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Local Family Sees a Growing Market in United States for Olive Oil

Hillary S. Meeks
In 1976, California wines beat France's in a blind tasting and began a new revolution in wine. The Sawatzky family said the same thing is happening today, except it's with California olive oils. "California will compete, does compete, in quality olive oil with the rest of the world," Richard Sawatzky said.

Less than 1 percent of the world's olive oil is grown in the United States and the rest is imported, which is exactly why Sawatzky sees a growing market for it.

So does Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who recently deemed February as California Olive Oil Month. Richard and his sons, Kyle and Ryan Sawatzky, own Wiebe Farms, which mainly grows stone fruit such as peaches and nectarines.

They're a fifth-generation farming family, and when the stone fruit industry had some problems a few years ago, the family decided to diversify. They bought the Bari Olive Oil company in March 2008 and moved it from Reedley to Dinuba.

Adding olive oil to their repertoire of goods made sense because olives don't take much water to grow, are resilient against pests and can now be harvested mechanically when grown in a high-density manner, Kyle Sawatzky said. Because of olives' resiliency to pests, the Sawatzkys have completely made the switch to certified organic with this fall's harvest.

While they kept the brand's signature olive oil, which has a smooth, buttery flavor and is made from Mission olives, they also added several new extra-virgin olive oils to the brand. "Most companies have one standard oil they make, but we grow different varieties for each oil and each variety yields a different flavor," Kyle explained.

To show differences in flavor to visitors, Bari Olive Oil offers taste tests. And yes, swishing it around in one's mouth like wine is one of the ways to taste test olive oil."It's a little weird the first time you do it, because it's just so foreign to be drinking a fat," Kyle said with a chuckle.

Bread is kept nearby for those who prefer a more traditional way of tasting the flavors. They include: traditional, fruity, delicate and robust. These are each made from a different olive. The fruity is from the Spanish Arbequina, the delicate is a Spanish Arbosana and the robust is the Greek Koroneiki.