Lauren Rabaino

The Central Coast is known for its local flavors: chardonnay, cabernet and pinot noir to name a few.

However, fine wines are not the only delicacies available for sampling. For some, top-notch olive oil and balsamic vinegar have become the new wine, and San Luis Obispo’s We Olive offers customers the chance to sample away.

“I don’t drink a lot of alcohol,” said customer Suzanne Lesel as she eyed a bottle of aged balsamic. “Everybody here is into wine, so I decided to be into olive oil. That’s my thing on the Central Coast.”

Lesel said that, as a personal trainer, she recommends We Olive’s products to her clients looking to lost weight as a healthy addition to their diets. Plus, she says, it tastes good.

“I bought their balsamic vinegar and it’s candy,” Lesel said. “It’s the best stuff ever. I bragged (about We Olive) to everyone at my job.”

Ray Russell, owner of We Olive, matches his customers’ enthusiasm about the benefits of olive oil.

“I believe in the Mediterranean lifestyle and the food,” said Russell, who opened the shop nearly a year ago. “It’s quick, easy, healthful and (olive oil) is really high in good cholesterols and removes the bad ones from your blood.”

Cal Poly nutrition junior Erica Wincheski, who works for Russell, added that olive oil also contains healthy fats.

“With everyone watching their saturated fats, olive oil has the good fats in it,” Wincheski said. “It makes your body function and work better.”

Regular customer Rhonda Norton said she thinks the store goes well with San Luis Obispo’s general vibe.

“I think that this fits into San Luis Obispo really well because it’s a gourmet store; they offer a lot of gourmet options,” Norton said.

Norton added that she appreciates the fact that most of Russell’s products come from within the county – something Russell takes pride in.

“Our balsamic is from Italy, but all our olive oils are California grown because the truism behind olive oil is wherever you grow great wine, you grow great olive oil,” Russell. “Eighty-five percent of our olive oils are San Luis Obispo County local; 100 percent are California local.”

We Olive also offers locally-made body care products, candles, soaps, ceramics, kitchen utensils as well as olives, tapenades, olive salsas, sauces and dressings.

Similar to a wine tasting, customers can sample different olive oils and balsamic vinegars before making a purchase.

“The idea of being able to try it really makes a difference,” Norton said. “Some of the things are unique (and) I would never have tried them if they hadn’t told me to. There was one, the blackberry and pear balsamic vinegar, and it tasted so good and made such a great salad dressing with feta cheese and walnuts.”

Norton added that Russell’s knowledge of what oils go well with what entrees also helps her decide what products to choose.

“He’s very well educated about the different oils and the balsamic vinegars and some of the other products. And it’s a fun thing to go and try them all,” Norton said. “You wouldn’t think of that when tasting olive oil by itself but they all have very unique flavors.”

The store’s main counter holds numerous bottles of olive oil.

“Four of the olive oils on this bar have been graded top 10 in the world,” said Russell, surveying the bottles.

Three small serving bowls are filled with different olive oils, ranging from a golden hue to a darker green. They are labeled peppery, fruity and buttery.

“Those are the three categories and you can think of them also as mild, medium and bold,” Russell said. “For the most part a buttery is for something light like a salad, a fruity is for pasta and, finally, peppery is for bold food like steak.”

Because the olive oil industry has seen some fraudulent oils passed off as extra virgin when in fact they are diluted with low-cost olive or vegetable oils, Russell is strict about making sure his products are bona fide.

“Our olive oils have the California Olive Oil Certification,” said Russell, pointing to a small golden sticker on each of his bottles. “If they take this olive oil and send it to get tested, they can tell you what tree it came from, what type of olive it was, the acidity rate and quantify it as extra virgin olive oil. We believe in this seal, it’s the most stringent in the world. California pushes for this.”

Russell added that he also wants to introduce his customers to what olive oil should really taste like.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about olive oil,” said Russell. “Most of the olive oil you get at the stores is probably on the rancid side. Old. If I did a tasting here with you, you would taste the distinct and strong flavor versus if you were to open that bottle of store bought olive oil and take a taste of that. Our main focus is to educate the public here on the uses and benefits of extra virgin olive oil.”

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