Think you know good olive oil? Think again.
Shauna Wells said the words no husband wants to hear: We need to talk.
“He was hesitant for about a good 10 to 15 seconds,” said Wells, recalling a drive home from North Carolina a few years ago. “He said, ‘If it’s what I think it is, I saw your face. It’s right up your alley. I know you can do it.’”
What Wells did was quit her 10-year career as a paralegal and opened a business specializing in a product most of us spending little time thinking about: olive oil.
Two years later, The Olive Oil Taproom is now profitable at two area locations1 with no customer decline in sight. “They’re stuck on the product,” Wells said. “They love it.”
Virginity, at least when it comes to olive oil, denotes how many times an olive is crushed to produce its juice. Extra virgin means the olive is “crushed one time and one time only,” Wells explained. “Virgin olive oil has been crushed twice. Anything beyond that is a waste product. And that’s, unfortunately, what we’re getting in North America.”2
Many olive oils advertise as being extra virgin. Most aren’t. In 2010, researchers at the UC Davis Olive Center3 concluded that a majority of common extra virgin olive oils were fraudulently named (PDF).
But as Wells says, you can’t fool someone’s palette. “The olive oils in the grocery stores are very heavy and greasy,” she said. “They coat the mouth. They’re really isn’t a whole lot of taste to it.”
That’s not how extra virgin olive oil should be. “An olive is a fruit, and when you crush it one time…it’s olive juice. And it should be juice like orange juice and dissipate in the mouth.”
Wells knew none of this a few years ago when her husband, who distributes gourmet cheese and deli meats, coaxed her into traveling with him to North Carolina to help drum up business. One of the places they visited was Green Gate Olive Oils in Winston Salem.
“I’m like, ‘What in the world is this kind of place?’” said Wells about the olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop. The ardent cook was enamored with the shop. “I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” she said. “And lightbulbs were glaring.”
On the ride home she told her husband she wanted to open her own store. “I don’t know what it was,” she said. “It got me in my head and my heart. I knew that I could make it work.”
Over the next few months, Wells devoted her free time to researching olive oil and olive oil vendors. “Our vendor just stood out as the most upfront, passionate, honest” that she found.
Based in California, Veronica Foods works with small olive mills in countries like Chile, Italy, Spain, Australia, Greece, Africa, and others to provide true extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegars.
With Veronica Foods’ supply, Wells opened the first Olive Oil Taproom in 2012 in Short Pump. “Our vendor only had two rules: [use only] our oils and balsamics, and what’s most important is to educate the consumer. Because the more power and knowledge the consumer has, the better position they are in to demand quality.”
Wells said one of the most important things olive oil buyers should know is the crush date. “You won’t find hardly a crushed date on any grocery store brand,” she said. “What you’re going to find is a ‘use by’ date. And a lot of them are ‘use by two years from now.’” Quality olive oils don’t last that long.
Not only does a crush date convey freshness, it indicates just how much of olive oil’s health benefits you’ll get. “You’ve got your polyphenol levels–those are your antioxidants–and your oleic acid levels are your anti-inflammatories,” Wells said. “Over time those levels are going to drop as the oil ages. So you want it as fresh as possible.”
“Generally, the more robust the flavor, the higher the polyphenol content,” she said. “It can be as robust as tomato leaves and fresh-cut grass.” Just a little taste can even make an uninitiated taster cough on end afterward. Some of the fruitier versions taste more like an unripe banana peel or a Granny Smith apple.
The Olive Oil Taproom carries nearly 40 varieties of extra virgin olive oil. Most are flavor-infused, like the basil and sun-dried tomato tasting Tuscan, and the citrusy Blood Orange, two popular flavors.
One of the most popular olive oil varieties not flavor-infused is the Picual4 from Spain. “It’s very herbaceous, grassy, very little bitterness, and slightly peppery,” Wells said.
In addition to the olive oil, Wells also sells roughly 30 balsamic vinegars. As with olive oil, most of the balsamic vinegars and dressings we buy at stores aren’t true balsamics. “It has to be aged at least 12 years,” Wells said.
Balsamics come in both white and dark varieties. “The whites have been aged in stainless steel tanks,” Wells said. The dark balsamics are aged in wine oak barrels and “take on the flavor characteristics of the wine that was in it.” Among customer favorites are the White Cranberry Pear and the Black Cherry. Other flavors include Coconut, Peach, Jalapeño, Chocolate, and Thai Lemon Mint.
“They’re so versatile,” Wells said about balsamics, which don’t taste like vinegar at all. “They’re not just salad dressings. They make wonderful meat marinades.”5
With so many flavors to try, Wells encourages customers to sample all olive oils and balsamics. She said her role as educator isn’t just “mouthing off and telling [customers] all these little terminologies and chemistries…[but] to let them taste it before they buy it.” She offers gluten-free bread for tastings, as well as some common olive oils to compare with.
All olive oils and balsamic vinegars are the same price: $14 for a 200ml glass jar, $20 for 375ml, and $30 for 750ml. There are also sampler sizes for $6.
But who would drive all the way out to Short Pump or Midlothian (Olive Oil Taproom’s second store that opened last year) to buy olive oil? Plenty of people. “We have couples,” Wells said. “We have a lot of men. More than I ever would have imagined.”
The age demographics vary. Some customers are retired, others middle aged. Some are even in their 20s and 30s. “The Millennials are more [up] on it now, and they know about sustainability and non-GMO and trying to not eat pesticide and herbicide crops. They’re more educated than I ever was at that stage.”
No matter who comes in, Wells believes there are two things that draw all of her customers. “I think they’re curious, for one,” she said. “And then for two, everybody really is trying to eat healthier.” That’s not likely to go away anytime soon.
Of all the ways she’s advertised her businesses, word of mouth is “just so much more beneficial and heartfelt to me,” Wells said. “It’s amazing how many people will bring their friends in and say, ‘I just wanted to show you my new find and get you hooked like I am.’”
Olive Oil Taproom locations are at 200 Towne Center West Boulevard in Henrico and 11400 W. Huguenot Road in Midlothian.
- Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil; Tom Mueller
- US Olive Oil Makers Say Imports Aren’t Always So ‘Extra Virgin’; NPR
photo courtesy of Olive Oil Taproom
Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.