DAVIS -- The state's olive oil industry, a trickle compared with Mediterranean producers, could flourish with help from a new research center.
The University of Cali- fornia at Davis Olive Center, which opened in January, will study the growing, processing and marketing of this up- and-coming commodity.
"We need to push for people to recognize that California is a world-class olive oil producing region," said Joe Mullinax, who is developing 14 acres of olives near Ballico.
The center is part of the university's Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which also houses researchers and educators in winemaking. Davis experts helped relaunch the state's wine industry after Prohibition ended in 1933.
"I think it's an outstanding thing," said Ed Rich, owner of Calaveras Olive Oil in Copperopolis. Years before the center opened, he was involved in Davis olive research, providing test plots and joining in a tour of Mediterranean production.
Olives have been growing in California since the 1700s, but most of the state's 600 oil makers are of recent vintage. They produce about 500,000 gallons each year, a tiny fraction of the 75 million gallons that Americans consume.
California's output is expected to increase fivefold in the next five years, as several thousand acres of high-density olive groves come into production using mechanized pickers that vastly speed up the process.
The Northern San Joaquin Valley has a few producers, notably Nick Sciabica & Sons of Modesto, founded in 1936. But most of the production is in the northern and southern Central Valley -- longtime producers of canning olives -- and in smaller valleys near the coast.
The potential U.S. market for olive oil is huge. Consumption has doubled in the past decade, but the average American still uses little compared with southern Europeans. Per capita, Americans consume the equivalent of a bottle of wine each year.
"Olive oil in the Mediterranean is a larger commodity than wine in volume and sales," Rich said. "It's a health product."
Medical researchers have found that the oil, which once was lumped in with unhealthy fats, could help people keep off weight and improve heart health.
The new center will look at these issues, with help from the UC Davis medical faculty. It also will work on the genetics of olive varieties, harvesting and irrigation techniques; measures against the olive fly and other pests; and screening of poor-quality oil imports.
"I would think it's a good thing because obviously the industry is growing in California," said Nick Sciabica, president of the Modesto company and a grandson of the founder.
Olive oil dates to antiquity, but truly fine oil came about only in the past few decades, said Paul Vossen, a UC Cooperative Extension farm adviser.
Stainless steel spinners and decanters replaced the old, smelly mats that had been used to drain oil from paste made of crushed olive pits and meats. The result was a new taste that could be as spicy, peppery and pungent as the olives from which it was made.
"The new olive oil industry of the world is capturing the fresh fruit flavor of the olive," Vossen said.
Davis researchers make and sell oil from the 1,500 olive trees on campus. The proceeds make up half the center's budget. The rest comes from industry and the university.
The center plans eventually to offer undergraduate courses. The current research effort includes canning olives.
Rich, who produces oil from olive growers in Calaveras and several other counties, said the Sierra Nevada foothills are ideal for the trees. Like the native oaks, he said, olive trees can thrive in rocky soil with little water.
Mullinax said the Northern San Joaquin Valley is good olive country as well -- not too hot and not too prone to harvest-time rain. This could make the northern valley a big player in the state's emerging industry.
"In my opinion, it's the next wine craze," Mullinax said. "It's like the California wine industry all over again."
On the Web: www.olivecenter.ucdavis.edu.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2385.