By Emily Davis
The Chiles Valley occupies a remote, eastern slice of the Napa Valley and is a far cry from the multimillion dollar tasting rooms and luxury hotels that dot the most worn paths in wine country. Tucked away in this rugged section of the valley is the historic ranch that is home to the hundreds of olive trees that produce Grove 45’s much sought after, organically farmed extra virgin olive oil. Depending on the day, you’ll find Grove 45’s founders, Bonnie Storm and Nena Talcott here, attending to the duties of their two-woman operation: racking oil, hand labeling each of their 1,800 bottles, and even driving the tractor.
How the two friends landed in this chapter of their lives is an extraordinary story in itself and reads like a who’s who of the early Napa food and wine pioneers. Nena and her husband moved to the valley in the mid 70’s and began growing premium grapes for the area’s wineries, all the while raising a family. Bonnie, a wine country native and frequent traveler to Italy, became olive oil obsessed during her visits. Storm recalls:
“My husband and I went to Capri every year and I fell in love with the life and lifestyle. I would have killed to be one of those glamorous Italian women. I spent a few months in Lucca studying Italian. Our home in California had landscape olive trees around and I remember calling this new young chef in St. Helena named Michael Chiarello, who had a small olive press at his new restaurant called Tra Vigne. I told him I had olives to press…he said “how many tons?”… I replied “tons! I have a gunny sack full!”
From there, she read about a new group called the California Olive Oil Council , who were offering the first olive oil production trip to Italy. Off she went, along with the notable group of Nan McEvoy (McEvoy Ranch Olive Oil) Lila Jaeger (Founder of COOC, Freemark Abbey, Rutherford Hill, and Jaeger Olive Oil), Paul Vossen (University of California Farm Advisor), and Darrell Corti (American food and wine trailblazer), among others. Here she met Attillio Sonolli, who had a nursery in Pescia, Tuscany. As soon as she bought the Chiles Valley ranch, Bonnie ordered 1,000 trees from Attillio, a Tuscan field blend of Frantoio, Leccino, Maurino and Pendolino, and went to Customs to pick up them up. And as Bonnie says “Then the fun began…..”
The trees were planted and production of what would become international award winning olive oil was underway at Storm Ranch. Nena, who at this point was not only a seasoned farmer, but a friend, tennis partner, and traveling companion of Bonnie’s, was ready to try her hand at olive oil as well. She took cuttings from Bonnie’s trees and planted them around her vineyards, producing an award winning product herself. After several successful years, Nena decided to sell her vineyards and business and moved into town to enjoy retirement, but soon began to miss the farming community. Bonnie grew tired of doing all the work on her own and considered unloading her business. Over lunch one afternoon, the two friends talked about the next chapter of their lives and what it would hold. Before the meal was finished, Grove 45, named for the year of their birth, was born. It was decided that Nena would manage the sales and marketing, Bonnie would head up farming, and both would have their hands in production. They’ll tell you that their friends had concerns about them working together, but their partnership seems to have only strengthened their bond. Nena shares:
“For me, working with Bonnie is like having the best of all worlds, like being able to do something you love with a sister or best friend. We both respect what each of us brings to the business and our own unique qualities and skills. I do not think we have ever had a cross word with each other or disagreed on any decision. When you love what you are doing and have the added benefit of doing it with your best friend it makes the work a joy!”
The two women, while like minded when it comes to the business, are very different in many ways. Says Bonnie:
“She gets manicures, I move bales of hay. But I would think that we both agree this partnership has been seamless and symbiotic. Nena is a real detail person (once you get her going!) She is the more social of the two of us and brings that to the plate. Together we really rock and play off one another and keep things rolling. I do most of the manual stuff…I literally drive the tractor, irrigate, mow, weed eat…all the physical stuff. Nena loves to noodle on the computer and has brought her talents to that arena. Both of us are not afraid of hard work.”
And making olive oil is truly hard work. After the physical toll of production and bottling, which is all done by hand, Nena and Bonnie have to make sure that each case of Grove 45 makes its way to the handful of shops and markets chosen to carry their beloved oil. Instead of loading it on to a truck and shipping it off, they carefully pack it into the back of a Mini Cooper, drive down the California coast and hand deliver it to their vendors like they’re making social calls to old friends. And once you meet this ebullient pair, it’s inevitable that you will become just that.