Lucca, a variety developed at UC Davis

The olive oil world is being tempted to follow the wine world down the path of questionable language: it’s time to decide if that is an “olive varietal,” or an “olive variety.” This was brought to my attention by Mike Madison, Yolo County olive oil producer, writer and philosopher.  He’ll be embarrassed by me saying that about the philosopher, but it’s true. And personally, I have to admire someone who starts a company called “Yolo Press” because he writes and publishes books, and then proceeds to keep the same name making estate-produced extra virgin olive oil. What are the odds?!

Mike pointed out one day—gently correcting me—that “varietal” is an adjective, “variety” is the noun. So it is an olive “variety” that goes into the mill, and a single “varietal” oil that comes out. If you look up “varietal,” you will see a secondary usage as a noun, applied specifically to grape varieties, but do we olive oil folks need to adhere to that wine-world convention? No one talks about “varietals” in the vegetable garden, or in the apple orchard, do they? If you don’t like the word “variety” and want a different word, another choice (and a very accurate one) is “cultivar.” Personally, I think the word “variety” is very nice, now that I am using it. I speak of olive varieties, and of a varietal blend.

Before you paint me with the schoolmarm brush, know that I don’t have anything against new words entering the language, or old words gaining new meanings. Language is a living thing and continually evolves. I love the way a linguistic clue will sometimes solve an anthropological mystery by showing a connection that left little or no physical trace but did leave linguistic footprints. But sometimes it feels like we’re just being sloppy. We have a perfectly good word like “variety” that says exactly what we need it to say. It comes with the fine modifying form “varietal” to take care of all our adjectival needs. Does using “varietal” as a noun give us anything better? I would argue that it doesn’t.

This may sound like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but I don’t think it is. This is part of a big and very important question that faces the olive oil community: what words will we use when talking about our products? It seems like sometimes we lean towards the words of the wine world—varietal being a good example—and adopt those conventions without really thinking about it. Olive oil and wine share many things, but they can also be very different; blindly adopting wine orthodoxy is not a smart way for us to proceed. I think we can do a lot better if we have a more thoughtful, global and creative approach.

So I make the plea (with apologies to those of you have heard it before): let the olive oil world to stand on its own feet— call a variety a variety, and let varietal do the modifying.

Share This