A quarter mile from the sugar sand of Treasure Island beach, Jared Leal, 21, is in his new specialty food shop talking about the polyphenol levels of olive oil. He's running his finger up and down the label of the Manzanillo variety.
"Oleic acid, free fatty acid — these all occur naturally once the olives get crushed," Leal said. "The lower the peroxide level, the better."
Leal, who went to St. Petersburg High School and has lived in St. Petersburg for about 15 years, opened Vine and Grind, a big space with wooden floors sandwiched between two beach bars, on July 2. It specializes in olive oils and balsamic vinegars, dozens of flavors that you can taste before you buy.
Why specialty olive oil?
Leal was drawn to the novelty of it. The type Vine and Grind stocks is likely not the same thing you're buying at the grocery store. It's a specifically cultivated and tested extra-virgin olive oil known as Ultra Premium, from a distributor in California that coined the term about five years ago.
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Leal is pretty nonchalant about his new passion.
"I walked into a shop that did this," he says, gesturing toward the olive oils lining the wall, "and thought, 'This is pretty cool.' "
That was about a year ago. Before that, his only other jobs were at his family's bar. He went to college briefly, before deciding he'd rather do this.
Now he runs this shop. His mother, Cherie Leal, who owns CJ's bar next door, is quick to tell you that. She's proud of her son, whom she calls a "young entrepreneur."
But she's also a big part of the story. When she saw the space that would become Vine and Grind go up for rent, she figured it would be a good place for Leal to set up shop. Plus, she was friends with the landlord. When it came time to find an olive oil distributor, she thought about her cousin, who runs a shop that sells oils in Kennebunkport, Maine.
And his mother is able to more readily pinpoint why a concept like this appealed to Leal, prodding him to talk about his love for nutrition.
"I like organic things," he says. "I like natural things. I read labels. I'm that guy."
His mom chimes in.
"His brother tried to give him a shot over there," she says, pointing to her bar, "and he wants nothing to do with it. He's just into being healthy."
"I'll drink organic liquor," Leal says.
He says no one believes he runs the place.
"One time, he was standing at a desk and someone walked up and threw a pamphlet at him, telling him to give this to the owner," she says. "It's so hard to be respected that way when you're so young."
Leal adds: "The braces don't help, either."
But he has assumed the role in his life of educating his friends and family in his healthy ways. And that's apparent when he starts talking about olive oil.
As he walks past the more than two dozen flavors his store stocks, he explains the health benefits that drew him to this particular food.
"Extra-virgin olive oil has something in it called polyphenols, and that's an antioxidant, it protects the integrity of the oil. With different olive oils that they crush, it has different levels of those polyphenols, and the higher that number, the better that oil is for you."
He knows all of this because Veronica Foods, the distributor in California from which they get their oil, requires its sellers to undergo training before they can sell an ounce.
The company, which was started by Italian immigrant Salvatore Esposito about 100 years ago, is now run by his granddaughter, Veronica Bradley, and her husband, Michael. They decided to focus exclusively on olive oil, and in the past couple of decades have become passionate about producing fresher, more pure oil than what can be found on store shelves. (Their oil is also sold at other Tampa Bay shops like Kalamazoo Olive Company in downtown St. Petersburg and Joe and Son's Olive Oils in Tampa.)
Though prices vary slightly, each of these stores sells a 375-milliliter bottle for around $15. At the Publix downtown St. Petersburg, 473 milliliters of Pompeian extra-virgin olive oil goes for about $8. A 500-milliliter bottle of California Olive Ranch cold press extra-virgin olive oil is $9.
"The more we learned about olive oil, the more we learned the prebottled stuff on the shelf is a dead man walking," Bradley said. "You don't know what's in there. The labels can be misleading."
That's what led them to create the Ultra Premium classification.
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A quick olive oil primer. Extra-virgin is the highest-quality olive oil, according to the International Olive Council, which uses standards to rank the different types. It's an unrefined oil that has low amounts of oleic acid and more vitamins than other oils, because it's not treated with chemicals or heat. After that, it's virgin olive oil, then refined olive oil, then regular olive oil.
A 2010 report from researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that many oils labeled as extra-virgin in grocery stores did not meet the standards for that term. The Ultra Premium standard, while not yet recognized by an official olive oil body, is likely a reaction to the international standards for olive oil, which are set at "a relatively minimum level," said Dan Flynn, executive director for the UC Davis Olive Center.
"What it means for the average consumer is that they are looking to make oils that are fresh. Because it's made like a fruit juice, and all oils are going to go bad after a while," he said. "They are trying to put the oil out while it's very fresh, to try to keep that freshness for as long as possible."
And with olive oil, it's all about freshness.
Extra-virgin olive oil starts to go bad the second it's produced, Bradley said. Most olive oils are made poorly because there is an incentive to do so. If you leave green olives on the tree until they turn black, they release more juice that in turn produces more oil. Those older olives are also easier to pick, which means less labor. So by the time the oil gets to us, the consumer, it's already, according to Bradley, "bathtub oil."
Flynn said there are ways to spot a quality grocery store brand (see box), but that more often than not those aren't the freshest of the bunch.
In the Leal family, olive oil has always been the primary cooking oil.
"We're Italian, we grew up with big cans of olive oil, you know?" Cherie Leal said. "That was always in our lives. ... It was always part of our cooking. So that's what got me going like, 'What are you talking about, my oil's fake?' "
Here's how the extra-virgin olive oil Veronica Foods produces is different. Its fruit is harvested when it's green, then crushed within two to four hours of being picked. That's reflected on the finished product, bottles that list a "crush date" as opposed to a "sell by" date.
"That's vital," Bradley said. "And one of the biggest challenges we have. It's not easy to make this oil."
They do it because, for them, it's all about the chemistry of the oil, which is tested by an Australian company called Modern Olives.
And that chemistry translates to the sensory experience. These oils taste noticeably different.
"If you taste an olive oil that has no burn, no pepper, you're tasting an oil that has gone off the cliff, chemically. Or it's been adulterated with another oil," Bradley said.
At Vine and Grind, Leal pours us a small sample.
"You'll get that spice in the back of your throat. That's what real oil is like," he said. "Some people will taste it and think it's bitter. It's not too different, but it is different."
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Before we try the sample, his mother suggests they teach me the technique for tasting oil that they learned at the Veronica Foods training.
Leal makes a face.
"Mom, I don't think everyone is comfortable doing that."
She presses on, holding the small plastic cup to her lips, tilting her head back and drinking the oil, then sucking in air through her teeth.
"You're supposed to put air in your cheeks and in the back of your throat," she says. "Can you taste that bitterness in the back of your throat?"
Indeed, the taste is alarming, nothing like the bottle that's on my counter at home.
"Mom, you have to have her try the Manzanillo," Leal says. "You tried the real mild one first, now you have to try the robust one."
We suck back the sample, and this one burns more than the first.
His mother has one more request: "This is one of my favorites that he introduced me to, a mix of Tuscan herb olive oil with Sicilian lemon balsamic."
Leal starts pouring.
Contact Michelle Stark at email@example.com or (727) 893-8829. Follow @mstark17.