Adventures in a Pile of Dirt

by The Gilded Fork

by Laurie Alexiev

“So, what exactly do you want to do with this pile of dirt?” asked my husband Alex, sounding a bit disconcerted.  “Plant some stuff, perhaps,” I gingerly suggested. “Well, I see that somebody has already planted gorgeous views all around,” Alex said, breaking into a smile to my great relief, “so the rest of it should be a piece of cake.”

It was Christmas Day 1999, and we were looking over our new seven-acre property that sloped down from the house in every direction.  I had, in fact, been a bit concerned about his reaction, because Alex had seen neither the house nor the property before, and with but one solitary oak tree and an overly generous landscape of weeds, it did look a tad forlorn.

We had arrived very late on Christmas Eve — after a 16-hour drive in a 28-foot moving van — from our previous house in a northern Utah ski resort. It was more of a hurried escape than an orderly move; the year before had been the worst year of my life, with my beloved mother fighting and losing an incredibly brutal battle with ovarian cancer. After she passed away, we decided we did not want to start a new year in the place where everything reminded us of the woman we all loved so dearly. And so in the space of a month, while Alex was on a long overseas trip, I had to research school districts, find and buy a house, pack the old one, and get ready to move.

It wasn’t complete insanity, to be honest; we had done quite a bit of research and decided early on that we wanted to live in the wine country on the California Central Coast , preferably the Paso Robles appellation. We’re both passionate about food and wine, and Alex has always dreamed of having a vineyard and making his own wine. In fact, a year earlier, we had purchased a much larger piece of land in the area with the idea of building our dream house, planting a large vineyard, and eventually starting a winery.

For better or worse, that dream was mugged by reality in short order. First, it turned out that the land was in the wrong school district and at least an hour on the school bus each way; with three kids of school age and another one getting there, this alone nixed the dream house project. It also turned out that the locals were not kidding when they said it takes a very large fortune to make a very small one in the wine business. In our case, we would have needed to invest $500,000 to plant twenty acres of grapes, and wait five years before starting to recoup some of it, even if we could get a contract to sell the grapes, which was far from certain in the glutted market at the time. “Better odds in Vegas,” our ten-year-old house sage opined.

This, of course, didn’t prevent my husband from starting to dig holes madly for a “gentleman’s vineyard” the very next day. In the process, he discovered that the soil on our pile of dirt was what viticulturists call “calcareous,” which, translated in English, means there are a few specks of actual dirt among the chunks of limestone; not very suitable for much of anything except grapes and God’s other gift to mankind — the olive. And since it happens that the heavenly substance made from it is right up there with wine in our pantheon of ingestible liquids, the die was cast.

Off to Italy we schlepped the family for three weeks of touring frantoios (olive mills) and oil testing in Tuscany and Umbria . We already had well-established preferences, but that visit cemented them, and by the end of it we knew what we wanted to produce was the luscious green-golden oil the Tuscans call pizzicante because it gives you a kick at the back of your mouth — as if you had just ingested half a spoonful of ground black pepper. There’s simply nothing on earth that doesn’t taste better with a few drops of the stuff drizzled on it.

Back home there were specific trees to be researched for planting, experienced growers and nurseries to be consulted and, lastly but most importantly, a potential market to be studied. With less than 1% of the oil consumed in the U.S. produced locally, and virtually none of it from Tuscan varietals at the time, the knowledge base was not exactly huge. No matter — the chance to get in on the ground floor of something that had great promise and was going to be a labor of love to boot — now this was exciting!

Finally, on May 15, 2001, we were ready to plant. Just days before, one last problem cropped up as the company we had asked for a quote to plant the trees came up with what we thought was an outrageous amount — of $48,000 (plus the $5000 cost of trees) — to plant the four acres we had set aside for the orchard. “No sweat, we’ll do it ourselves for $1000 in one week,” Alex declared at the dinner table that night — with what sounded to me like unusually quixotic cockiness, even for him.

Up at five the next day and on the “pile of dirt” by six, we unrolled the irrigation hose,  punched in emitters, dug holes, and planted trees as the kids trudged up and down the hill, reluctantly carrying the potted saplings and rebar to stake the trees on. It took two seemingly endless weeks of this — rather than one — but at the end of it we had 800 trees planted and the total cost was indeed just under $6000. “That pile of dirt,” I mused, as we sipped a celebratory glass of champagne upon finishing, “is already a thing of beauty.” “Yep, and I’m afraid we are now married to it,” quipped my husband.

The rest, as they say, is history. Last year, we had our first tiny crop of 250 lbs. that yielded all of five gallons of what to me is liquid gold. It had a spectacularly low acidity (0.09) and our varietal combination of 40% Frantoio, 40% Lechino, and 10% each of the pollinators Pendolino and Maurino gives it really exciting organoleptics (layman’s term for this? We could put it in parentheses), in my highly-biased view. I submitted the oil to the Los Angeles County Fair Olive Oil Competition (the largest international competition in the world) as a lark and, low and behold, it got a silver medal in the Tuscan category.

This harvest, in November, we’ll have at least ten times as much and will start selling it, and in two to three years’ time we’re looking at a harvest of as much as 20 tons of olives and some 800 gallons of oil! So now there are websites and labels to be designed, bottles to be chosen, and Internet marketing plans to be developed.

In the meantime, my husband’s “gentleman’s vineyard” somehow grew to one and a half acres and a potential production of up to 5,000 bottles, so he is now contemplating getting a license and selling it on the website in conjunction with the oil. As he is fond of saying: “Just like the British Empire of old, it all grew beyond reason in a fit of absent-mindedness.”

And a glorious fit it is!

***Laurie and Alex’s first harvest of olive oil is now available in our Online Boutique, so indulge yourself with the essence of pizzicante…

Laurie Alexiev lives with her husband and four olive oil-addicted kids in Templeton , California.

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