MoonShadow Grove Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
As we drive out to MoonShadow Grove in Oroville, I can’t seem to get the once popular Cat Stevens song out of my head…”I’m being followed by a moon shadow, moon shadow, moon shadow…”. Along the side of a two lane country road, we finally approach a grove of old olive trees with gnarled trunks. A far cry from the new groves of super high density trees being planted in California today, these old trees have character and a story to tell.
The Historic Old Grove
You don’t see too many groves planted the traditional way anymore, so it was a beautiful sight to see the trees standing tall, spreading their branches wide. This grove was originally planted in 1935 with 150 acres of three different varieties of olive trees: Ascolano, Mission, and Manzanillo. This old grove lived through two different families before luring the Mathews family with its history.
The trees in this grove started growing with their original family, the Sadegs, which mainly produced table olives for many years. In the early 1990’s, they converted the grove to organic standards and started producing organic olive oil as well. In 1998, the Sadeg family decided it was time to sell the grove. Next, the trees became a research project to Dr. Crea, a scientist and entrepreneur. One of Genentech’s original Scientific Directors, Dr. Crea knew the power behind the almighty olive. After purchasing the grove, he harvested the polyphenols found in the residual of olive water during pressing to create a natural antioxidant compound, finding it had three times more free radical protection than grape seed extract or green tea. After 12 years, Dr. Crea decided to take his discovery and move on to new ventures, selling the grove in 2011.
Right about this time, Rich Mathews was nearing retirement and was looking for a hobby to pacify his time. When he found out that an olive ranch was for sale, he thought this might be his chance to rekindle his lifelong interest in agriculture. After visiting the ranch, he quickly realized how much the grove had been neglected over the years and decided he wanted to restore the old grove to its roots and produce organic olive oil. Educating himself by taking classes at UC Davis, he learned how to bring the old trees back into full production mode again. After heavy pruning, the first year produced 3 tons of olives, the second year produced 60 tons, and the third year produced 130 tons. The old grove and Rich have become fast friends, deeming the term “You reap what you sow” true.
Becoming MoonShadow Grove
Curious to find out how they came up with the unique name, MoonShadow Grove, that was our first question. Rich explains that while they were walking through the grove, a Long Eared Owl would swoop down from the trees and fly over their heads landing in another tree a little further away, carefully watching each and every move. The old grove was obviously home to the owl and he was letting it be known. Rich thought that the owl would be a great logo for their brand and with the help of his daughter, Audrey, they designed a silhouette of an owl. But it just wasn’t enough to make the logo stand out on a label. So, with careful thought, they came up with the idea of placing a moon behind the owl’s silhouette to create their logo. Once that was in place, it was easy for Rich to come up with the name of the grove. Once a fan of Cat Stevens music, he thought of the catchy tune “Moon Shadow”, and that’s how the name MoonShadow Grove came to be.
MoonShadow Grove is still new and growing. Rich and his wife Diane have only owned the grove for three and a half years. They do not have a tasting room yet, so we are invited to the ranch to do a little tasting. We are greeted by Juno, the ranch dog, as we approach a turn of the century ranch style house and are invited inside. While sitting in the kitchen, we talk and taste olive oil, getting to know more about their business.
MoonShadow Grove produces single varietal olive oils. We start our tasting with the Mission varietal, a mellow and buttery olive oil, move to Ascalano, their top seller, and Manzanillo follows giving a pungent pop in your mouth with a bit of peppery finish. They also have a blend of all three varietals called Miscela (an Italian word meaning “mixture”) which is simply balanced with the positive traits of each varietal. Also new to their mix are two citrus oils – Meyer Lemon and Mandarin Orange. This is the first year they have crushed fruit with their olive oil, a decision made after being asked several times over by interested consumers. They teamed up with a local organic citrus farmer in Orland to create these two flavorful additions that have already won Best of Class at the Yolo County Fair.
Onward and Upward
We notice a display of ribbons and awards in the living room and ask about them. Rich is proud to announce all their competition winnings that include Best of Show and Best of Class in the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, Gold and Silver Medals from the California Olive Oil Council’s 2014 Competition, Gold and Silver Medals from the New York International Olive Oil 2014 Competition, and one of their most prestigious awards to date would be their 2014 Good Food Award. This year has proven to be MoonShadow Grove’s best year yet with 14 Gold Medals, 12 Silver, 4 Bronze, 7 Best of Class and 4 Best of Shows. We think they have a right to boast a little!
However, Rich doesn’t take all the credit. With the support of his family and help from Raul, MoonShadow Grove’s Manager, he is able to keep the old trees thriving and producing better than ever. During harvest time, they survey the groves and decide when to start picking based on the color of the olives. Rich, Raul and their crew climb upon 20 foot ladders to reach inside these grand old trees and hand pick the olives. They use stick-picks to gently knock the olives from the branches to fall into a tarp, never touching the ground.
Harvest is hard work. Rich, Raul, and their crew pick approximately 6 – 8 tons of olives a day. Rich drives the olives to a milling facility up north every day during harvest to ensure his olives are delivered and pressed within 24 hours. Since MoonShadow Grove’s olives are organic, they are first on the press to prevent cross contamination from non-organic olives. After very long days and three to four weeks of harvest, MoonShadow Grove’s 150 acres of olive trees are picked clean. But the job doesn’t end there.
MoonShadow Grove’s olive oils go through rigorous testing and tasting standards so they can label their olive oil as extra virgin. Rich is a firm believer that the label you put on a product should reflect its true contents. Being part of the newly formed California Olive Oil Commission, he is involved in making sure all producers play by the same rules. Rest assured, MoonShadow Grove’s oils are certified as extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and certified organic through California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF).
We have heard that the historic groves in this part of California produce olives having a very high polyphenol content, making the olive oil produced high in antioxidants and a very healthy choice over other oils. Is it the soil? Could it be where the trees were imported from? Is it because MoonShadow Grove is one of the oldest continuously maintained organic olive groves in California? Maybe we’ll never know for sure, but we think the trees know and will continue to give Rich and Diane their golden gift as long as they are growing tall and wide against the shadow of the moon. Which leads to another question…Does the moon really cast a shadow? Who knows? Perhaps we should ask the wise old owl.
Contact Rich at MoonShadow Grove for your private tour and tasting or buy direct from their website: www.moonshadowgrove.com.
Photographs taken by The Grove & Co. at MoonShadow Grove in Oroville, CA.