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UC’s olive oil taste panel supports industry

The Issue

The California olive oil revival is a quiescent industry come dramatically to life. Acreage planted to oil olives has doubled in just the last five years to over 10,500 acres. California’s production of 400,000 gallons of premium quality olive oil is predicted to triple in the next three years and continue to grow. These oils are excellent, taking top awards in competitions all around the world, but this was not always the case. Only a few years ago, most producers in California had no idea what good olive oil tasted like and some, unfortunately, were producing and selling defective oils without knowing it. Much of the old traditions of the Mediterranean countries that were being adapted included some of the bad habits of processing oil using antique and limited resource technology that produced defective oils. The big question was, how could California olive oil producers ever develop a viable industry without recognized standards?

What Has ANR Done?

Only the most rudimentary quality testing on olive oil can be done by laboratory chemical analysis. A group of human beings following strict tasting protocols is the only tool known that can accurately detect, identify and quantify all of the many positive and negative attributes of olive oil. In 1997, UC farm advisor Paul Vossen began screening potential tasters in an effort to develop an official olive oil taste panel based on International Olive Council (IOC) standards. In 2001, the California Taste Panel became one of 41 officially recognized IOC taste panels in the world and the first in the United States, comparable to the leading panels of Europe. Many official IOC tastings were conducted of California’s olive oils for compliance to trade standards.

The California Taste Panel’s initial feedback to the industry came in the form of a seal certification program with the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), which was an attempt to give consumers assurance of quality when purchasing California olive oil. In addition to the seal, producers benefited from taste panel evaluations handled confidentially by UC in order to help them learn from mistakes and improve their oils.

The Payoff

The improvement of California’s olive oil owes much to the efforts of a scientifically selected and trained sensory evaluation panel.

Thanks in large part to UC and the efforts of the taste panel volunteers, it has become a rarity to find defects in a California olive oil. There is now a UC taste panel that devotes itself entirely to research and education, evaluating oils using the UC 15-Point Profile sheet to record extremely valuable data on the more subtle and complex aspects of olive oil. Ongoing research into the sensory effects of olive fruit fly damage and tree irrigation level on olive oil will help producers adjust their pest control measures and irrigation program to minimize environmental and financial impact while preserving oil quality. A research project comparing oil from the same olives made with different processing systems is providing valuable information for producers seeking the best methods for their particular fruit. California-specific data produced by a taste panel using internationally recognized scientific standards and methods are essential to the growth of a world-class olive oil industry.


Supporting Unit: Sonoma County

Paul Vossen, (707) 565-2621, pmvossen@ucdavis.edu