Global Gardens Olive Oil Tasting & Provisions Store, Santa Ynez | Credit: Deborah Chadsey

Twenty-five years since beginning Global Gardens, Theo Stephan is no less passionate about her mission to preach the glories of good olive oil. With all of her business — the crucial club membership work, retail, product development, tastings, cooking classes — unified under one roof in a bright Santa Ynez cottage, Stephan seems pleased. Ever an educator, she says she’s achieved her goal “when people taste real food and realize how simple and easy it is, especially where we are in California. It’s far reaching — the story of olive oil goes back; you can see olive leaves pressed in Paleolithic stones.”

Theo Stephan making her favorite recipe, Spanakopita made with olive oil instead of butter  | Credit: Deborah Chadsey

That doesn’t mean her work has always been a piece of delicious olive oil cake. “While our 25th anniversary of being Santa Barbara County’s first and most awarded olive oil producer is a really big deal to me,” she also points out the tougher side of a business, “Twenty-five years of climate change — trust me it’s an issue! — and perseverance as a single mom, with red tape all over the place.”

Those following the locations of her physical business have had to keep on their toes. In 2003 there was a tasting counter at Buttonwood Farm in Solvang; in 2006 she had her first brick and mortar spot on Alamo Pintado in Los Olivos, “but that got out of sight,” she recalls about the rent. Next up was a temporary café in Los Alamos (now Babi’s Beer Emporium) until 2014, when her family farm stand on the outskirts of Los Olivos became the spot. When that grew too popular for its parking spaces, she looked elsewhere, and the Santa Ynez location opened up. “To land here has been a gift, we love Santa Ynez,” she says.

Among the exciting new offerings are hands-on cooking classes where participants, under Stephan’s watchful eye, do everything from build and bake spanakopita to toss-together terrific tzatziki. And even better, they get to enjoy the fruits of their labors afterwards. All the recipes feature Global Gardens products, of course, especially the olive oil. “Olive oil brings out the flavor of what you’re making,” Stephan says. “I love butter, but it masks whatever it’s on. Sure it’s delicious, but … .”

To make clear all olive oil has to offer, Global Gardens has revamped its tastings, too. As one of only 300 certified olive oil sommeliers in the world, Stephan has trained all of her staff on how to take visitors through the range of oils they offer, some big and fruity like the Nocellara del Belice “GaGa,” others mild and grassy like the Arbequina. She says, “We really want to educate people on regional terroir in olive oil.”

Theo Stephan and her daughters Anita and Sunita at their first tasting venue, Buttonwood Farms, in 2002 | Credit: Rafael Maldonado

Nodding to her Greek heritage, Stephan has coined and trademarked the term “Caliterranean” for the food she favors. “California is such a big state, and we do have our own food culture,” she insists. “So this term also is an acknowledgement of the Mediterranean influence on our chefs.” She does admit that people, including the hosts of Hallmark’s Home & Family Show when she did a cooking demo back in 2013, stumble over pronouncing the word a bit. She jokes, “Maybe the term will be my headstone epitaph.”

But that grave is a long way away. As part of the 25th anniversary celebration, Global Gardens has a series of pop-up guest chef appearances planned, from an upcoming Greek taverna night with a visiting chef from Los Angeles to last month’s visit from Food Network celebrity Evanice Holz, who brought her Cuban vegan Señoreata experience to Santa Ynez. Stephan is quick to point out that Holz’s food is not only delicious but, “She’s been a longtime club member, so that’s why we hosted her.” 

Stephan also has plenty of local connections: a September event will take place at the new Mattei’s Tavern, where Chef Rhoda Magbitang will create a multi-course dinner using Global Gardens oils and vinegars.

Stephan is as big a booster for vinegars as olive oils — her first cookbook was titled Olive Oil and Vinegar for Life, after all. Currently she’s working on a third cookbook, which she plans to call Acid Parties. “We have way too much sugar on our palates, masking our palates,” she asserts. Having a group of co-managers has given her more time to develop the project, penciled in for a fall 2024 release. “This will be my most varied cookbook to date,” she says. “There might be some food poetry in there, too!” (Poetry is one of her non-work loves; she even read at the 2016 Spirits in the Air annual poetry gathering.)

Global Gardens’ new “taste education” tray — available by appointment, on website, or walk-in | Credit: Deborah Chadsey

The cookbook is just one part of Global Garden’s growth, as its product line continues to expand beyond its 40 current items, ranging from lavender massage oil to Wonder Walnuts. That was part of the impetus for Stephan to bring full-time chef Lisa Thompson on board. “She probably knows the product line better than I do at this point,” says Stephan of her resident chef. Global Gardens gets to run test batches of products by club members first, the latest being olive oil crackers. One way to sustain a business for so long is keeping loyal customers, and Stephan appreciates that: “The club customers are our core, and we don’t have a lot of attrition with them.”

Admitting that over two decades in business, including weathering a global pandemic, has meant Global Gardens “has been caught in entrepreneurial whirlwinds and vortexes,” she also claims, “The most important thing, as corny as it sounds, is really centering on the present.” Praising her long-term staff for keeping the business pleasantly afloat, Stephan sums up, “We have been able to be philosophical about our mistakes. It’s that old cliché of jumping into the horsey poo and coming out smelling like olive oil.”

Global Gardens Tastings & Provisions Shop, 3570 Madera St., Santa Ynez. Open 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily,


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