Olive and Wine Country: Corning, CA


A giant replica of a martini olive sits on the corner of South Avenue and Hall Road in Corning, California. It isn’t someone’s idea of a practical joke but a symbol of the fruit’s importance to this part of the Sacramento Valley in California that produces olives and olive oil.

A visit to Lucero Olive Oil opened our eyes to an industry that is growing fast enough to be an important crop for the state. Lucero also happens to produce some of the best extra-virgin olive oils in the world, having won many competitions. The process for extracting the oil from the olive fruit is highly mechanized at Lucero, but as in winemaking, the role of the master maker is also very important. Despite the simplicity of how it sounds, the “cold-pressing” process for extra-virgin olive oil involves crushing the olives and pits into a mash and after kickstarting enzymes with a bit of heat in malaxers not to exceed 80oF, centrifuging the oil out in decanters. A few hardy olive varieties lend themselves to mechanized harvesting, but the fruit-picking is done manually for the most part to minimize bruising that could lead to oxidation. The tasting room lets you sample their oils, balsamic vinegars and tapénades and a factory tour can be arranged at the spur of the moment. Their oils had a range of tastes from mild to slightly bitter, with degrees of buttery, fruity and herbal notes. It was explained to us that the peppery finish in oils depends on variety, but more so on how mature the fruit is when picked, the greener ones exhibiting this characteristic.

The area between Corning and Red Bluff are full of olive tree orchards, which can easily be seen along the many roads throughout the valley.

Olive orchard along Road

Olive orchard along Hall Road

In nearby Vina, a community of Cistercian monks live in a monastery, the Abbey of New Clairvaux. The brothers also have a winery that produces award-winning wines, a tradition that dates back to Europe. There is a tasting room where we sampled a pinot grigio, viognier, albariño, barbera, petit sirah and a port-like vino dolce, a bottle of which we purchased.

new clairvaux

As you approach the winery, you can’t help but notice a Gothic-looking building on the grounds. The history behind its construction (or reconstruction) is very interesting, involving a thirteenth-century Cistercian abbey, William Randolph Hearst, and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. In an attempt to build an estate that would surpass San Simeon, Hearst purchased a ruined chapter house of Santa Maria de Ovila, an old Cistercian monastery in Spain, as part of the project. The building was dismantled, piece by piece, and brought to the Bay Area. The advent of the Depression disrupted this plan and the stones eventually donated to the De Young Museum of San Francisco. The stones were left unattended in Golden Gate Park for many years where they were vandalized and generally lay in ruin. In 1994, the stones were granted to the Abbey of New Clairvaux, which has incorporated the stones to build a new chapter house, a replica of the original Spanish structure.

Cistercian architecture is known for its simplicity. The symbolism of its vaulted ceilings and windows are considered divine. Some aspects of the design use the golden ratio, often embodied in esoteric works of art.

The golden ratio is incorporated into the proportion of

The golden ratio is incorporated into the layout and dimensions of the portals

The pointed ceilings symbolize the vault of heaven

The pointed ceilings are supposed to symbolize the vault of heaven

In Corning, the Olive Pit sells all manner of olive products, more than I had ever seen anywhere.

For dinner, we took advantage of half-price senior buffets at the local Rolling Hills Casino, operated by the Nomlaki tribe.

Waipara Valley Wine and Food Festival (Glenmark Domain, NZ)


waipara_festival

The Waipara Valley Wine and Food Festival is an annual event that celebrates the wines produced in the namesake valley. Such festivals are generally fun to attend, so when our son-in-law told us about this one, it didn’t take long to decide on going. In order to reduce traffic and congestion at the venue, several buses provided for-fee service to the venue from as far south as Christchurch. We caught our bus in mid-morning at the Cashmere Club pick-up point and headed north, the shuttle stopping to pick up additional passengers at six more stations before arriving at the festival grounds at Glenmark Domain.

As we stepped off the bus, the warm northwest winds for which the Waipara Valley is known were blowing stiffly, causing me to wonder if it was a good idea to have come to the festival. Because the winery and food pavilions were set in a forest of trees that served as effective windbreaks, I soon lost interest in the weather and began to get down to the business of sampling wine and food.

First a rant. I paid NZ $57.50 for each ticket, which included the bus fare from Christchurch, admission, a “complimentary” wine glass and entertainment. It did not cover even a limited number of wine samples or the wine glass holders, basically lanyards with an ingeniously designed clip for securing the wine glass around your neck, sold for an extra NZ $3 each (2 for $5). Wine fees were generally $2 for a sample (little over an ounce per pour), $5 for a glass, a bit more if you purchased a vineyard’s logo’ed glass. Some wineries offered purchases of full bottles using EFTPOS, but not credit cards. I felt like I was being nickled and dimed to death, more irritating since I began to worry about running out of cash.

Waipara Valley is known for its zesty rieslings, gewurztraminers and pinot noirs, a result of the warm northwesterlies that blow in the fall. All the wineries had rieslings to sample, many had gewurz and sauvignon blanc, as well as pinot noir and pinot gris. The sampling fee policy restricted our wine tasting to only a few wineries, including one which we really enjoyed when we visited the estate in 2010, Pegasus Bay Winery. Their Aria, a beautifully crafted late harvest riesling, is one of two bottles we brought back home that year. At the festival, we enjoyed the few samples we did have.

Sample festival wines

Sample festival wines

What surprised me was the quality of the food. Not typical festival fare, at least by U.S. standards, the food was first-rate. While there were the standard offerings you’d find in the States—chips (fries), hot dogs and waffles—we weren’t so keen on getting those, seeking out Kiwi food instead.

The first place we came across was selling crayfish fritters and garlic scallops, both shellfish locally sourced. There was already a crowd around the booth even if the festival had only been open for an hour. The transaction here typified what happened at all other food stalls. You paid at one station and picked up the order at another, with no claim ticket, relying entirely on the honor system. Nice. The scallops were cooked just right with their corals still attached, a great nosh. More ordinary were the fritters where the eggy batter overwhelmed the mud bugs. Both fritters and scallops were served between two slices of bread to avoid the use of paper plates presumably. We didn’t sample the seafood chowder, which other customers seemed to be gobbling up.

Janene McIllwrick's food pavilion

Janene McIllwrick’s food pavilion

Crayfish fritters

Crayfish fritters

Garlic scallops

Garlic scallops

Three restaurants were involved in a cook-off, though unclear how it was being conducted. Regardless, food was being sold by all three, including Isabel’s, where we purchased an order each of bruschetta and grilled lamb kafta.  The tomato-basil salad bruschetta was topped with a triangle of grilled haloumi cheese, a refreshing and excellent snack. A sloppy but tasty sandwich to eat was a pita garnished with lamb kafta, very thinly sliced ribbons of cucumber, tomato chutney and grilled red onions and garnished with too much of a tangy mint yogurt dressing.

Grilled Lamb Kofta

Grilled Lamb Kofta

bruschetta

Bruschetta

The Whitebait People pavilion was offering whitebait fritters. Since I first learned of whitebait on our first trip to New Zealand, I’d wanted to try some. The first encounter last July was not so impressive, sold by the shop that otherwise makes excellent fish and chips (Coppell Seafoods), probably pre-frozen patties that were thrown into the frying oil. Today’s was a better example of how Kiwis like theirs, in the form of fritters simply prepared. Sprinkled with salt and a squirt of lemon juice, it was fine, though not something I’d have to have again.

Whitebait on the griddle

Whitebait on the griddle

Whitebait fritter

Whitebait fritter

At around 4pm, we piled back onto the bus to take us back to Christchurch, facing the same stiff winds that greeted us on arrival. At the rear of the coach was a group of boisterous, tanked revelers who eventually quieted down as we got halfway to town. All in all, a pleasant day spent in wine country, which would have been even better if I didn’t feel ripped off.