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MODESTO —Sciabica’s California Olive Oil spent 2016 celebrating its 80th anniversary, four generations of family tradition and its title as one of the longest running olive oil producers in the state.
Despite recognition as pioneers in the industry, the company remains small, locally minded and family-oriented. Sciabica’s staff of 25 cold-presses more than a dozen olive oils which include single varietals, “fused” flavored olive oils, its signature Marsala Brand Olive Oil, and lavender hand soap.
California’s olive oil industry is big business. According to the California Olive Committee, the state produces 95 percent of the nation’s supply of olives. Most of the state’s olives are grown in the San Joaquin Valley by multi-generational farms like Sciabica.
The company is in the center of the nation’s olive oil-producing region and prides itself on its heritage and attention to quality. More than eight decades of family tradition have carried through four generations.
Nicola Sciabica, who migrated to the United States from Marsala, Sicily in 1911, founded the company in 1936.
He moved to California for the Mediterranean climate and was drawn to Modesto for its warm weather and water quality. He purchased a small ranch in 1925 and with the knowledge he brought from his home in Sicily, began cold-pressing olive oil.
The Sciabica family remains on the same property and works with the same mill — although with updated equipment, said Jonathan Sciabica, Nicola’s great-grandson who operates the company with his father, Nick, and uncle, David.
Some of Sciabica’s 250 acres of olive trees are still grown on the family’s original ranch. The rest is distributed throughout the Central Valley.
In 2016, the company hoped to produce 75,000 gallons of extra virgin olive oil, up from 50,000 gallons two years ago.
“We are actually seeing an uptick in the industry,” Jonathan Sciabica said. “For the first time in the history of California olive oil, it really makes sense to plant olive trees. The industry is booming.”
This is in part due to California’s drought, which has made olive trees more attractive to farmers. Sciabica explained that olive trees require dramatically less water than other crops, such as almonds or dairy, for example.
California’s extra virgin olive oil production hit an all-time high in 2015. The state nearly doubled its production from 2.4 million gallons in 2014 to 4 million gallons in 2015, according to the California Olive Oil Council.
There is also a growing demand for California’s extra virgin olive oil. A growing population and concern for health means an increased interest in beneficial foods such as olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil isn’t refined or processed; the olives are simply pressed for their oil.
“Virgin means the oil is fresh from the olive and not treated with heat or chemicals. It’s essentially fresh fruit juice.” Sciabica added, “Extra Virgin means that the fresh fruit juice is delicious (with ‘perfect’ flavor).”
It is the highest quality oil, as recognized by the International Olive Council and the USDA.
“California is providing full-flavor delicious (varietals),” he explained.
Like wine, there are hundreds of varieties of olives. “Each has a distinct profile,” he said.
However, unlike wine, extra virgin olive oil is not aged or put into oak barrels.
“It’s just put into the bottle, then goes to the consumer,” Sciabica said.
“The demand for California extra virgin olive oil is off the charts,” Sciabica added, “There is more demand than there is supply.”
“There is still a lot of opportunity for growth. What we really need is a demand for high quality (olive oils),” said Sciabica.
Varietals made in the state are standardized by organizations such as the California Olive Oil Council which certifies its quality.
“California is one of the only places supplying high quality extra virgin olive oil,” he said. “There is a lot of great olive oil made across the globe, but only California Olive Oil has a legal standard that’s enforced to ensure high-quality extra virgin olive oil.”
A study conducted by the University of Davis in 2011 found that of the five top-selling imported “extra virgin” olive oil brands in the United States, 73 percent of the samples failed the IOC sensory standards for extra virgin olive oils analyzed. The failure rate ranged from a high of 94 percent to a low of 56 percent depending on the brand and the panel. Eighty-nine percent of Californian samples passed both test panels.
The high quality and purity of olive oil made here means the industry will continue to grow to meet an increasing demand. Sciabica plans to continue to grow with it.
For more information, visit Sciabica’s website.