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Vice President Athenee Importers

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oil & Vinegar - the flip side of Athenee

Olive oil & Vinegar are both logical extensions of the wine business.  While this segment isn't a large part of our business, it accounts for about 20% of our sales.

About 10 years ago, the Cooperative of Sitia on the island of Crete, whose wines we import, asked us if we would be interested in bringing in some of their olive oil.  We figured a few pallets wouldn't be too much of a burden.  Fast forward 10 years - we import container loads of Sitia Olive Oil.

Olive trees in Sitia

The Cooperative of Sitia was established in 1933 and represents most of the growers in the region.  Their total production is around 10,000 tons a year.  The Cooperative produces different types of extra virgin olive oils based on their acidity levels - the 0.3, BIO Organic (0.5 acidity) & 0.7.  All of the Cooperatives oils are produced from the Koroneiki olive.

According to the International Olive Oil Council, "when the acidity does not exceed 3.3 degrees (content of oleic acid 3.3%). In reality, olive oil which has an acidity level of no more than one is much better. You should always read the label on an olive oil bottle to see the degree of the acidity. In Greece, there is excellent olive oil with acidity less than 0.5 degrees! The degree of acidity greatly affects the taste".

Greece produces some of the world's finest olive oils - unfortunately, a good deal of the production is exported in bulk to Spain or Italy & blended with their production to increase output, flavor, etc...

About 5-6 years ago, the superb quality of the Sitia 0.3 caught the attention of Le Bernardin's chef/owner, Eric Ripert while he was in Aspen for the Food & Wine Classic.  Since then, Chef Ripert has used the oil in his restaurants and has even shown it on TV when he was on the Martha Stewart show in 2009!!  Since then, many chefs that have passed through his kitchen and have moved onto other restaurants continue to work with the oil.  Some of our customers in the NY area include: Park Avenue Cafe, Quality Meats, The Hurricane Club, Marea, Alto, Convivio, Porchetta, Olea Restaurant, Le Bernardin.  On the retail side, we sell the olive oil via a retail website: http://www.sitiaonline.com/ in addition to the 0.3 being sold at Dean & DeLuca's stores.  Prices range from $10 a bottle for a 500ml 0.7 up to $40 for a 5 liter tin.  The 0.3 ranges from $14 for the 500ml to $20 for the 750ml and the BIO Organic retails at approximately $16 a bottle.

In addition to Sitia's olive oils, we have begun importing on a smaller scale the Mercouri Estate's Extra Virgin Olive Oil as well.  Even though their oil is also extra virgin with an acidity level of 0.3, it is also produced from the Koroneiki olive.  With the difference of climates, soil, terroir, the oils taste completely different.  The Estate's olive tree groves were established approximately in 1895 - the same time as the winery. 
This olive oil tends to be a bit spicier than the 0.3 from Sitia - it's great for salad dressings & dipping good quality bread in.  Of this product, we only bring in about 100 cases a year since the production is pretty limited.  the average retail price is about $16

Of the olive oils we carry, I cook with the 0.7 exclusively unless the recipe calls for a neutral flavored oil like canola or grapeseed.  I use both the Mercouri & 0.3 for everything else that does not involve heating the oil up.

One of the other little gems that we import in small quantities is 5 year aged vinegar made by GAIA on the island of Santorini from the Assyrtiko grape.  The vinegar is made by taking half the quantity of freshly produced vinegar and boiling it down to half its volume on a copper pot.  This concentrates its flavor & really brings out the acidity.  After this is done, the reduced vinegar is blended back into the remaining fresh vinegar and is then aged for 5 years in oak barrels that were once used by GAIA to ferment and age it's Thalassitis Oak Fermented White wine.

In the winery's facility on Santorini, they have a room, set aside for the aging vinegar.  On a recent trip to visit the winery, Yiannis P joked that they had enough vinegar in storage to dress 5 million Greek salads......

The vinegar is then bottled in 250ml bottles and is ready for release.  This vinegar is not like anything else you have ever tasted-it's got amazing acidity without being over the top.  It also does not have the sharpness of balsamic vinegar.  I like to use it in my salad dressings when I want a milder flavor.  Also, I use a little bit when cooking roasts in order to kick up the dish a bit.

Since this product is sold in small format bottles, we bring in small quantities (50-60 cases) at a time.  We bring in shipments of it during the year and never really run out.  The average retail price for a bottle is $17.

With all of these items, we sell them to select retail locations and then also sell them online through a website called http://www.sitiaonline.com/ which ships within the United States only.

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