Travelers are forever in search of the authentic, and if that describes you, you must seek out the Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company in St. Helena. It’s as authentic as it gets.
“I’ve been going there ever since I lived in San Francisco in the 1970s,” says Cynthia Calmenson, a Sonoma County resident who trained in Vienna as a pastry chef and once owned her own patisserie. “It hasn’t changed a bit and their olive oil is still the best. They are the real deal.”
Indeed. Napa Valley Olive Oil is one of those places that seems to have been around forever and in a perfect world, always will be. It was founded in 1931 by Gugliermo Guidi, whose faded black and white picture is taped to the wall near the desk where you pay after you’ve filled your small shopping basket with bottles of the company-made olive oil, Molinari cured Italian sausage, a baguette from the Sciambra French bakery in Napa, DeCecco pasta from Italy or whatever suits your fancy.
Gugliermo’s faded photo is surrounded by equally faded business cards, many of which have been on the wall for years if not decades. Business cards are the store’s chief design statement, if such a term applies here. They are everywhere—rows upon rows of them all over the walls, above the bins and hanging strands of salami, taped to a shelf bowing under the weight of olive oil, plastered on the ancient olive oil press in front, not far from the many Italy travel posters, also taped to the walls, also faded with time.
The aisles of Napa Valley Olive Oil are not, gratefully, organized according to the dictates of modern retail merchandising. There really are no aisles to speak of in this small and cluttered two-room store, which stands on the spot where an old St. Helena train trolley turned around. Indeed you can see the iron tracks on the floor and be careful not to trip over them. (For a picture of the tracks and other store sights, please see the slide show.)
The price tag for the focaccia bread ($4.00) is hand-printed, and somebody clearly bagged up the olives, both green and black, by hand too. At check out—we dare you to enter and leave without buying something—the older Italian lady by the desk adds up the total on brown scrap paper or on the side of the box that holds your stuff.
Before paying, she might also slice you off a thin piece of Pecorino di Moliterno with black truffle—cheese that is as far away from bland as Pluto is from the sun. One food critic describes it, colorfully and rightly, as “full-bodied, powerful, intense with hints of stable.” A cheese such as this is a discovery, and Napa Valley Olive Oil is full of them.
“I love that place,” says another visitor upon leaving the store. “There’s nothing like it. Maybe in Italy, but not here.”
Napa Valley Olive Oil Manufacturing Company is at 835 Charter Avenue, a couple blocks off Highway 29 near where you start to enter downtown St. Helena. Tra Vigne, Long Meadows Ranch and Merryvale Vineyards are all bunched around the highway there; turn right onto Charter and follow it to the end. There are picnic tables outside. Open every day 9 a.m.-5 p.m. There is a second Napa Valley Olive Oil store in downtown Napa, which opened two years ago.