Knowing your olive oil is critical, particularly on the heels of a recent University of California-Davis study that found 69 percent of imported oils and 10 percent of California oils branded as ‘extra virgin’ did not meet that standard.

Gently cradle the cup in your hand. Rub your palm over the top for a few seconds to warm it. Inhale its aroma. Now, sip. Swirl. Let the velvety taste linger on your tongue.


This is how Stephanie Bernardi-Brott wants you to taste olive oil.


Bernardi-Brott recently opened Olio and Vino, an olive oil, balsamic vinegar and wine tasting shop in Peoria Heights, Ill. She hopes to excite our interest in extra virgin olive oil.


"Freshness is the key to olive oil," says Bernardi-Brott, whose family also owns local Italian restaurants. "[Within 6 hours,] 95 percent of these oils are picked and crushed."


Knowing your olive oil is critical, particularly on the heels of a recent University of California-Davis study that found 69 percent of imported oils and 10 percent of California oils branded as ‘extra virgin’ did not meet that standard. Based on the study's findings, a group of prominent California chefs filed a lawsuit Aug. 2 in Orange County Superior Court against a group of olive oil distributors and retailers.


The lawsuit, which seeks class action status, targets 10 major olive oil brands, including Bertolli, Filippo Berio, Carapelli, Star, Colavita, Mezzetta, Pompeian, Rachael Ray, Mazolla and Safeway Select. It also names 10 major supermarket chains and big box stores, including WalMart, Kmart and Target.


Bernardi-Brott's supplier, California-based Delizia, is not named in the suit.


Indeed, Delizia touts that it produces its own olive oil on an olive grove in Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, as well as having "exclusive international alliances with small regional mills that lack the experience and capital to open and develop markets in the United States. We are proud," the website notes, "to present many varieties from small regional mills for the very first time in the United States."


Delizia's website adds: "Large multinational corporations like Unilever (Bertolli), Hormel (Carapelli), Borgess (Star), Nestle (Sasso) and Monini have such huge markets to supply that there is no single variety, country or style capable of supplying the virtual river of olive oil that is required.


"'Produced in Italy, a tired marketing ploy to absolute labeling necessity is an attempt to convince consumers that the product they purchase is consistent and uniform year to year."


The good news is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year has adopted new, scientifically verifiable standards for the descriptions "virgin" or "extra virgin" as it relates to olive oil. These new rules will start to be enforced Oct. 24 and should help to separate the cheap imposters from their pure, cold-pressed cousins, such as those found at Olio and Vino.


Although she has the pedigree behind all her products, Bernardi-Brott knows all she needs is to get you to take a taste.


Her shop features 18 traditional and flavored olive oils, three gourmet oils (roasted French walnut oil, black truffle oil and white truffle oil) and 11 balsamic vinegars (one traditional and 10 flavored). Customers are invited to sample everything. Bernardi-Brott also pairs balsamic vinegars with olive oils to create unique flavors for her customers.


"I'm impressed. This is fun," said Carla Conaty, a former Peoria, Ill., local now living in New York. She recently stopped in with her friend, Sherry Hillman of Peoria.


Even though Hillman doesn't typically like lemon, she admitted loved the blackberry ginger balsamic vinegar paired with the Eureka lemon olive oil.


"I also really enjoyed the Tuscan herb olive oil," Hillman said.


Bernardi-Brott doesn't have a favorite. "We're constantly trying new [pairings]."


On the spot, she mixes the Tuscan olive oil with the honey ginger white balsamic and drinks it like a shot.


"I want them to see and taste and feel the olive oil, without that taste of bread. I don't think it's fair, otherwise, to such a good product."


Jennifer Davis can be reached at 686-3249 or jdavis@pjstar.com.