Bella Vista Ranch

by Ramona on December 13, 2010

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Texas olives

Jack knows olives.

It was olives that bridged the gap between the high tech haven of Palo Alto and the Texas Hill Country heaven of Wimberley for Jack Dougherty.  Mr. Dougherty had a distinguished career in the high tech industry and at one point supervised well over 1,000 employees.  But his heart was always in the fruit groves and nut bearing groves near his boyhood Palo Alto home.

In Jack’s case, it seems you just can’t take the country out of the boy and he made his way to Texas and Wimberley as soon as he could.  He still travels the world in search of information and technology, and techniques on olives, but his home and his heart are now at Bella Vista Ranch near Wimberley, Texas.

We took a tour of Bella Vista Ranch a few weeks ago and sat in amazement as he explained the story of olives  to us and a few others gathered under some live oak trees sitting on picnic tables right smack in the middle of one of the premier olive groves in Texas and the USA.  We had no idea we had stumbled upon one of the premier experts of the olive world right there in Wimberley.

As he told the history of olives, he related that the first person who ever tasted an olive was probably not impressed. Raw olives contain an alkaloid that makes them very bitter and unedible. Some ancient civilization discovered that soaking them in brine removes the bad taste.

Olives have been around for centuries, but until recently they were just a condiment you served with your meals or at a party as an appetizer.   It was in the 1990’s that health organizations took notice of the health benefits, specifically our heart health.  With this discovery, new diets emerged using Olive Oil in their recipes.

Olive farming originated in the Mediterranean, but as the economy changed so did the use of the land that olives were grown.  In the United States, California is our major grower of both green and black olives, but due to the high prices of land, the olive growing is also shrinking. So now Olive farmers are looking for less expensive land to grow olives to produce the olive oil to meet the increasing demand.

It is apparent that Mr. Dougherty has spent a lot of time researching olives. There is a report written by George Ray McEachern and Larry A. Stein, Extension Horticulturists from Texas A & M University titled ‘Growing Olives in Texas Gardens‘, where they talk about growing Olives in Texas. They talk about where the climate is good in Texas, and all about what olive trees need to survive.  They limited the areas to East, Central, and South Texas. But that was about it.  Mr. Dougherty kept on with his research and settled in on the Wimberley area as being ideal.  He did have some concerns about the weather, but the soil conditions seemed to be similar to ideal olive growing locations in other parts of the world.  Not too many olives are grown in Texas north of San Antonio.

The Bella Vista Ranch fits all the criteria for being able to grow olives.  The soil has a lot of caliche which makes for great drainage and the temperature doesn’t dip to freezing very often or for long periods of time.  There are over 1,000 Olive trees on the ranch today.

There are 16 different varieties of olive trees grown at the grove, with the California Mission Olive as the tree of choice which is primarily grown at the Bella Vista Ranch.

Here are a few things we learned about olives and olive production in Texas. Olive trees were brought to the New World by the Spanish. They first arrived in Mexico and then made their way from there to California with missionaries where the trees were first planted in 1769. The olive trees were known as Mission olives because they were grown in olive groves near the missions. This variety no longer exists in Spain, but is popular in California and Texas. Using Mission Olives gives Olive Oil a very long shelf life.

The weather has not always cooperated with the Bella Vista Ranch olive trees.  In fact a late freeze almost put the Olive ranch out of business.  They had to cut back and replace almost all their olive trees.  Other concerns were that Olives are an alternating fruit producer, meaning that some years there are more olives produced than others, and you have to hand pick the olives and pruning is very important. Olive trees grow very rapidly and if the tree grows out of control, the nutrients are used by the tree for the growth and not the fruit. The Olive trees need to be kept pruned.

The Olive tree produces fruit in a fascinating way, the blooms create the olive cluster, then only 1 or 2 olives that are the strongest continue to grow and hang from the tree. They go through a color change from green to red, Jack can look at the tree and decide from the texture of the skin and the color when it’s time to pick the entire tree.  The olives gathered from each tree will be a combination of olives from green to red and even dark red. With all the different stages of ripened olives, when pressed together should make a very flavorful olive oil.

When harvesting the olives, since they have to be hand picked, they will start at the bottom of the tree and pick as high as they can reach.  Then they will use ladders to pick more.  The last step they will use is to lay out tarps or nets at the bottom of the tree and use a device that looks like a little rake to comb through the tree and when the olives fall to the ground, they are gathered in the tarps.

They will start producing a decent crop when the tree is usually 4 to 10 years old, and each tree can produce up to a couple hundred pounds of olives in a good year.  Since they are alternate bearing, one year you can get the maximum pounds and then the next get just a few pounds.  There is no way to know which year a tree will be a good producer.  Pruning could be the key to producing more olives.

As was explained to us, the first person who ever tasted an olive was probably not impressed. Raw olives contain an alkaloid that makes them very bitter and unedible. Some ancient civilization discovered that soaking them in brine removes the bad taste. In the Frantoio room where the olives are pressed into olive oil, there is a centrifuge method called ‘Cold Pressing‘ from the time the olives are harvested to the time the olive oil is bottled, the olives will never go past a certain temperature.  Heat and light along with oxygen will cause a chemical change, and will effect the flavor of the olive oil.

Olive experts such as Jack Dougherty strictly adhere to best practices in processing to obtain the very finest olive oil available.

First the olives go through a deleafer.   This process removes the leaves and branches from the olives. Then the whole olive including the pit goes through a mill which purees the olives into a paste texture. Then with a centrifuge process, with controlled time and room temperatures, the oil will separate.  It will then go through a higher speed centrifuge process to gather even more oil.  instead of being wasted, the remainings of the olives  are fed to the cattle which are also raised on the ranch. After the cattle are finished eating what they can, they sometimes roll around in the remains on the ground and this possibly acts as a natural insect repellent.  I bet it’s great for their coats!

You don’t want to taste the olive oil right after it’s made because it will burn your mouth.  The olives produce the same ingredient, called Capsaicin, that makes a Jalapeño pepper burn your mouth. A good quality olive oil has this flavor and you can tell by the more heat in the flavor how close to production it was.  It takes about 60 days for the pepper flavor to cool down and then is bottled. Olive oil should be stored at room temperature in a dark cool cabinet.

We went to the tasting room, and like wine you will want to experience an olive oil tasting.  You look for some of the same characteristics:  Look for a halo at the top of the olive oil, it should have a clear halo without any color. If it’s not clear or has a color to it, then it may not taste very good because it has probably been exposed to oxygen for a period of time. Take a sniff of the olive oil.  It should have a clean grassy aroma, it should not smell like cooking oil.  Then you want to taste the olive oil.  You should experience a clean herbaceous, peppery flavor with just a little heat as it goes down the back of your throat.  Fresh olive oil has an exceedingly fresh and non oily taste.

Enjoy the interview I did with Jack.  He’s very informative and will let you know where Bella Vista Ranch is located.

You will want to make plans to visit, tour and taste the fine Olive Oil made at Bella Vista Ranch. There you can read more about the health benefits of olive oil and arrange to take a tour to hear the story of olives yourself.  You can also order online and have shipped directly to you.  Please visit

As I promised in the interview, I will share with you a Fresh Basil Pesto Recipe.  With my new knowledge in Olive Oil, I have made this recipe again, using Olive Oil purchased from Bella Vista Ranch and it is sooooo delicious!

My Pumpkin Seed Fresh Basil Pesto Recipe as featured in The Herb Companion. For a download and printable full version of the recipe, please click on hyperlink Pumpkin Seed Fresh Basil Pesto.

Love Your Basil,
Ramona Werst
Using Cold Pressed Olive Oil in all my Basil Recipes!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

KatNo Gravatar December 14, 2010 at 5:54 am

Thanks for this interesting and informative post! I’ll have to check out Bella Vista Ranch and see if we can buy some Texas olive oil to take back east for Christmas! We live in Canyon Lake, only about 15 miles from Wimberley, but I didn’t know there was an olive orchard there. Good to know!


RamonaNo Gravatar December 14, 2010 at 8:40 am

You could purchase the Estate Olive Oil and what a nice unique gift from Texas! 😉 They are also a winery…
Love Your Basil,


KatNo Gravatar December 14, 2010 at 10:01 am

Yum… Texas Olive Oil and their Raspberry Balsamic Vinegar!


RamonaNo Gravatar December 14, 2010 at 10:11 am

You really need to go through the tour, it’s about 1 1/2 hours and includes the tasting. So informative! If you can’t go on the tour, just going into the tasting room is great too. Once you taste Olive Oil that is made right on the estate, you’ll never turn back.

I did find out that the Olive Oil, Extra Virgin, that I buy from Sam’s in mega bottle is Cold Pressed! 🙂 But now I have a new source.


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