The Blucher Valley south of Sebastopol has historically been apple and cattle country, but, following recent trends, a growing number of vineyards now carpet the hills. So the appearance of the large olive orchard of 11,000 trees on a knobby hill off Canfield Road is a visual anomaly, as is the Mediterranean-style villa on the apex of the hill.
When 40-year-old Brooke Hazen planted 88 acres of former cattle pasture with olive trees 12 years ago, people told him the windy valley was ill-suited to the trees. But Hazen went ahead anyway, figuring if the trees do well in similar climates in Spain and Italy, they would do well here, too. He was right.
This year, he entered his Olive Leaf Hills olive oil in the prestigious Yolo County Fair and won four gold medals. Not bad for his first competition.
"I thought I'd have just as good a chance as anyone," he says, handling one of the award plaques he just got in the mail.
The medals offered vindication for what has been a 20-year journey in sustainable agriculture—an unlikely road, given Hazen's privileged roots. His father, Paul Hazen, was the longtime chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo. Hazen grew up playing soccer and hanging out on the beach in Malibu, but a hike on Mt. Tamalpais as a young man convinced him he wanted to work in the sun and dirt.
With help from his parents, he bought a parcel of land in the Blucher Valley and began growing vegetables. After eight years, he was able to purchase his current farm. Grapes would have been a natural choice for the property, but he was drawn to olives and apples, digging the holes and laying gopher baskets for most of the 75 kinds of apples and citrus himself. Looking at the thick trunks on the triple espaliered trees now, he's amazed at the energy he had then.
"What was I thinking?" he says, incredulous.
Olive Leaf Hills makes single varietal olive oils and French- and Italian-style blends. Olives grown in cool, coastal climates like western Sonoma County produce spicy, herbaceous flavors.
"[Cool climates] give it every possible nuance," he says. "It offers the possibility to really see what olive oil can do."
Hazen's complex-flavored oils work well in vinaigrettes or drizzled over ripe tomatoes or roasted eggplant. (I've even taken to downing a capful in between meals. It's delicious stuff.)
For the past three years, Hazen pressed his olives at Sonoma's Olive Press, but he's currently putting the final touches on his own olive mill that will allow him to process two tons of olives an hour. He says it's the largest facility of its kind in North America, and he's taking reservations now for pressing, storage and bottling.
Hazen grows his olives without chemicals and uses an 80-foot-tall wind turbine to power his well. He strives to make the farm ecologically sustainable and hopes the new mill will help make it financially sustainable, as well. "If I can find a way to make it work," he says, "what an accomplishment it will be."
Olive Leaf Hills olive oil is available at Whole Foods markets in Sonoma County. For pricing and more, see www.oliveleafhills.com.