Edible Monterey Bay


Olive oil is putting tiny San Ardo on the map, with a fifth-generation family ranch now a modern day agricultural success

Greg and Cindy Traynor of 43 Ranch


Just as with wine, there’s a technique to tasting olive oil. First, warm the tasting cup in your hands for a minute or two then swirl it, the better to release the aromas. Take a good sniff, and then a slurp.

That’s right. A slurp, which spreads the oil throughout your mouth and ideally deposits a bit on the back of the tongue, allows the taster to pick up on flavor notes that can range from hints of green tomato and black pepper to cinnamon and tropical fruits.

“Those flavors don’t get captured in grocery store olive oil,” says Greg Traynor, who is demonstrating the proper method at his 43 Ranch tasting room in South Monterey County. Every one of the three extra virgin olive oils (EVOOs) that the Traynors make has its own unique profile, from Picual’s leafy and grassy notes to the complex nutty/buttery elements of Helen’s Blend.

Traynor and his wife Cindy are on a quest to make outstanding extra virgin olive oil on their ranch in the tiny community of San Ardo, halfway between the salad bowl of Salinas and the vineyards of Paso Robles. In just a few short years, they’ve been remarkably successful, capturing major awards and winning attention from all over the world.

Their premium small-batch olive oils have won more awards this year than any producer in the state, including a Best of Show award for their Helen’s Blend at the 2018 Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition. Not only that, they’re pressing oil for other ranchers, providing a valuable service for olive growers from Santa Cruz to Arroyo Grande.

Greg says he became fascinated with making olive oil 12 years ago after reading about the mass testing of oils done by UC Davis, which discovered most olive oils labeled as extra virgin…were not.

He also realized that the family ranch, which had been devoted in years past to cattle and barley production, might be the perfect environment for growing olives. “My grandparents’ house always had olive trees around it and they grew really well,” he says. “I started investigating.”

He retired from a corporate career at Nike and headed to the family ranch with Cindy, who continues to work as a flight attendant in addition to her chores on the ranch.

As the fifth generation to farm the ranch, the two have made some profound changes. In 2012, they planted four varieties of olives: Picual, from Spain; Leccino and Pendolino, from Italy; and Lucca, a California hybrid—4,800 trees in all. They harvested the first crop three years later. Then, they tore down the family gas station next to Highway 101, which had been shut since the 1980s.

Their premium small-batch olive
oils have won more awards this year
than any producer in the state.

Friends and family love helping with the olive harvest at 43 Ranch. Photo courtesy Greg Traynor.

In its place the Traynors built a tasting room and olive mill, which opened last fall. It’s an undertaking that only the truly olive oil obsessed would want to pursue, but they’re just that: completely committed to making a premium product.

The mill and tasting room have a vintage industrial vibe, but their bones are completely modern, with the mill’s machinery and tubes inside and out, and two electric vehicle charging stations out front. A display inside the tasting room shows family photos dating back to the early 1900s, and if you ask the question, “Where does the name 43 Ranch come from?” you’ll get quite a history lesson.

“Forty-three was my great-great-uncle’s land lottery number,” says Greg, whose maternal ancestor was a soldier in Napoleon III’s army, which invaded Mexico in the early 1860s.

How that soldier made his way to this part of California is anyone’s guess, but the result was a 60-acre parcel that has been passed down through five generations of the Goutx/Aurignac/Traynor family.

It is an ideal place to grow olives, with flinty soil and warm, dry weather most of the year. But like everyone else who farms, the Traynors deal with the whims of nature. Last year, they had a bumper crop. This year, not so much, due to a hot spell in February followed by a freeze in March, a combination that is plaguing olive producers up and down the state this year. But Greg, who is on the board of the California Olive Oil Council, says that there will still be olives to mill, since farmers near the coast have been less affected.

Greg and Cindy immersed themselves in olive oil culture by taking trips to Italy, where Greg learned to mill from old-timers there and investigated milling equipment, finally settling on Pieralisi, an Italian brand.

He also discovered that Americans don’t typically get the best olive oil from overseas: “The really good stuff doesn’t get imported much,” he says. The Traynors pride themselves on their ability to produce olio nuovo, or freshly pressed olive oil, a rare delight that not many get to experience. The less-filtered product contains tiny pieces of olive, which makes it delicious but also more perishable, unlike EVOO, which keeps up to 18 months if properly stored.

“If I could sell olio nuovo all year long, I would. It’s the best,” says Greg, who can be found selling his oil at the Tuesday Carmel farmers’ market in season.

From the end of October until the beginning of December, the Traynors’ mill will run full bore—processing up to 2 tons an hour—as truckloads of ripe olives arrive from around the Central Coast. Greg says his first priority is milling as soon as possible after loads arrive “because fresher is better.” Olives that sit around for a long time start to break down and ferment, which makes for not-so-tasty oil.

Olives are loaded into a hopper for debris removal and cleaning then milled into a thick paste that moves through several other steps for oil separation and filtration. For extra virgin olive oil, additional filtration makes it 99.9% pure and a more stable product.

California has the strictest guidelines in the world when it comes to EVOO certification, adopted in 2014. Both a chemical test and a taste test are required, and oils with unwanted flavors, like mustiness or woodiness, can’t be labeled EVOO.

Part of the Traynors’ mission is to educate the public about what good olive oil should taste like. And the couple is getting another generation of its family on board.

“Our 2-year-old granddaughter slurps olive oil like a professional,” says Greg with pride.

65340 Los Lobos Road
San Ardo