This season we’re going back to our roots in California’s wine country, where the first Williams-Sonoma store was opened. Along the way we’ll be spotlighting the local chefs, artisans and producers who have made the region a top culinary destination and continue to inspire us, in the kitchen and around the table.
In 1994, Peggy O’Kelly left a stable job in finance to follow her true passion: making olive oil. She moved her two young daughters to the Napa Valley and started the St. Helena Olive Oil Co. to create products that nourish the body, including extra-virgin olive oils, vinegars and other pantry essentials.
Here, we ask Peggy all about following her dreams, what she loves about olive oil, and the many ways she uses it at home.
Have you always been interested in olive oil? What do you love about it?
My first exposure to the romance of the olive tree was in reading Under The Tuscan Sun. I was living in the Oakland Hills at the time, commuting to San Francisco, working long hours in a job in finance and rushing home every night to my newborn daughter. Once everyone was asleep I would take out Under the Tuscan Sun and slip into my farmhouse in Tuscany, if only for a chapter. Once I was finished with the book I began reading anything and everything I could on the olive tree.
I fell in love with the history of the olive tree. It has provided so much for so long: the oil for food and light, the trees for building, the leaves for natural remedies. It is such a sacred tree — how could you not be in love with it?!
What inspired you to start St. Helena Olive Oil Co.? Tell us the story behind the company.
I grew up in the Napa Valley, so I used to come home on the weekends to visit family. With every weekend, it became harder to leave. It was then I heard that the true pioneer of the Napa Valley olive oil industry, Lila Jaeger, was cutting back old trees on her property and actually producing olive oil! I became fascinated and began to learn all I could about the industry. I spoke to many people, took classes at UC Davis, and kept dreaming. One morning, my oldest daughter, Kaelin, wanted to learn to tie her shoe. I didn’t have time, as I had to drop her off at the sitter and get to work. She cried all the way to the sitter and I cried all the way to work. When I got in to work I walked into my boss’s office and told her I had to quit. She was shocked and asked me what I was going to do. “Start an olive oil company,” I responded.
Can you tell us about your process for making your products?
In all of our production, we try to take as little credit as possible, as mother nature is really doing all the work. I feel as if I’m more a conduit for the abundance of the planet rather than a producer.
What makes your products unique?
Our olive oils are unique because they are orchard designated. We have relationships with over 10 growers within a 60-mile radius of St. Helena. We produce anywhere from 5 gallons from one estate to 500 from another. In any case, we bottle that oil and tell its story. That way, people can be aware of what oil comes from what terroir and varietals. People are always amazed when we taste them on the various oils and there are differences because of soil, method of pressing or varietal. It’s very similar to wine.
How does olive oil fit into wine country cooking and cuisine?
Extra-virgin olive oil is part of the Mediterranean diet, which is what wine country is all about.
What does “wine country food” mean to you? How would you define it?
Wine country food to me is farm to table. It’s that simple.
What creative uses for olive oil have you discovered?
I love to substitute butter for olive oil in baking. The desserts are so incredibly moist, and they pick up the character in the oil.
What’s another of your favorite ways to use olive oil?
I use olive oil on everything, but my favorite way continues to be with fresh bread and a pinch of organic grey sea salt!
How can people conduct an olive oil tasting at home?
A fun way to do an olive oil tasting is to choose four different oils from completely different venues. Perhaps start with a bulk-style oil from Costco, then move into a smaller production oil from Europe, and then two local small production from the Napa Valley and Central Valley. Learn a little about the three positive attributes to evaluate: fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. Then, taste by spoon to get the full impact and let people simply describe what they taste. You will find that out of the descriptions, you are able to rate the attributes.
Do you cook and entertain at home? What’s a typical meal for you?
I was the youngest of six kids with two chefs in the family, so I never was in the kitchen. When I moved into my first apartment during college I called my sister to see what I did with the can of green beans — there were no instructions!
I really learned to cook as I developed the St. Helena Olive Oil Co. and became inspired to create fresh meals for my family. I plowed through cookbooks and slowly got a feel for how to create good, healthy meals with few ingredients — one always being olive oil! So many people, as I did, feel as if they can’t or don’t have time to cook. My passion is to inspire them to try and see how easy it is if you stay simple and always use the freshest and highest quality ingredients.
I’ve been vegan for almost three years now so my typical meal is incredibly simple. It’s always the vegetables in season finished with one of our flavored olive oils — basil being my favorite — then quinoa or fingerling potatoes finished with one of our bigger style oils, and Rancho Gordo beans that I cook with a secret recipe I learned when we lived in Florence.
Any tips for pulling off a wine country entertaining style at home?
I grew up in the Napa Valley when there were still fruit trees growing along Highway 29. Although vineyards were not the staple, there was still the spirit of community farming, eating fresh and local, and enjoying each other and the passage of time. That, to me, is wine country style: entertain friends and loved ones with fresh, local food and wine; honor the planet; and be grateful for the moment!
What do you love about living and working in the wine country? How does the area inspire you?
When I was young, my mom once said that every day she sees a different beauty in the Napa Valley that takes her breath away. As a child I thought she was nuts, but I found myself saying that exact same thing to my children not too long ago. It’s a very unique environment in that it holds a lot of opportunity while also providing a slower pace that allows you to see the beauty and keep your priorities in check.