Bottled Up

A couple invites Mainers to rethink the way they buy olive oil.

By Caroline Praderio
Photographed by Chris Reis

Nancy O’Brien had one foot in a kayak when she got the call that changed her life. It was Memorial Day weekend 2009, and she and her husband, Pat, were vacationing in Bass Harbor. They’d recently met an olive oil importer, who introduced them to the concept of a business where customers could taste fresh oils and vinegars before buying them. The idea intrigued them — they even searched for retail space in Bar Harbor, but came up empty-handed.

“Six or seven months after we had given this a final ‘forget it,’ a real estate agent contacted us and said a space had become available in Bar Harbor,” Nancy says. “I thought, ‘Well, let’s just go look and then we’ll come back.’”

But the kayak never did hit the open water that day. When Pat and Nancy saw the space — a former beauty salon, curlers still scattered across the floor — they knew they’d finally found the perfect opportunity to leave their hectic corporate jobs in Connecticut, move to Maine, and leap headfirst into a brand-new venture. Just five weeks later, the shop was renovated, stocked, and open for business. Fiore Artisan Olive Oils and Vinegars was born.

Today, as Fiore enters its sixth year of business, the O’Briens have expanded to six locations: standalone stores in Bar Harbor, Rockland, and Freeport, and tasting bars within other retailers in Lewiston, Newport, and Bangor. Their online business ships oils and vinegars all over the country.

The O’Briens work closely with an importer to connect with growers in about 10 countries, ensuring a steady stream of fresh varietals year-round.

To understand all the fuss (and Fiore’s rapid success), it’s essential to understand what extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar actually are — and how often these terms are misused.

True balsamic vinegar is made by cooking grapes and then fermenting their must for at least 12 years. And it’s only made in one place: the city of Modena, Italy. There, every February, the Consortium for the Protection of Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena verifies the authenticity of vinegars before growers are allowed to sell their product with the official balsamic classification. Most “balsamic” vinegars at the grocery haven’t been aged nearly as long.

Olive oil gets a bit more complicated. At the very basic level, an olive oil labeled “extra virgin” must result from the first pressing of the fruit — and the fruit must be pressed within 24 hours of harvest. And, to protect the oils’ flavors and nutrients, there must be no heat applied to the oil during the pressing and bottling process. Many big brand “extra virgin” olive oils are either blends from multiple sources or blended with vegetable oil.

Fiore’s oils, by contrast, are certified to be ultra-premium extra virgin, meaning that their growers press olives within six hours of harvest. Their balsamic is the real deal too. Pat even assists with the decanting and tasting of the vinegars at Modena’s Villa San Donnino every winter.

Luckily, the easiest way to understand the quality of fresh oils and vinegars is to taste them — and that’s exactly what Pat and Nancy want their customers to do. The walls of each shop are lined with gleaming fusti, the stainless steel containers that keep the oils and vinegars safe from flavor-damaging light and oxygen. From these fusti, shoppers can sample the current inventory, dispensing the greenish-gold oils and dark, syrupy vinegars into small cups, either sipping them straight or dipping with a cube of bread. Spicy, warm, grassy oils linger on the tongue and back of the throat. Sweet vinegars come with a kick of clean, cutting acidity. Once a shopper selects a varietal, it’s bottled fresh from the fusti — and the shopper leaves the store a little bit wiser.

“It’s kind of neat to hear people walk out the door and say, ‘I had no idea,’” Nancy says. “Knowing that Fiore has been instrumental in advancing that education is very gratifying.”