State of the Art

Stones to State of the Art

From Traditional Stones to State-of-the-Art

Steven planted his first 600 olive trees in 1979, on steep slopes adjacent to his fruit orchard. And, after traveling extensively through the Mediterranean during the 1980’s, he knew he wanted to make olive oil.

For the first couple of years, his oil was milled at a facility in the Central Valley. While good, they did not live up to his memories of the transcendent oils of France, Spain, Italy and Greece. So he determined to learn the craft himself. In the late 1990’s he spent each harvest season visiting top producers, and one year apprenticed at a mill in Provence. One conclusion he came to was that conventional modern mills were built exclusively for production concerns, and not for the quality of extraction. And he also noticed that the very best millers in Europe had all cut their teeth on the traditional stone mill/woven mat press.

With his friend Edward Klaner, he searched for and eventually found a traditional mill that was being scrapped. Edward is mechanically inclined and has a white collar job that keeps his hands much too clean. He was willing to supervise the transport of the old mill from its home on the east coast of Central Italy, and to reassemble it piece by piece in the Sierra Foothills. Steven and Edward made their first oil in 1998, and after Gianni took over the helm in 2000, they began to rack up Gold Medals at the LA County Fair.

The traditional mill has a number of advantages over the modern conventional mill, the primary one being that it requires true craftsmanship to run it properly. At each phase the olive paste is visible, and each phase requires intense human intervention. Modern crushing, for example, takes place in an enclosed box, and is the work of a second. Traditional crushing takes place in an open vat over the course of around 15 minutes. The miller is able to observe the precise effect of the milling on particle size and oil extraction, and to make appropriate timing decisions. Running our traditional mill for seven years gave us a deep understanding of what really happens to the olive during its time in the mill.

There is, however, a great weakness to the traditional system: a very high level of oxidation. As Gianni established himself clearly as our master miller, he began to push us toward acquiring a system that could dramatically reduce that oxidation. And our path began to take us toward Marco Mugelli.

Dr. Mugelli is perhaps the top researcher, producer and taster of olive oil in the world. Over the last 20 years he has developed an extraction system that retains the maximum possible flavors and nutritional benefits. In collaboration with a fellow Tuscan engineer, his unique mills are built to operate under vacuum, and with a wide range of computerized sensors and adjustable controls. A few strategic partners run these prototype mills at their locations, and collaborate with Marco in the process of refining and perfecting the mill. One such partner is in Sardinia, another in Sicily, and Marco runs a third mill from his Tuscan home. He hadn’t considered taking on an American partner, but he eventually caved in to our persistence, and has been a close associate—and friend—ever since.

For more on how our new, under-vacuum mill operates, see Milling for Quality.