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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I was first introduced to the Arbequina extra-virgin olive oil from Séka Hills in California by Jesse Ziff-Cool, the chef at Menlo Park's awesome Flea Street restaurant. It was an exceedingly simple dish. A smear of gloriously creamy Humboldt Fog cheese on a crouton with a little slice of fresh California fig, a couple of thyme leaves, a sprinkle of salt, and a drizzle of that oil.

That's a combination that's hard not to swoon over, but it was the olive oil that really blew my mind. Holy s*%t! I thought to myself. What is the gorgeous stuff? And how could something with such a mild flavor still taste so good?

First off, let's get one thing straight: trying to declare a single "best" olive oil is as silly and futile as trying to declare single best wine or a single best knife. There is simply far too much room for personal preferences and circumstances to come into play. Even for me—someone who makes it habit to taste olive oils wherever I travel, and someone who has been tasting and evaluating food professionally for many years—it's an ever-shifting scale.

For many years, I was all about big flavor, and I'm guessing many other folks are as well. I loved a big Italian oil that knocked me over the head with its brininess. There was a golden number from the South of France that tasted like the world's most delicious bananas (really!). I was deep into a Koroneiki from Oregon that smelled like tomato leaves and had the punchy peppery bite of arugula.

Compared to those guys, the Arbequina from Séka Hills is downright bland. There's no overriding dominant flavor, there's no punch to the mouth. So what makes me love it so much? It introduced me to a subtler, more nuanced side of olive oil. It reveals itself subtly and focuses on balance. It's an oil I've come to appreciate in an entirely different way.

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It reminds me of what happened with California wines. For many years, big, over-the-top wines dominated the California wine market. With the exception of a few holdouts in more classic styles, it's what wineries went for. If it didn't knock you over the head, it wasn't big enough.
But recently, new wineries (and some of the old ones) have begun to re-evaluate that approach, aiming for balance, subtlety, and character.

While Séka Hills' main business is in the Arbequina olive oil made with olives grown on their own estate (the land and the company, located in the Capay are owned by Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation), they also produce two other oils, one made with Frantoio olives, and one with Koroneiki. Both smaller varietals are made with fruit grown on neighboring farms. I got a bottle of each and brought them to the office for the rest of the team to taste.

We tasted all of the oils blind, using the basic swirl-smell-slurp-swallow technique recommended by Nancy Ash, the taste panel leader of the California Olive Council. Séka Hills is the oil she uses to demonstrate complexity in oils.

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As expected, our preferences in oils varied wildly. In fact, several tasters didn't like any of them, proclaiming them too mild in flavor. And that's totally understandable. If big, bold flavors are what you want, then this is not the oil you are looking for. But if you want to jump into the world of milder, balanced olive oils, then you may be as excited as I am to stock a few of these in your pantry, and at $18 for a 500ml bottle of the Arbequina, it's the kind of olive oil that you can feel good about every-day drizzling.

Arbequina

This oil has a bright, grassy, fresh aroma, with plenty of ripe fruit. A little buttery and heavy on the palate, it finishes with a mild peppery hit and just a touch of bitterness. This is the oil that made Séka Hills' name, with three gold, four silver, and a bronze medal from various local and international competitions. This is an every day oil mild enough to use in a variety of circumstances, from drizzling over fresh fruit and cheese, to finishing off meat or fish-based dishes, to making vinaigrettes or flavoring mayonnaise.

It's available through Amazon for $18 for a 500ml bottle, or direct from the Séka Hills website for $12 for a 250ml bottle.

Frantoio

The mildest of the three oils, many tasters found the Frantoio oil to be too mild in flavor. It has just a hint of grassiness, but mostly comes across as buttery and smooth. If peppery or bitter finishes are not for you, then you might love this oil. I'd use it for dipping bread or for drizzling onto milder dishes like salads or seafood.

It's produced in limited supply and is available according to supply from the Séka Hills website for $14 per 250ml bottle.

Koroneiki

The most pungent and bitter of the three oils (a characteristic of the koroneiki olive original from Greece), several tasters noted its artichoke-like flavor with a bit of cut wheat grass.

It's produced in limited supply and is available according to supply from the Séka Hills website for $14 per 250ml bottle.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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