I've thought a lot about olive oil. I've visited dozens of mills around the Mediterranean, harvested olives and even produced small quantities of (decent) family oil.
My preference is for the intense stuff—near-phosphorescent green nectar, as aromatic as a spring meadow and packing a throat-tickling, phenol-fueled pungency the Italians call pizzicante. I thought I'd tasted most all of the greats—from Umbria to Tuscany to Sicily, and from Spain to Croatia.
Then I met Gianfanco Comincioli.
Comincioli, 58, hails from the hills of the western shores of Northern Italy's Lake Garda. Here he continues his family's 450-year-plus tradition of making red Groppello and other wines. But unlike the Cominciolis before him, he is obsessed with extra-virgin olive oil.
I visited Comincioli last spring because I'd heard winemakers and restaurateurs rave about how he was pioneering the niche of "denocciolati" oils, made from olives pitted before pressing.
I was skeptical. Oil from pitted olives? It seemed like making wine from de-seeded grapes. Why bother? Oils made in both traditional presses and modern centrifuges mash pulp and seed together before separating the oil.
Then I tasted Comincioli's oils—jade green and tangy with bracing herbaceous aromas and a pizzicante kick that left me to cough and exclaim "Wow!"
Comincioli makes single-variety oils from lightly spicy Leccino olives, as well as Garda's own artichoke-bitter Casaliva. When he served me a few drops of a multi-variety blend dominated by those two, called "Numero Uno," on dark chocolate, I nearly wept with joy.
I returned to Comincioli in October during the two-week olive harvest, when he and his two sons bring the oil-making operation to life in the attic above his winery.
Though Comincioli produces about 5,000 cases of wine annually from 32 acres of vines, his much smaller oil production (about 7,000 liters from 4,000 trees) is the family's most demanding activity, running round the clock.
"Making oil is all-consuming. It doesn't let you eat or sleep," Comincioli says, his voice booming over the din of machines. "Wine is much more slow. You have the chance to rebalance it in the cellar. With oil you have to get it right—in one shot. Oil is … or it isn't."
In an adjacent room, olives are fed onto a conveyor that takes them through automatic washing and drying before they are hand-sorted to remove broken olives. Then they go into a pitter that removes and mashes the pulp and discards dry stones.
The pulp is pumped into the second room where vibrant green oil is extracted from it by centrifuge (a modern method that has replaced pressing), filtered and stored in upright steel oval tanks.
With its white walls and neatly arrayed machinery, the place is as clean as a fine restaurant's tabletop, with none of the musty smells I associate with olive mills. Comincioli is so fastidious about contamination he stops production every 48 hours to thoroughly wash the works. His aim is to avoid anything that would oxidize the oil or dull flavors.
In a corner, a printer spits out tape showing temperatures of the olives, pulp and oil at every step. Depending on the variety and crop, Comincioli strives to peg a constant temperature between 68° and 73.4° F.
"If you work one degree higher or lower, it changes the oil completely," says Comincioli, who calibrates his machines by constant tasting. "During this period, I don't drink anything else—just oil and water."
From his youth, Comincioli has been driven by the idea that oil should be treated with the same care as a fine wine.
When Comincioli began working with his father after completing agricultural school in the late 1970s, the winery was already acclaimed in Northern Italy. Like most growers then and now, the Cominciolis brought their olives to a nearby mill for pressing.
"We thought our oil was the best—like everybody in Italy." Comincioli laughs. "But it wasn't true. I was looking for ways to do it better—to go deeper."
In 2001, he decided to buy his own small production line and found a Tuscan equipment-maker who had begun experimenting with pitting olives for oil. Comincioli quickly became convinced that pressing with pits blunted the taste of the oil and diminished phenols.
In the olive oil world, this is a controversial proposition with conflicting evidence. Furthermore, pitting olives adds expense, lowers yields and drives up prices.
"What is so interesting to me about the oils is how intense and clean they are," says Bill Young, president of Luciano Wines, a tiny Birmingham, Mich., importer of Comincioli wines who is working to bring in the oils this year. (They are not easy to find in the United States.)
So, pits or no pits?
In oil and in wine, I think there are no fixed rules. I'm just glad there are people like Comincioli crazy enough to ask the questions.