Theo Stephan, owner of Global Gardens in Los Olivos, shares some similarities with olive trees herself, and it’s not just the green camisole peeking out from her shirt. “Olive trees are airborne pollinated,” she says at one point during our olive tasting, “so olives are very terroir influenced. Some of our 100-percent Mission olive oil olives are surrounded by sagebrush, so the oil is sagey.”
Stephan is certainly a sage about the products she loves to create and sell in her charming little shop front. And she also loves to “pollinate” the world with fine foods, starting with olive oil. “When we started in 1998, I imported 2,000 trees from Greece and Spain,” she explains, “and I also buy local fruit and manage the harvesting, pressing, and bottling. But you can’t get enough olives-California grows less than one percent of the state’s consumption.”
That consumption can only increase after people visit Global Gardens and experience one of Stephan’s olive oil tastings. As she points out, “It’s just like a wine tasting, as you go from the fruitiest to the most intense.” A dish that looks like it’s for escargots sits in front of you, and each little dimple slowly gets filled with not just olive oil, but infused vinegars too. You sop up the goodness with bread made by the Solvang Pie Company, so local that the Pie Company even grows its own wheat.
Just like wine tastings, there’s lots of lingo to absorb, but it’s easier to do so as there’s no alcohol buzz to dull your senses. It doesn’t hurt that olives come with musical names like arbequina and pendolino. “We make all our blends ourselves,” Stephan says, “hoping not to make something too robust or too buttery. The valley tends to produce really robust, peppery oils, but the later you harvest, the more buttery they get. We were the latest people to harvest last year.”
Oils and vinegars are just the start at Global Gardens, for Stephan bills the business as “Santa Barbara County’s only complete specialty food and lifestyle company.” She offers an Asian Finishing Glaze, for instance, that’s laced with organic, local garlic, and redolent of ginger and sesame. She always also offers advice about how to use her products. “Everybody is in a hurry,” she laments. “But if we can open a jar and make a gourmet meal in 20 minutes, that’s best.”
Stephan even offers an olive oil and gourmet food club that ships to customers four times a year, providing folks with an olive oil, a flavored vinegar, and food products such as one of her mustards infused with Mexican chipotle or Indian curry. Of course she also provides recipes and full notes, giving that personal touch even to those who can’t make it to Los Olivos. “It’s a teensy, tiny store,” she describes, “but we packed it with big flavors. We maxed out.”
Stephan fell in love with Santa Barbara wine country when she came out west from Ohio to help supervise a photo shoot for her graphic design firm. “I had never seen anything like this in my life,” she recalls. “The vastness of the skies, the topography. I love to entertain and I love to make people happy with food. So it took a few years, but we finally found the right property and opened July 2006.”
While she has since sold her original ranch and 2,000 trees to famed Au Bon Climat mind-behind Jim Clendenen-who still sells her the olives and maintains the organic certification-she does have 50 trees on her current two-acre property in Los Olivos. Plus she has an ambition: to open an eco-agro-tourism destination. She explains, “It’s been a dream of mine since I started this business, to open a five- to 10-acre educational site, a place for families to come and hang out and taste and learn.” She hopes to take advantage of the stimulus package’s Small Business Administration 504 loans.
“What we have here is a natural gift,” she asserts about the Santa Ynez Valley she clearly loves. “The sun, the land, the wind-we can really turn it into a sustainable area. We could be a showplace for that kind of thing. There’s so much heart and soul in wine country. It’s like the old American West, but it’s changing, too. There’s so much character here.”
The revolution is just one olive away at Global Gardens, 2477 Alamo Pintado Avenue. Call 693-1600 or (800) 307-0447 or see oliverevolution.com.