California's Central Coast is famous as a wine destination, but did you know it is also the home to some of the state's best extra virgin olive oil? The OliveOil.com tasting team reviews a selection of the region's finest! We provide links to the producers as a courtesy—OliveOil.com does not receive payment in any way for its reviews or from the olive oil sales they may generate.
The Central Coast of California reaches from below San Jose in the north to Ventura/Oxnard in the south. Coastal mountains and valleys thread their ways through the region, producing an assortment of micro climates. The region produces both grapes and olives capable of making products of extraordinary quality, so alongside a prestigious wine industry, the Central Coast has grown a vibrant artisan olive oil community. They have a grower association, Central Coast Extra Virgin, that meets monthly to discuss production challenges, share resources, discuss important policy and regulatory issues, taste olive oil—and enjoy some good food and wine! Thanks to this combination of education and peer pressure, these Central Coast craft producers are storing their oil in stainless steel under controlled temperatures, embracing filtration, and working in many ways to continually improve their processes and products.
The producers of the Central Coast are mostly small and doing estate production. The definition of "estate" varies a bit, but generally it refers to olive oil made from olives grown by the brand owners. Getting into the details, "estate grown" would mean that the olives are grown on the owner's property, but could be milled offsite. "Estate produced" would be an oil from olives grown and milled on the owner's farm. The critical element of estate production is the farming of the olives: great oil starts in the orchard—and there also lies the greatest risk. Farmers are at the mercy of nature (and policy), and that makes for a wild ride. There is a famous joke in agriculture: "Do you know why they call it farming? Because 'gambling' was already taken." Funny not funny.
The unpredictability of farming can be crazy-making if you are a grower-producer. A real-world example: one of the producers featured in this piece, Jeff Martin of Frantoio Grove, had an abysmal crop in 2020. He grows a single cultivar—Frantoio—and it just let him down. But there was a solution thanks to the strength of the California craft olive oil community—a bumper crop at another ranch came to the rescue. McEvoy Ranch was the source of the trees that Jeff planted many years ago, and the two farms stay in touch. Jeff was able to buy certified organic olives to mill in 2020 and so produced some olive oil to keep his customers supplied. An important point is that since normally this is an estate grown and milled oil, he clearly states the source of this year's olives on the label. An honest solution to a vexing problem!
Our Tasting Process
As always, the tasting team worked blind with no knowledge of what they were tasting. The team for this review consisted of Deborah Rogers, Nancy Lilly, Glenn Weddell, Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne and Maria Farr; they tasted remotely, conferencing over Zoom. This tasting was a bit different in that only good oils were selected for this review. There is no ranking because they are all excellent—just different! The objective is to provide some guidance about flavor to help you find an oil you will love. We also added a little profile of the producer to help you know the people and the farm behind the product.
In contrast to what you'd find in the average supermarket, many of these oils are on the intense/robust side. This means that they will have distinct peppery and bitter character. There are also some choices in the medium category; they still have some pepper and bitterness but it's more subdued. Any of these oils would be fantastic for cooking (let the "you can't cook with extra virgin olive oil" myth disappear forever!) but you will get the most out of them if you use them raw to pour on food after it's been taken off the heat to add lots of flavor. Don't feel bad about keeping an inexpensive extra virgin in the house for cooking—then you can then indulge in multiple estate oils for finishing, dressing and low heat uses!
Intensity and fruitiness. To help you find the right olive oil for your taste, or to use in a particular recipe, the tasting team gives an overall intensity rating—from 1 olive for mild to 5 olives for very intense—plus a note on the character of the olive fruit flavors. A higher intensity rating indicates more bitter and peppery flavors. Bitterness and pepperiness are positives in olive oil, and are signs of the presence of healthful polyphenols. As you explore the olive oil world, you might want to start trying some robust oils on your hearty hot dishes. The type of fruitiness present is shown on our ripe–green indicator icon, and descriptors appear in the tasting notes. Olive oil fruitiness goes beyond what we would normally think of as fruit to include vegetative notes like fresh-cut grass and tomato leaf, and ripe flavors like buttery and nutty.
These extra virgin olive oils are fruity with slight to moderate pepperiness and bitterness. They are listed alphabetically.
Dahlkemper Farms Extra Virgin Olive Oil (250mL)
Carmel Valley, California
A balanced and complex oil with a mix of ripe and green fruit flavors. Grassy, herbaceaous, hay and tomato leaf lead the green notes, with ripe notes of nuts, almond and floral.
A versatile oil for finishing hot and cold dishes. Try it on vegetable pasta dishes, cooked vegetables, grain salads, tomatoes or for dipping with a country style bread.
Andrew & River Dahlkemper farm 2.5 ac of olives consistent with organic practices and are transitioning to certified organic. The caring philosophy extends beyond the land to society as well: they donate 100% of the proceeds from the olive oil to charitable organizations. Buy it here.
Fandango Bueno Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (375mL)
Paso Robles, California
A mild-medium, versatile oil with more green than ripe fruit, showing grassy, herbaceous, green banana and buttery notes. Pepper on the finish.
Versatile oil for use in both hot and cold dishes. Try it on salads and for dipping, or on cooked spring vegetables and fish.
Jerry and Carolyn Shaffer's certified organic estate orchard of 2,000 trees has been producing award-winning extra virgin olive oils since 2010. They promised each other to cease when farming was no longer fun—14 years later, they are still going strong! Buy it here.
Mountain Springs Olive Ranch Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil (375mL)
Paso Robles, California
A complex well-balanced fruity oil with herbaceous leafy and grassy green aromas. Ripe nutty-almond flavors with floral notes. Some pepper on the finish.
Good for salads and dipping, or for finishing hot dishes like vegetable or seafood pastas, baked or poached fish or steamed vegetables.
This award-winning oil is estate grown on calcareous soil in the hills west of Paso Robles, these trees are irrigated with the mountain spring water that gives the ranch its name. Buy it here.
Pleasant Valley Farms Extra Virgin Olive Oil (375mL)
A complex & balanced oil with both green and ripe fruit notes: Herbaceous, grassy, nutty, cinnamon-spice, almond and floral.
A versatile oil suitable for both hot and cold finishing and dressing: Pasta Primavera, cooked white beans, Caprese salad and dipping or bruschetta.
The Royan family farms 4 ac of olives under the leadership of mom Teresa on their 26 ac ranch in Pleasant Valley. They use sustainable and organic practices including onsite composting of their green waste to produce their award-winning olive oils. Everything but the milling is done on the ranch. Buy it here.
These olive oils range from moderately robust to downright assertive! They have pronounced peppery and bitter flavors, and will be excellent enhancements to hearty dishes. Learn more about using these robust higher polyphenol oils. They are listed alphabetically.
43 Ranch Picual Extra Virgin Olive Oil (250mL)
San Ardo, California
Balanced and complex oil with bright green notes of grass and tomato leaf. Ripe notes are floral, tropical and nutty.
A versatile oil with a little kick for finishing and dressing. Try it on Caprese Salad or heirloom tomatoes, summer vegetables, brown rice, roasted meats.
Greg & Cindy Traynor farm olives on a ranch settled by Greg's family in 1864. They have a state-of-the-art mill, storage, bottling as well as a tasting room on the ranch where visitors can taste their award-winning oils. Buy it here.
Bella Vista Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (200mL)
An assertive robust oil with grassy, leafy and fresh hay green aromas and nutty, almond and ripe olive ripe flavors.
A bold but balanced oil suited to uses where robust flavor is desired. Grilled meats, hearty pasta dishes and sauces, Panzanella salad, roasted or grilled summer vegetables.
Pat Stevens and Deborah Muscari restored a 10 ac olive grove on their ranch in the Diablo Mountains. With love and good certified organic farming, they nurtured the orchard to health and are producing increasing amounts of award-winning oil from "The Little Orchard That Could!" Find out where to buy it here.
Frantoio Grove Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (375mL)
Olives grown in Petaluma, milled in San Martin, California
Fresh, balanced, complex and robust. Grassy, leafy and spicy notes predominate, with some almond and floral undertones.
A versatile finishing oil for pasta, beans, robust soups, chili, veggies and dishes with tomatoes.
Following a family tradition of farming going back 150 years, the Martin family grows 30 acres of certified organic olives in San Martin. They have a mill, storage and bottling onsite to produce their award-winning olive oil. Find out where to buy it here.
Kiler Ridge Nocellara del Belice Extra Virgin Olive Oil (250mL)
Paso Robles, California
A robust oil with mostly green notes—grass, leaves and hay—and some ripe nutty and floral flavors.
An assertive oil perfect for finishing hearty dishes like ribollita, stews, minestrone, grilled meat and pizza.
Audrey Burnam and Greg Bone were inspired by a trip to Tuscany to produce olive oil in California and now farm 2,700 trees on 15.6 ac. They have a state-of-the-art mill, storage, bottling as well as a tasting room where they offer olive oil small plates featuring their award-winning oil. Buy it here.
Rancho Azul y Oro Extra Virgin Olive Oil (250mL)
San Miguel, California
A green robust oil. Herbaceous, grassy, artichoke and tomato leaf green notes, with ripe flavors of floral, almond and ripe olive.
A flavorful topping for hot pasta, cooked vegetables, eggs, beans, or grilled meat, summer vegetables and mushrooms.
Stuart de Haaff & Kathryn Keeler farm 2 ac of olives on an 80 ac ranch. Sustainability is important to them and they use the balance of the property for grazing and wildlife habitat. Hand harvested and milled in nearby Paso Robles. Buy it here.
Spanish Oaks Italian Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil (500mL)
Intense and complex green notes: herbaceous, grassy, chili, black pepper and fresh ground coffee. Slight nutty-almond ripe flavors.
A robust oil to use on hot cooked beans, grilled steak, potatoes, grilled summer vegetables, polenta and pizza.
Sam and Lynn Israelit grow 2000+ olive trees on their fully solar-powered ranch using sustainable farming practices like cover cropping, organic pest control, drip irrigation and weed management courtesy of a herd of San Clemente Island goats. Sam uses their award-winning oil in everything he cooks. Find out where to buy it here.
Tres Osos Organic Taggiasca Extra Virgin Olive Oil (375mL)
Carmel Valley, California
A robust oil with a complex green profile of grassy, leafy, artichoke, black pepper, hay notes and plenty of structure. Some nutty and floral ripe undertones.
An intense finishing oil for hot dishes: hearty soups, stews, tomato-based sauces, grilled meat and vegetables, and cooked beans.
Dean and Barbara Griggs grow 2,000 olive trees—certified organic and solar-powered—on their 93 ac ranch in Carmel Valley. The shallow topsoil over fractured Monterey shale combined with the Pacific coastal influences defines their terroir. Find out where to buy it here.