The good oil: the beliefs behind an Australian success story

How a nurse and surgeon husband set out to lower the world’s cholesterol levels, one bottle of olive oil at a time.

By

In 1997, nurse Jayne Bentivoglio and her neurosurgeon husband Peter decided to buy acreage to grow olives, make extra virgin olive oil and help reduce the world’s cholesterol levels. The decision ignited a passion in Jayne, whose premium oil has gone on to win multiple awards.

Jayne and Peter Bentivoglio knew little about growing olives and making olive oil when they decided, in 1997, to buy land at Rylstone and do exactly that. Driving the decision was health – that of Peter, a busy Sydney neurosurgeon, but also the public, who the duo believed could benefit from consuming extra virgin olive oil (EVOO).

“Peter needed to do something apart from neurosurgery – it was very intense,” says Jayne, herself a qualified nurse who was busy conducting micro-skills dissecting workshops for Australian and international specialist surgeons.

“We wanted something agricultural, to have a place to get away and de-stress, and we were interested in olive oil and the research about its health benefits, particularly reducing cholesterol levels and the incidences of neurological diseases. That was our altruistic reason – and still is. It’s part of our mission statement on every bottle.

“I was already passionate about the value of olive oil when we started but that was nothing compared to what I’ve become.”

Setting standards

 It wasn’t just any olive oil Jayne aimed to produce – she planned to make Australia’s best, and also take on the world.

Twenty years later it’s a vision fulfilled – with the Bentivoglios’ New South Wales-based Rylstone Olive Press having won multiple medals in Australia and globally. Last year it added the title of Best EVOO of Show and Best in Southern Hemisphere at the Australian International Olive Awards.

Jayne has also become a passionate leader of the Australian olive oil industry, helping to drive the establishment of high industry standards and an accreditation system that has cemented Australian olive oil’s reputation as some of the world’s best.

Love and learning

The Bentivoglios bought their 127-hectare property after falling in love with the picturesque location near Rylstone, overlooking the NSW Central Tablelands.

“We were looking for the perfect place to grow olives,” Jayne says. “The soil type is wonderful – it’s a coarse, sandy loam – and it’s up 750 metres above sea level. It’s the Tuscany of Australia.”

She adds that it sits on 320-million-year-old granite full of large pegmatite formations of quartz, feldspar and mica.

“It wasn’t perfect – it had no immediate access to water – so our first step was to put down some bores and build a 60-mega-litre dam.”

The couple planted their first 6,000 trees in 1998, selecting varietals with proven hardiness in similar locations, like Israel, Spain and Italy. A second 2,000 tree plantings followed in 2001.

Meanwhile, Jayne set about building her knowledge, along with the industry. “I joined the Australian Olive Association [AOA] immediately and started researching as much as I could,” she says.

Realising other growers were also hungry for information, she launched a workshop program enlisting experts from the Department of Primary Industries and Sydney University’s Orange campus to share advice. She also began a horticulture degree.

Jayne’s passion for building the industry led her to become an AOA director in 2002 and then a founding member of the Australian EVOO sensory panel in 2003. Today she’s invited to judge all over the world, participating where she can.

Producing the good oil

 The Bentivoglios imported their first small ‘fattoria’ olive press from Italy in 2000 and produced 500ml from their ‘baptismal’ crop. “It was a wonderful feeling creating that first oil,” Jayne says.

“We went through that first 500ml and started thinking about how to make it better.”

“In 2001 we built Rylstone Olive Press, a 1,400-square-metre facility including a 1.2-tonnes-per-hour continuous olive oil extraction plant, cellar door and conference centre on our olive grove, on the Mudgee-Rylstone tourist drive.”

Last year, the operation had its biggest olive harvest of 130 tonnes and produced 20,000 litres of EVOO.

Jayne realised how high the standard of their oil was when she became a qualified taster, or olive oil ‘sommelier’.

“I started tasting back in 2003 and we took out the Canberra Show in 2004. I thought then, ‘We’re making really good oils here’,” she says.

While a background in health and medicine led the Bentivoglios into olive oil production, Jayne also credits it with being key to Rylstone Oil Press’s success.

“My health and nursing background has been a big factor,” she explains. “Hygiene’s very important – you must have a clean grove and processing facility. We have very high standards… the way we look after our oils is pretty special.”

Challenges and expansion

The process of establishing the business has included many challenges, from the fallout of the GFC to managing pests and bushfires. A constant throughout has been the Bentivoglios’ long-time partnership with NAB, which began in the 1970s.

“Growing olives is always challenging and highly rewarding and we had a lot of hurdles, but NAB has helped us all the way,” Jayne says. “[The Business Banking Managers] understood what we were trying to do and helped us through the different phases with our banking.”

Dividing her time now between Peter’s Sydney practice and the Rylstone Olive Press property – which also features the popular cellar door – Jayne’s now focused on expansion. Along with local growth opportunities, she’s rebuilding the export business hit by the GFC.

“We were in the US, in New York and Washington, and doing well, but when the GFC hit we pulled back and focused on consolidating in Australia,” Jayne says. “Now we’re working on export again. We’re back in the Singapore market and doing well, and I really think we can go further afield.”