By Jackie Johansen
Ten years ago, chamise brush grew wild on Healdsburg's West Dry Creek hills, covering the land. Poking through the gnarly shrub were small, strong olive trees—scattered, as if they'd been planted by birds. Russ Messing, upon discovering this gift, remembers thinking, "If olives can grow in this stuff and nobody tends them and there is no fertilizer, there is no water, what would happen if I pulled out all the chamise and planted some olives?" This is exactly what he did, tending and nurturing what he loves to call the "magic" of the land.
Ten years later, after producing his own olive oil for three years, the resulting Best in Show–winning Deergnaw olive oil will be honored at the Harvest Fair and Harvest Fair Awards Night gala on Saturday, Sept. 26.
Messing's small three-and-a-half-acre orchard is home to approximately 675 trees of different varietals that he feels he lucked into, among them Northern Italian casaliva and taggiasca and Southern Italian coraina and nocciara; also included are French picholine and Tuscan pendolino. "If you think about it, if you are in Italy, down in the southernmost part of Italy," he says, "the trees that grow there are the trees that grow there. You are not going to cross them with some trees from Lombardia in the North. So that is what I did, and it seems to have worked out very well."
Deergnaw is rich, flavorful and uniquely fragrant, with grassy notes hitting the tongue and a peppery taste waking up the senses. It has been gaining reputation, but Messing sells the oil primarily at his local Healdsburg farmers market. While standing cheerfully at his table at the market, he says that he doesn't want the company to get too big. "I like coming here," he enthuses. "It sells out here, I don't have to be a marketer and I don't want to do that. This is more fun."
Ten years ago, Messing's trees were small, just gallon-sized. Now they grow 10 to 12 feet tall, producing over two and a half tons of olives annually. "The land does have a certain magic to it," he says. "I thank my lucky stars all the time that somehow I lucked into this piece of property and what my wife has created more than me. She is the architect of it all." His youthful glow shows that he truly loves his work and connects to the land in a compassionate and rich way. Deergnaw olive oil is a result of his passion and love, tasted in each drop.
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