A designer and an artist, the husband and wife team of Alison and Jay Carroll started Wonder Valley olive oil after moving to Joshua Tree from the Bay Area. Today, they operate Wonder Valley's OIL SHOP, housed in the manager’s office of an old gas station in Joshua Tree. Next door is The Station – one of the most incredible gift shops you’ll find on any road trip, full of swap-meet one-of-a-kinds, colorful clothing, strong wi-fi and stronger coffee. This desert oasis on Twentynine Palms Highway is presided over by a twenty-foot-tall cowboy out front named Big Josh. If nothing else, a pit stop at The Station is an exercise in community – a place where people actually talk, laugh, and share stories with a healthy dose of friendship we all could use these days.
“It’s a good hang shop,” says Alison of The Station. “Our friends Steve and Glen worked really hard to turn this gas station into a retail space. We’ve seen a lot of growth in Joshua Tree over the last couple years, and there’s not really any other place like it where the community and the tourists can hang out – it’s really great in that regard.”
There’s something poetic about an olive oil company housed in the office of an old gas station. Just as motor oil is essential to the life and vitality of a working engine, olive oil serves a similar function in our bodies.
“There’s so much depth to it – it packs a punch,” Alison says of olive oil’s numerous flavor profiles and health benefits. “We believe it’s the true fountain of youth. It’s rich with polyphenols, a potent antioxidant that is beneficial both in a diet or topically in skincare for anti-aging. ”
Over the course of six harvests, Alison and her team have perfected the fine art of producing some of the world’s best olive oil. Recently, they expanded into a line of skin care products, including face oil, body oil, and an oil cleanser.
“I like that olive oil is so elemental,” she says of what drew her to olive oil in the first place. “In this day and age of allergies and food restrictions, olive oil is a common denominator. We took that same approach to our new skincare collection, we wanted to create products for the universal skincare rituals we have: we all wash our faces, all of us need moisture on our face and body. The goal is to take these daily practices and elevate them, both in the performance of these natural products and the sensory experience of using them.”
Wonder Valley grew out of Alison’s desire to marry her interest in agriculture, her passion for cooking, and her skill as a marketer. After leaving the east coast for the Bay Area eight years ago, she took a position as the marketing director for the California Olive Oil Council in Berkeley. There, Alison dove headfirst into the olive oil industry – gaining exposure to farming, milling, bottling and beyond. She found herself advocating for the state’s 400-plus olive growers, and overseeing a professional olive oil tasting panel that certified olive oil as extra-virgin grade.
“It was the greatest job ever – tasting all this incredible olive oil,” she laughs. “I had the best mentors you can have in the field, and I learned so much through that experience. It’s this thing we all have in our cabinet, but nobody knows why it’s extra-virgin grade, or why this one costs six dollars and this other one costs forty.”
For a long time, Alison explains, the olive oil industry had few regulations, and there were many misconceptions.
“It was kind of like the wine industry in the sixties,” she says. “People just assumed European was better.”
Her advocacy work put Alison in contact with growers, millers, and bottlers across California – a tightknit community of people with a passion for what has long been a niche industry in the United States. Soon, the industry was making waves felt around the globe.
“It’s a really special industry to support – there’s a lot of camaraderie,” she says. All that experience led Alison and Jay to take the plunge and start their own olive oil company, with an eye toward following the process from tree to bottle. They nurtured relationships with growers, harvesters, millers, and bottlers. Every year, Alison drives up to Lake County in Northern California to oversee the harvest of olives on old-growth trees that thrive in the hot, sunny days, cool nights and indirect moisture from the fog.
“These are much older trees than you see elsewhere,” she says. “They don’t need much other than a heavy pruning every other year.”
Conventional olive oil operations harvest olives at their peak ripeness, when the olives have turned dark purple and have a high oil content. Mechanized harvesting equipment is used to shake the trees, and the olives easily fall off the branches.
For the olive oil to make it into a bottle of Wonder Valley, Alison says there are almost a dozen variables they factor for.
“We want the pepperiness to come through in that green, robust flavor,” she says. “It’s got a punchiness to it – I like to look for that peppery kick. It almost makes you want to cough. But I like that because it becomes an ingredient in cooking and not just a condiment. It changes a dish.”
To achieve the desired flavor profile, the Wonder Valley harvesting crews take the fruit when it’s under-ripe and still very green. Because the fruit isn’t as ripe, harvesting techniques are more labor-intensive.
“Everyone has a different way of doing it,” Alison says of the different methods you find on different olive farms. “In Tunisia, they use goat horns on their fingers and rake them through the branches to pull the olives off.”
In Lake County, the Wonder Valley crews use a decidedly more modern approach: Mechanized rakes developed by French olive growers. The vibrating tines are pulled through the branches, and the fallen olives are collected in nets. And then the clock starts ticking.
“You have to press them within twenty-four hours or the fruit starts to internally oxidize, which affects the quality and disqualifies it was extra virgin grade,” says Alison. “We work with a miller who is an old mentor of mine, about five minutes away from the trees. Our olives are pressed within a few hours from harvest.”
Having worked so intimately with the industry, Alison has developed relationships along the way that make all this possible.
“The miller is really the key to making an exceptional olive oil,” she says. The harvest-to-miller process continues for about a month as different trees reach the desired ripeness. Then the oil is bottled and shipped to customers nationwide, as well as stocked on the shelves at Wonder Valley’s OIL SHOP where the vibrant Wonder Valley logo pulls in curious customers stopping on their way through town.
“We call her the Siren,” says Alison of the logo she and Jay developed for their company. “She’s this great mix of a Greco-Roman goddess and the bright, California sunshine. We liked the name Wonder Valley, which is the name of a desert town about 30 miles east of us, because we really wanted to celebrate its California origins and wave that flag prou.”
All photos by Justin Chung for Faculty Department: @justinchung