventions. The producers gave him samples of oils; many had won gold medals. Louie stuffed them into a suitcase and brought them home, successfully passing scrutiny from the U.S. Custom officials. He generously donated the samples to the COOC. The panel met a few months later to taste the oils. It was a real treat, since only a few of us have tasted Israeli olive oil. Some of the olive varieties, such as Nebali and Souri, were new to our palates.
We followed our usual protocol, tasting the oils blind and completing assessment sheets for each one, noting any defects and degrees of fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency. Not all were pristine. The first three samples—granted they were oils from the 2009 harvest—were rancid, perhaps due to their age.
The next four samples were from one producer, Eretz Gshur, located in the southern Golan Heights, and all were from the current harvest. This producer’s oils swept the 2011 competition, winning three special awards—Best Israeli Arbequina, Best Israeli Picual, and Best Israeli Company, as well as six Prestige Gold medals and one Gold medal. Although the four oils we tasted from this producer were good, the most interesting by far was the Picholine. (Probably French Picholine, not the Redding Picholine grown here in California.) It had aromas and flavors new to us—apples, baked fruit, buttery pastry, and a delicate sweetness.
The competition lasted for four days, with the medal ceremony the evening of the last day. Ehud Soriano, the miller for Eretz Gshur, was seated with his wife behind Louie. When he won his first gold medal, everyone clapped. Then he won a second. More clapping. Then a third gold medal. This continued for four more medals. Then came the special awards. Ehud walked to the front of the room to collect a medal for the Best Israeli Arbequina. Then up the aisle one more time as his Picual won the Best Israeli Picual. By this time his wife was crying. He almost made it back to his seat when he was called forward again to collect his prize for the Best Israeli Company. He was quickly surrounded by fellow producers and members of the media. His wife retreated to a quiet corner, still weeping for joy. Louie went and sat beside her. After a minute he asked, “How does he do it?” “He babies every tree and makes the oil with his heart,” she said.