A World of Difference: Trish Baldwin of Stonehouse Reflects on 25 Years of Producing the Healthiest Cooking Oil

A World of Difference: Trish Baldwin of Stonehouse Reflects on 25 Years of Producing the Healthiest Cooking Oil

A World of Difference: Trish Baldwin of Stonehouse Reflects on 25 Years of Producing the Healthiest Cooking Oil

Thank you to Kerstin Jones Neff and Edible Marin & Wine Country magazine for this article! Full, original article credited and linked at bottom...

Get Trish Baldwin, president and owner of Stonehouse, talking about olive oil and she sounds like a kid who discovered a magic potion. Her eyes light up and she can’t help but smile as she waxes poetically about her chosen profession.

“The wonderful thing is that you are creating a staple that is 100% good,” says Baldwin, who lives and works in Novato. “I love that! I love food and cooking, and olive oil is the healthiest cooking oil there is. That makes me so happy. What’s not to love about that?”

When did Baldwin’s fulsome love affair with producing olive oil begin? Technically, in the 1990s, when she went to work for a small East Bay company bottling olive oil, but the roots of her story go back to somewhere around 1975, when she was 12, the youngest of six kids growing up in Rochester, NY. It was then that Baldwin’s “true hippie” older brother gave her a copy of Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé’s prescient manual for a healthy and environmentally sustainable plant-based diet. The book resonated—as did Baldwin’s brother’s vegetarianism.

At the same time, her mother, who came of age during the Depression, approached feeding her family with seasonal fresh produce as an economic necessity. “We always ate what was coming in season,” says Baldwin. “Rochester has a great farmers’ market, and we had a big family, so we had to be economical; we couldn’t get the first corn, but when it became 10 ears for a dollar then it was, ‘OK, we are eating corn this week.’ Then we’d move on to melons or peaches or blueberries or the next seasonal offering, until we were sick of it.”

The young Baldwin struck out into the world with a strong sensibility about food: It needed to be fresh, healthy and environmentally friendly.

She came west, went to school at UC Berkeley and gravitated toward the North Berkeley establishments of the organic queen herself, Alice Waters. Chez Panisse had opened a few years earlier and had already earned an international reputation. Baldwin, who didn’t like late nights, took a job at Waters’ breakfast and lunch spot, Café Fanny, where she worked for six years.

“I remember I was trying to impress my mom with the fact that I was working for Alice Waters, and was telling her about the whole eating-food-fresh thing,” says Baldwin, laughing. “My mom was, like, ‘What? We’ve eaten like that our whole lives.’ I thought, ‘Oh… you’re right. That is how we eat!’”

Baldwin was now in the foodie ecosystem of the East Bay, and when she graduated from UC Berkeley she found a job with an acquaintance in the olive oil business. “This was just at the very beginning of the California olive oil revolution in the 1980s. People were going into these old groves that had been neglected. You just basically could prune the trees and water them and they started producing fruit again,” she says.

The small bottling company she worked for was purchased by two successful leaders in the food and wine world, Mike Moone (of Beringer Wines) and John Foraker (founder of Annie’s Naturals). “They wanted to do for California olive oil what had been done for California wines,” says Baldwin. “The office was in Sonoma, in Kenwood. They had a grove—100 acres up in Butte County—and a mill. I met with John Foraker, who had sold Annie’s Naturals, and he was so great, and so smart, I was excited just to be able to work with him. I started in 1998 and ran the gourmet division.”

The team invested $2 million into the company, which they called Calio Groves, an umbrella for several smaller brands they purchased. But about the same time growers came over from Spain and invested $11 million in the region, buying thousands of acres and establishing California Olive Farm.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, these people are going to crush us,’” says Baldwin. “I knew they would take over our bulk grocery division, and they did crush us in that division. I ran the gourmet division of Calio, so I came up with the flavored oils, and the vinegars and the dipping oils. And, in the end, gourmet was the only division that survived.”

The backdrop to this struggle for the heart of the Northern California olive oil industry was increasing attention paid to corruption in the international olive oil trade. A seminal New Yorker article written in 2007 gave consumers painful insight into the lack of oversight about product purity and labeling. Large-scale companies, primarily in Italy, were mixing cheap vegetable oils with olive oil and selling it as extra virgin olive oil.

“It’s like the financial crisis: Everyone is guilty, so no one goes to jail,” says Baldwin.

Over the past two decades, government and industry oversight has increased. The EU established an olive oil regulatory commission and the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) conducts a testing and certification program here. Yet, the problems persist. Between September 2016 and December 2019, the Joint Research Center (JRC), which is the internal scientific arm of the European Commission, recorded 32 cases of fraud in the global olive oil industry, including oil substitution, mislabeling and dilution of oil with inferior grades.

One thing a curious shopper will find out if they stop into the Stonehouse Olive Oil store at the Ferry Building in San Francisco is the difference between regular olive oil and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). “Education is huge for us,” says Baldwin. “We have a 30-page handbook of information to share with our customers. We stress customer service and education, and we try to duplicate that for online sales as well.”

In short, she says, vegetable oils are industrial, processed foods and are generally extracted by means of petroleum-based chemical solvents, and then must be refined to remove impurities. Along with the impurities, refining removes taste, color and nutrients. Extra virgin olive oils are not processed or refined, and are one of the healthiest fats you can find because of their molecular structure and because they are full of antioxidants called polyphenols. EVOO is essentially fresh-squeezed from the olive fruit, and in the case of Stonehouse oils, cold-pressed, first-pressed and labeled with the harvest date.

“Our customers get what we are doing, and why they should pay more than they will in a supermarket,” says Baldwin. “Sustainable farming, no herbicides or pesticides, no child labor ever.”

“People wonder, ‘Why would I pay $15 when I can pay seven?” says Baldwin. “We tell them, ‘Our olive oil is only twice the price, and it is the best in the world.” She points out that people will spend up to $7 on a cappuccino that’s going to last 15 minutes, while a bottle of olive oil will last a month or two.

Stonehouse, which Baldwin now owns, operates out of a Novato office not far from her home and is like David to the international industry Goliaths, with just 10 employees who sell 15,000–20,000 gallons of olive oil per year plus various vinegars and spices, about 20 products in all. Baldwin is hands-on with every aspect of harvest and quality control and has an especially well-developed palate.

The downside of being small is the same one every small farmer faces: vulnerability—to the market, to the pandemic and to weather, especially as climate change creates extremes.

“When we owned our own grove and mill, in ’06 and ’07, we lost half our crop. First to frost, the next year to a heat spell. It’s very hard to survive that,” she says. “And then came the financial crisis in 2008, and that same year I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was extremely stressful and my partners convinced me to sell the ranch we owned in Butte County. That was when we started contracting with smaller groves, closer in, within an hour and a half of SF.”

The company now contracts with six growers in different Northern California regions as climate change affects production. For example, oil production from one of the groves in Capay Valley dropped from 8,000 gallons to 3,000 gallons due to drought. The Coratina olive section of the grove draws water from a well and is thriving, while the Arbequina on the other side relies on a creek for irrigation—so if the creek dries up, the crop is in trouble. Most of the groves are in the Woodland area, and Baldwin is looking at properties around the Delta basin.

Looking back on 25 years making and selling olive oil, Baldwin reflects that it has been stressful, as small-scale agriculture and business generally are, but she has no regrets.

“When you came out of the ’60s and you’re very idealistic about what you want to do with your life, making extra virgin olive oil? It doesn’t get any better than that,” she says, her eyes lighting up again. “The healthiest cooking oil there is that makes everything you cook instantly better? You don’t need a fancy recipe. Just make what you’re going to make, but make it with a better ingredient and it’s a world of difference.”

Written by Kirsten Jones Neff for Edible Marin & Wine Country (full, original article here).