President tours Robert Mondavi Institute
Photos by Karin Higgins
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This class was no easy A.
Oh sure, for the final exam, all he had to do was taste five olive oil blends and pick his favorite — and there was no right or wrong answer.
But first, he had to sit through a miniseminar on olive oil’s flavor attributes and descriptive profiles, preference clusters and sensory properties, and expert versus consumer ratings. And there was no getting out of it, not even for this student, who happened to be the president of the University of California.
After all, Mark G. Yudof was choosing the President’s Blend — a first-of-its-kind bottling from UC Davis, which has been producing olive oils since 2005, when grounds manager Sal Genito saw dollar signs in the fruit of the campus’s 2,000 olive trees.
UC Davis’ Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science established the Olive Center in 2008 for research and education, and to take charge of the campus’s burgeoning olive oil “business.” The center’s newest offerings, the Gunrock and Silo blends for 2010, are available for purchase at campus bookstores (and online).
Two years ago, the center started producing a Centennial Blend. Now comes the President’s Blend, which could go on sale around the end of the year — not only at UC Davis but all the other UC campuses, too.
Chancellor Linda Katehi came up with the idea for the President’s Blend, and Clare Hasler-Lewis, executive director of the Robert Mondavi Institute, presented the idea to Yudof.
“I’m really humbled,” Yudof said Sept. 30 when he visited the campus to choose the President’s Blend. “This is really cool. This is one of the good things of being a president.”
He did much more than taste olive oil during his visit. He saw the olive milling process and he heard UC Davis experts talk about the “extraordinary” way in which olive oil stimulates almost all of the sensory modalities, including sight, taste, smell, chemesthesia (pungency, burn), touch (the way your mouth feels the oil) and temperature.
And he saw the statistics: The United States is ranked fourth in the world, behind Italy, Spain and Greece, in olive oil consumption, at 246,000 tons in the 2007-08 reporting period — an increase of 228 percent since 1990-91. And yet, U.S. production is nowhere close to meeting the national demand, as reflected by the import of almost 99 percent of the supply.
“Olives have the potential to be one of the leading crops in the state, with UC Davis being a leader in the industry, just like with wine and almonds,” Yudof said. “I think it will help our economy.”
Touring the RMI addition
Yudof’s daylong visit also included tours of the campus’s newest research and teaching facilities: the food processing pilot plant, and the winery and brewery, all at the Robert Mondavi Institute, and the School of Law expansion.
Four professors showed off the RMI’s addition, which comprises two wings and three components:
• August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory — Charles Bamforth (Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Science) and Professor Emeritus James Seiber, chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology.
• Teaching and Research Winery — Andrew Waterhouse, chair, Department of Viticulture and Enology (Marvin Sands Endowed Chair in Viticulture and Enology), and Roger Boulton (Stephen Sinclair Scott Endowed Chair in Enology).
Bamforth told about his research into beer’s health qualities, while Boulton explained how the university designed the winery and brewing and food science lab to meet the highest standards of sustainability — worthy of the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Platinum certification (with LEED standing for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
The building would be the first of its kind in the world to garner LEED Platinum status — provided everything checks out during the certification process.
Yudof was clearly impressed. He praised the building’s environmental and ecological aspects and called it a “fabulous facility.” Read more about it.
Extracting the olive oil
The Olive Center made an impression, too, with an exhibition of the olive milling process. Coincidentally, on the day of Yudof’s visit, the Olive Center presented a short course on milling — and had brought in a mobile mill, enclosed in a 38-foot-long trailer.
“Olives are no longer pressed,” explained Dan Flynn, the Olive Center’s executive director. “Nowadays, the oil is extracted. First we crush the olives into a paste, and then the paste goes into a centrifuge. The oil comes out one channel, and water and solid waste comes out another.”
Yudof watched a batch of olives go into the mill, then tasted the oil that came out. The flavors in this batch still needed to “rest,” or settle down — so this oil was not what he would taste for the President’s Blend.
The “official” tasting gave him a choice of “rested” blends, all from California-sourced olives with varying characteristics: ripe fruit, green fruit, bitter, pungent, nutty, buttery and grassy.
Professor Jean-Xavier Guinard presented the seminar: “The Untapped World of Olive Oil Sensory Properties — Diversity, Measurement and Communication.”
The “communication” aspect relates to the “huge job ahead of us to educate consumers about olive oil’s sensory qualities,” Guinard explained. “The consumers, the experts and the producers are not quite on the same page,” the sensory scientist said.
In July, the Olive Center garnered international attention with a study showing that up to 70 percent of olive oil imports sold in California may not meet the international criteria for labeling as “extra virgin.” Yet, according to Guinard’s research, consumers cited a preference for these oils, not knowing they were “defective.”
One of the Olive Center’s missions, then, is to give consumers a taste of the real thing — and this is where the President’s Blend comes in.
“Our goal is to expose more people all over the state to good quality olive oil,” Flynn said. “After they taste ours, we hope they’ll go out and look for similar quality from California producers.”
The Olive Center is unique among UC programs for selling its own products, which helps to keep the center running. “Which is why rolling out the President’s Blend to all the UC campuses is so important for us,” Flynn said.
'Nutty, pungent, not very bitter'
Yudof preferred 4JS6, a blend of 25 percent Frantoio (Italian) olives and the rest Arbequina (Spanish) olives, the most commonly planted olive in California. “It had a very nice, nutty flavor to it. It was pungent and not very bitter,” Yudof said.
Yudof and the tasting panel — including Katehi and several of Yudof’s aides — also liked a blend of 75 percent Arbequina with four Italian varietals.
Instead of making the choice all by himself, Yudof opted for a consensus. Therefore, Flynn said, “We will be blending to the panel’s favorites.”
Guinard added: “President Yudof is a much better taster than he gives himself credit for. But so is Chancellor Katehi. It is obvious that she is an olive oil connoisseur and aficionado herself, which is only natural, given her Greek roots.”
Yudof reviewed three label designs from senior graphic designer Jay Leek of University Communications, choosing one with an image of olives and the UC seal.
Yudof already has developed a liking for UC Davis olive oil. “My family is addicted,” he said.
He joked: “I don't know that there’s going to be a big run on my blend, but I’ll be sure to buy some to send to my relatives.”
Lunch with the agriculture secretary
Yudof went from the Robert Mondavi Institute to the Chancellor’s Residence for a luncheon, where the guest list included A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
The campus’s executive chef, Andy Burtis, used plenty of olive oil — on the Caprese salad and the grilled onion flat bread, in the babaquinoj (made with chickpeas and sesame seed paste) and the California black ripe olive tapenade, in the entrée of scaloppini with baccalau, and even in the dessert: caramelized carrot and butternut squash cake.
After lunch, Yudof toured the new wing at King Hall, home of the School of Law. The wing, which opened last month, marked the first expansion of King Hall since it opened in 1968.
The president’s afternoon schedule also included a meeting with Dean Kevin Johnson of the law school and three of his faculty members, Vik Amar, Alan Brownstein and Carlton Larson, who are experts in constitutional law, as is Yudof.
The president wrapped up his UC Davis visit with an hourlong meeting with a group of students.