Olive Oil and Vinegar Tasting Shops Press On

STRIKE OIL
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Coming soon to a neighborhood near you: A pretty little shop that offers tastings of fresh extra-virgin olive oils and aged balsamic vinegars poured from stainless-steel containers called fusti.

While the trend may not be quite that pervasive, stores such as the Olive Mill in Saugatuck; Fustini’s in Ann Arbor, Holland, Traverse City, and Petoskey; and, closer to home, Giuseppe’s International Oils and Vinegars at The Mall at Partridge Creek and Old World Olive Press in Birmingham and Plymouth, have been popping up with regularity ever since the first tasting bars opened in the United States about seven years ago.

They exposed patrons to regional extra-virgin olive oils such as picholine, manzanillo, frontoio, and arbequina, and others flavored with herbs de Provence, harissa, garlic, Meyer lemon, or blood orange, as well as aged balsamic vinegars, usually in settings with distinct European flair.

After shoppers taste and choose their favorites, 200-, 375-, or 750-ml. bottles are filled from the very fusti from which they’ve sampled, so that they know it will taste exactly the same when they take it home.

“There are now well over 100 of these types of stores scattered everywhere in the U.S., and we’re starting to see interest in Canada and the U.K.,” says Shawn Addison, proprietor of the Olive Oil Source, an online information source and wholesale and retail company in Santa Barbara County, Calif., that sells everything from fusti and olive oil to accessories such as cruets, rubs, and salts.

Why go to all the trouble when olive oil and vinegar are available in markets everywhere? Two reasons: taste and health benefits, the purveyors say. Vinegar, and especially olive oil, are better and higher in nutritional value when fresh.

“Think of it as fruit juice,” says Veronica Bradley, CEO of Veronica Foods Inc., the third generation of the import business founded by her Italian grandfather.

The company is one of the most influential in the fresh olive-oil business providing not only the products, but also education on the subject to many of the store owners in Michigan and elsewhere. Bradley estimates that 40 to 50 more of the stores will open this summer. “Olive-oil consumption is on the rise in this country,” she says.

Prospective store owners who purchase from Bradley spend at least a day at the plant in Oakland, Calif., getting a crash course in how to store, display, and sell the products before their stores open. Olive oil is more perishable than most people believe, Bradley says. Her view of the golden liquid, known for its antioxidant quality, focuses on freshness.

“Fresh trumps everything else, including the terroir,” she says. “We don’t give a lot of thought to where it’s from. You could only get it out of the Mediterranean countries until maybe eight years ago, when Australia, Chile, and New Zealand all planted thousands of trees, the same varieties [as the Mediterranean countries].”

That means that there are now two olive-harvesting times, November through January in the Mediterranean region, and May, June, and July in the Southern hemisphere. A fresh supply of olive oil is available twice a year.

Metro Detroit’s newest tasting bar was opened by Joe and Wendy Cucinello in early April at The Mall at Partridge Creek in Clinton Township. Giuseppe’s International Oils and Vinegars is typical of the genre, done up in soft Tuscan colors and decorated with photographs of olive trees.

In addition to 25 natural and flavored olive oils and 19 balsamic vinegars, and black and white truffle oils, it also offers a few accessories, such as cruets and dipping plates, nicely displayed on shelves around the airy, high-ceilinged space just a few doors from Nordstrom.

The couple, who met when both were mechanical engineering students at Michigan Technological University, wanted to open their own business and were motivated in this direction when they happened on one of the tasting bars on a trip to Minnesota.

Cory DeLong (left) and Shasta Fase, owners of Old World Olive Press. // Photographs by Ryan Southen

Similarly, Shasta Fase and her husband, Cory DeLong, were tired of the corporate grind they’d been in for 16 years and switched careers. They opened a tasting bar in their hometown of Rockford, Mich., just outside Grand Rapids, in 2009. They have since opened a second in Plymouth, and recently, a third in Birmingham. That’s pretty much the story of Jim Milligan of Traverse City, who retired early, opened his first spot in 2008 and, in the space of 24 months, had his second, third, and fourth locations.

The customer profile of tasting bars? Shasta Fase sums it up: “Foodies, of course, but a whole span of every walk of life. Young and old alike.”

Frank Agostini and Tony Belli, proprietors of E.G. Nick’s, a restaurant right across Forest Street from Old World Olive Press in Plymouth, can testify to the appeal. They put a bottle of Tuscan herb olive oil from their neighbors’ shop on every one of their 75 tables as a dipping sauce for the house soft breadsticks.

The reaction has been “fantastic,” Agostini says. “People really enjoy it.”


DIP IN //

Michigan is becoming a stronghold of tasting shops devoted to olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. And by all accounts of this fast-growing trend, there will be more. Here’s where to find them:
> Fustini’s: Ann Arbor (407 N. Fifth in Kerrytown; 734-213-1110), Traverse City (141 E. Front St.; 231-944-1145), Petoskey (209 Howard; 231-758-3575), and Holland (24 E. 8th St.; 616-392-1111).
> Giuseppe’s International Oils & Vinegars: Clinton Township (The Mall at Partridge Creek, 17330 Hall Rd.; 586-263-4200).
> Great Lakes Olive Oil Co.: Frankenmuth (925 S. Main St.; 989-652-2433).
> Old World Olive Press: Birmingham (282 W. Maple Rd.; 248-792-2192), Plymouth (467 Forest St.; 734-667-2755), Rockford (65 E. Bridge St.; 616-884-0107).
> The Olive Mill: Saugatuck (220 Culver St.; 269-857-5900). Also in Illinois (Naperville and Galena).


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