This is the era of the celebrity chef, whose appearances on TV cooking shows and in supermarket cooking classes have increased sales in a variety of oils and vinegars, retailers say. They are putting a new twist on these ancient foods, which come from the Mediterranean countries and, increasingly for olive oils, California. Even Oprah Winfrey has gotten into the act, and one specialty foods buyer wishes she would endorse food items more often, because of the high degree of trust her millions of viewers have in her.
Chefs such as Nick Stolino and Lidia Bastianich act as spokespersons for brands like Bertolli and Colavita, with Bastianich additionally recommending Monari Federzoni balsamic vinegar, which is made in Modena, Italy, as are all balsamics. The green-label, two-year-aged Monari Federzoni is found in mainstream supermarkets such as Waldbaum's and Pathmark at about $2.99 a bottle, not expensive, but the unpretentious Bastianich uses it, and tells her audiences it's an authentic, quality product.
"Lidia is the mama of Italian cooking in this country, the mama of balsamic," said Scott Silverman, specialty food buyer for Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston. "She taught at our cooking school and she is a fabulous lady. She was the first one to bring it [the balsamic vinegar] to this country, and she's sort of a spokesman for them. Colavita still is pretty mass-produced, it's consistent and it happens to be the number-one oil sold in our stores."
"Americans are really in love with Italy and Italian food," Bastianich, hostess of the PBS cooking series, "Lidia's Italian Table," said in one of her restaurants, Felidia Ristorante in Manhattan, at a luncheon attended by SN in July. "When you cook simply, you allow the great flavors to come through.
"O," a company based in San Rafael, Calif., just introduced an organic Ruby Grapefruit olive oil, which won a prize at the NASFT Fancy Food Show in New York in July. Also at that show, Patsy's Italian restaurant, Manhattan, launched its brand of specially bottled varieties of extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar and Cabernet wine vinegar.
Dave Bennett, an owner of the Mollie Stone's stores in the Bay Area near San Francisco, has noticed a trend among its customers of using only balsamic vinegars on salads, skipping the oil sometimes.
However, stores still carry many, many oils. Whole Foods Market at 1765 California St., San Francisco, devotes four feet to assorted oils like walnut, sesame, hazelnut, apricot kernel, pistachio, pumpkin seed, pinenut, grapeseed, avocado, truffle oil (both white and black), Porcini mushroom oil, safflower, sunflower and peanut.
"Local companies that make olive oil here in the Bay Area do demonstrations all the time," said Nanci Burg Canby, marketing and events coordinator at that Whole Foods unit. Last year, she said, on one day ten vendors showed their oils, developing into a tasting, or you might say, a competition, much appreciated by the customers.
A few drops of aged balsamic is all you need on strawberries, according to Silverman. He said vinegars are a little bit more interesting right now than oils, even though Rice Epicurean Markets carry a huge variety of oils -- more than 100 brands, integrated so that specialty nut oils like walnut, almond and pecan are stocked with all the others, domestic or imported, in bottles and in tins. The nut oils are used as a special ingredient, for baking, sauteeing or in special salad dressings.
"Most of the oil we sell is olive oil, and most of it is extra virgin," Silverman said.
Demos in his store seek to educate consumers about where the oil comes from and how best to use each type. "Although most of the oil sold says it comes from Italy, Spain and Morocco are where most of the oil comes from. Customers have grown to believe that the best ones come from Italy, the same way they now believe that extra virgin is the best and should be used for everything."
By in-store sampling, it can be shown that extra virgin is best in salads or for dipping bread, as a butter alternative, he said.
Another thing that many people don't understand is the term 'light' as applied to olive oil. It does not mean lower in calories or fat, Silverman said. Rather, it's the color and flavor that are lighter.
"Truffle oil now is big; it's in a lot of recipes. It can get very expensive. Our truffle oil business has quadrupled, but it started at a small base. You can tell that people are following certain recipes, because of the number of customers coming in looking for the oils and vinegars," Silverman said.
Vinegars tend to be merchandised in one section, right next to the salad dressing, "because that is what you would use a lot of them for," Silverman continued. He finds that customers are being more inventive and experimenting with them. One brand that Rice Epicurean is having great success with, he said, is Cuisine Perel, a Californian, "and the reason that that one took off is it happens to be Oprah Winfrey's favorite, chosen as one of her ten top picks last Christmas.
"We instantly got calls for it, and, actually the company told us it was going to be on, so we bought it, to be sure of having it in stock.
"It's one of our more unusual vinegars, nice for salads. It's a little bit sweet, a late harvest Reisling, a wine vinegar. The only thing that makes it great is that Oprah Winfrey got people to try it. Millions of people tune in to her show. So the manufacturer, quite wisely, had point of sale pictures of Oprah on the show, holding the bottle."
In the vinegar section, people have discovered balsamic but better balsamic, from Modena, Italy, where real balsamic comes from. Once you've tasted the 40-year-old traditional balsamic, it's like an addiction, and we are selling more and more of that."
Bertolli USA, Secaucus, N.J., is "having an incredible year in the supermarket business," said spokesman Kevin Scrivanich. "What's driving the olive oil volume this year is the extra virgins." Bertolli attributes that segment's popularity to "all these cooking shows on the Food Network, all the emphasis on cooking with quality ingredients," as Scrivanich said. They always say, "use a good extra-virgin olive oil" and so, he said, the extra-virgin segment is up by 19% as of July, compared with the same period last year. Bertolli USA's dollar volume is up 35% in the extra virgin category, and Scrivanich attributed much of that to the success of its Gentile Al Palato oil introduced in 1998.
Celebrity chef Nick Stolino uses Bertolli in recipes he prepares for supermarket category managers and buyers whom the company invites to dinners or presentations at food shows, Scrivanich said, during which Stolino and nutritionist Riska Platt talk about how to promote the oil, how to use it, and its benefits.
Another company that introduced its olive oils at the Fancy Food Show is Supremo, Hayward, Calif. "Sales are up, considering we've only been in business 14 months," said Ron Morris, director of sales and marketing. Its line of zest oils, derived from lemon, orange and lime, will hit the New York marketplace on Oct. 1.
Morris describes the company's olive oil from Puglia region of Italy, for example, as peppery, spicier than most other oils, with a robust, complex flavor, in more than one dimension.
Paul Saltzman, grocery manager for A Southern Season, Chapel Hill, N.C., a 28,000-square-foot specialty store, competes with a nearby Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Kroger and a Whole Foods with a knowledgeable staff that will answer questions about oils and vinegars, and will let customers taste them. "I keep 20 to 40 bottles of oil open, and 20 of vinegar, for people to try. That's our advantage -- education." Traditional, aged balsamic vinegars sell for between $185 and $200 a bottle, he said. "The bottle I keep open costs about $115." Saltzman said his staff will ask a customer what she wants to use the oil for: salad dressing, cooking or to serve as a condiment for bread. "Once we narrow that down, we ask how much she wants to spend, and if they want to make a salad dressing, we can mix it with a vinegar and see how it's going to taste."
Rob Giusti, a buyer for Andronico's, San Mateo, Calif., said he recently overheard customers talking about the aged balsamic vinegars, checking to see if it was all truly aged, or blended with a small proportion of aged vinegar. "Consumers have become more knowledgeable; people are getting educated through the media."
Giusti said he has noticed recently that there are "A lot more California olive oils coming onto the marketplace, as people are resurrecting some of the orchards.
"We keep the oils and vinegars together, and the size of the sections vary store by store. 'Did you bring the shelf-stretcher, too?' I ask the vendors, because that's the only way we're going to get it in." When Andronico's opened its Danville store last year, the circular advertised 80 olive oils in stock, Giusti said.
As for managing the category, Giusti suggests "Make sure you have some representation in each of those categories -- Italian, Spanish, Greek -- so you don't have only one. People's tastes vary, and it depends on what you're using it for." Olive oils have differing release times, and depending upon when it is released, you get different flavors, even from the same olive orchard. It is a lot like wine."
Matt Buckman, specialty buyer for Draeger's Market, San Mateo, Calif., said "We carry the very best in the world." He, too, remarked about the "real nice showing from the California olive growers in the last five years. "It serves two purposes for us. We are only an hour from the Napa Valley and that is where most of the orchards are. It promotes it on a local level, and it's a little less expensive for our customers. As the trees mature, you will be seeing world class oils coming out of the Napa Valley."