Wine Country Spotlight: Peggy O’Kelly of St. Helena Olive Oil Company

Makers, Meet, Wine Country

Wine Country Spotlight: Peggy O'Kelly of St. Helena Olive Oil Company

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?!

 

St. Helena Olive Oil Co.

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!

 

Wine Country Spotlight: Peggy O'Kelly of St. Helena Olive Oil Company

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.

 

Click here to shop St. Helena Olive Oil Co. products, and meet all of our wine country locals here.

37 comments about “Wine Country Spotlight: Peggy O’Kelly of St. Helena Olive Oil Company

  1. Jennifer McAlpin

    Peggy what a great article; never really heard your whole amazing story and you look beautiful – love you, so proud of you xo Jenny

    Reply
  2. Bill O'Brien

    Congratulations Peggy and to all of your staff! I stopped by St. Helena Olive Oil Company two years ago on a West Coast trip with my Daughters and was blown away at the quality of your products. So much so, that we came back twice in one day, and packed numerous bottles of Olive Oil and a ton of other products in our luggage for the flight back to New York. I have been shopping on line with SHOO ever since then, Your quality, attention to detail and personal story is beyond compare. This is a major accomplishment to be partnered with Williams-Sonoma. Another amazing company that I have shopped with for years. All the best to you and enjoy the ride!!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Thanks Bill! I think I remember your first experience as I remember the staff being so excited that you came in twice in one day! Customers like you have kept us going the last 20 years so thank you!

      Reply
  3. Terri Dziewit

    Was introduced to St Helena’s products by my Daughter who lives in Fremont Ca…I instantly fell in love with everything…just like she did!
    Got a chance to visit in person last summer, and fell in love even more.
    You can taste Everything and all their employees are happy to take the time to explain what you are tasting and how it’s made….
    I love to give your products as gifts to family and friends…
    Small piece of Heaven on Earth!!
    Congrats on your new adventure with William Sonoma!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Thank you Terri! We love it when we have two generations enjoying our products…it’s fun when I hear that children have introduced their parents….encouraging that our younger generation is serious about what goes into their body! Please give our gratitude to your daughter as well.

      Reply
  4. Gage Bennington

    Congratulations to all of you, Peggy! My husband and I were lucky enough to visit your store while on a trip through Northern California 2 years ago. After tasting every product in the store, we had several bottles shipped home, and we’ve been hooked ever since. All of your products are truly unique, and absolutely delicious! Best of luck on this new venture!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Thank you so much! We really appreciate all the amazing feedback we are getting and are excited that our customers are happy with our decision to unite with Williams Sonoma…we know we are!

      Reply
  5. Ellen

    I have been a steady customer since wandering into the retail store in California. I can’t say enough good, actually great, about the people, the product or the individualized and attentive customer service I’ve received. So glad that these delicious products will be marketed through WilliamsSonoma. BRAVO to Peggy and her fine team.
    Best wishes,
    Ellen Cohen
    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      We have an amazing staff that is passionate about what we do so it’s always nice for them to hear your kind words….thank you Ellen!!

      Reply
    2. Peggy OKelly

      Thank you Ellen….we have a great team of people who will appreciate your recognition! Make sure you introduce yourself next time you come for a visit!

      Reply
  6. Teri A.

    I also have been a steady customer after been through the store in 2010 and 2011. Any time I need a Christmas gift, bday gift, or just want to send someone something special, right to the St. Helena web-site I go to order. My family and friends absolutely LOVE THE GIFT!!! The free shipping is also a bonus!!!!

    A forever customer,
    Teri A.

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      People like you Teri are the reason we have been able to sustain our business..your support is so appreciated and we look forward to this gift giving season! Thank you!

      Reply
  7. Trina

    I had the joy of discovering St. Helena Olive Oil Company on my first trip to Napa several years ago. They were in their old location and I had such fun trying all of their wonderful products. Since then I have visited each time I am in town and also order my olive oil from them via mail. The staff is always friendly and informative and the product (locally sourced) is beyond compare. What a thrill to see this wonderful company featured in this way at WS!

    Reply
  8. Sherry Weldon

    Congratulations! Your products are superb!! I’ve been buying them for many years, and look forward to seeing them at Williams Sonoma!

    I hope this is a successful venture for you. I use the basil and the rosemary drizzled on vegetables, and also on pumpkin ravioli! Even gluten free, it is to die for!!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Ah those are my two favorite flavored oils as well so I share in your enthusiasm! Thank you for your support and we too look forward to our new relationship with Williams Sonoma!

      Reply
  9. Teresa Ince

    The fact that you have gone” commercial” takes away the “small town feel” and the “special ” the customers feel when they visit the store in person. I’ve ordered in person and also on online and have been a customer for years.

    Reply
  10. Peggy OKelly

    Oh Teresa we are far from commercialized….a visit to our production facility will prove that! We worked hard but we produced for Williams Sonoma just as we produce for our store on Main St. St. Helena…no compromises…that is what is so exciting to me! Our new relationship with Williams Sonoma will only give our employees more hours and the planet greater distribution of authentic product. Our brand and store experience will not change because after 20 years we are grounded in who we are and as long as I’m in control that will never change. Come visit us next time you are in the Napa Valley so we can prove it to you! Thank you for watching out for us!

    Reply
    1. Teresa Ince

      Thank you Peggy for clarifying! The next time we are in Napa we will come by for a visit! I really enjoy your EVOO’S and vinegars as well as the organic red pasta sauce. Using your oils and vinegars whether in a marinade or a dressing enchances the dishes and makes them extra special compared to other brands.

      Reply
  11. Giuseppe Miceli

    I was in Napa at a conference 2012 and had the pleasure of going into St Helena with my wife. Stopped in the store, ordered, had it shipped and have been a customer ever since. Love everything about the oil co. All the best with WS. Conference 2014 and will visit the shop again

    Reply
  12. Barbara Harkness

    I first visited St Helena Olive Oil company on my “virgin” visit to Napa. I fell in love with Napa, and the simplicity and beauty of the area and way of life there. The tasting at SHOO was a new one for me, and it opened my eyes to the different flavors of the oils. I have been ordering on line since then (6 years ago), and I have made a few trips back. SHOO is always a stopping point for me. I love the quality of the products, and the consciousness of Peggy’s efforts. Thanks for all the hard work, it is truly appreciated. Good luck in this latest endeavor.

    Reply
  13. Fredika Robertson

    I was thrilled to see St Helena Olive Oil Company featured in Williams-Sonoma! I have been visiting the old Rutherford location for as long as it has been open and always enjoyed discovering the new products and buying the old ones. I was just in St. Helena in June and shopped there for all of my favorites. The single sourced olive oils terrific- I am a fan of the Epstein Family, the Pedregal and the Twin Sister’s blade pressed oil [when it was available]. I also love the balsamic vinegar and use it for everything. The last thing was on grilled peaches, superb! I just bought the 100 ml size of the balsamic vinegar which is great to take as a gift or to cook with at friend’s houses. I also always buy the organic mediterranean seasoning, the italian seasoning and the Herbs de Provence. The last time I was in, I bought the grey sea salt and it is almost gone-terrific! The Alderwood smoked salt is great on grilled salmon. The St. Helena Olive Oil Company carries olive wood salt keepers and other olive wood items that are great quality. I have been rooting for Peggy O’Kelly’s success since I discovered this gem of a company. Congratulations! I am looking forward to visiting again when I am in Napa and also will be placing more orders when I can’t get there.

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Wow Fredika….thank you so much for taking the time to share so much! I can’t say enough how much we appreciate the support…it’s because of people like you that we are sustainable. I look forward to your next visit!

      Reply
  14. Anne Tutuska

    Our family is literally obsessed with St. Helena Olive Oil Company. I first discovered it while attending the CIA at Greystone in St Helena, and shared my discovery with friends and family as gifts. Now, every year we order and ship several bottles home for my mother for her birthday. The rosemary infused olive oil is our family favorite! I only wish Buffalo, NY was a little closer so we could shop inside the store!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Thank you Anne! I love the rosemary oil as well….the rosemary is actually pressed with the olives so you get the essential oil from the Rosemary plant which is why the oil is the next best thing to the plant itself! We use the Rosemary oil in some of our salves at our Bath Co as it’s great for circulation, brain stimulation (who doesn’t need that!) and is energizing. Mother Earth is the ultimate producer!

      Reply
  15. Jill Epner

    I love St. Helena Olive Oil Co. and am SO excited to see them launching with W-S. My favorite of all items is the sherry vinegar (which I buy by the 1/2 gallon), but everything I’ve ever tried from there in the last seven years has been incredible. You guys are in for a treat!!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Hi Jill! Thank you so much for the kind words…you’ve been supporting us for quite a while so I’m glad that you are excited with this union! We are so appreciative of not only what Chuck Williams has created but also his amazing team of people! Needless to say, we are honored to be part of it.

      Reply
  16. Ellen Kanner

    I’ve been so impressed by St. Helena Olive Oil Co — the care that goes into everything from product to customer service — and I’ve never even had the opportunity to visit in person. Something to look forward to. Congratulations — and many thanks.

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Wow..thank you Ellen…most of our customers discovered us in our store so it’s exciting to hear that you have had such a positive experience without meeting us face to face! We can’t wait for you to visit so please introduce yourself when you do! In the meantime you can get a feel for us if you have a local Williams Sonoma!

      Reply
  17. Nancy Schlatter

    Congratulations Peggy! I can’t tell you how excited I am for you in this venture. You deserve all the success… Absolutely adore your shop and so admire your passion for what you do. The lemon olive oil and champagne vinegar make an amazing dressing for all greens especially kale, and I use the rosemary olive oil for bread dipping and roasting potatoes. I make a trip to St. Helena specifically to visit your shop and wish you continued success!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Thank you Nancy! I’ve never used the combo on Kale….will have to try that as it sounds delicious! Let me know next time you are in town as I’d love to say hello. I hope all is well with you and your family!

      Reply
  18. Ashley Gooding

    Congratulations to Williams-Sonoma for partnering with such a wonderful company. We have enjoyed the products from St. Helena Olive Oil Co. since we visited the store on our honeymoon several years ago. I’m excited that shoppers who don’t have the opportunity to visit the actual store will now be able to enjoy these wonderful products!

    Reply
    1. Peggy OKelly

      Thank you for your support Ashley….how wonderful to spend your honeymoon in the Wine Country! It’s exciting that Williams Sonoma is bringing the taste of the Wine Country into their stores across the nation…lucky for all of us!

      Reply

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