Olive Oil Tasting Bars in the Hudson Valley

One slick business: First it was coffee houses, then it was wine bars. The latest hip culinary hangout? Olive oil tasting bars


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It seems that olive oil is really having its day in the sun.

Of course, many of us have been using olive oil for years — cooking with it, drizzling it on top of our salads, or happily dipping a fresh chunk of bread into a bowl of it. But it is only recently that olive oil has been elevated to celebrity status. Suddenly, everyone wants to know from where their favorite oil originates, how pure it is, and how exactly it is pressed. But mostly, people want to know: Can I taste it? Tasting bars have been popular in Europe and California for several years, but have only recently started popping up on the East Coast. Three tasting rooms have opened in the mid-Hudson Valley in the last 18 months.

“My best friend told me flat out, ‘There is no way this can work, just no way,’ ” says Cory Wirthmann, who forged ahead anyway and opened Scarborough Fare in New Paltz in April 2011. The centerpiece of the two-room gourmet shop is an elegant island that holds two rows of stainless-steel fustis (the Italian word for tank), each filled with a different freshly made olive oil from around the globe. Customers can sample them all and buy them by the ounce in reusable glass bottles.

scarborough fareThe mother-and-son team at Scarborough Fare, Donna Wirthmann and Cory Wirthmann

“Garlic — that’s by far the most popular oil,” says Wirthmann, who notes that they rotate many of the other flavors. “I think there would be a riot if we took that one off the menu.” The shop, dubbed a “fine olive oil and vinegar tap room,” also sells about a dozen balsamic vinegars, local cheeses and cured meats, coffee, teas, and other gourmet items. 

The idea for the business was a natural for Wirthmann, an energetic 29-year-old who once served in the Coast Guard, works as a part-time firefighter, and is also finishing up a degree in cellular/molecular biology at SUNY New Paltz. “I really, really love to cook; I may have to go to the Culinary Institute one day,” he says. But even he has been surprised by the shop’s rabid following.

What does extra-virgin mean?
It is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil and is produced without chemicals by simply pressing the olives. It must also pass laboratory tests on certain characteristics like acidity

“They come religiously,” he says. “We’ve got people who get off the bus and show up with their bottles. We had one man from New Jersey who was on business in Albany and he detoured to New Paltz just to come to the shop. He said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here, but my wife told me I had to come.’ He handed us a bottle and we knew what to do.”

There is a steep learning curve, says Wirthmann, who runs the business with his mother, Donna Wirthmann. While Mom handles the books and greets customers (in addition to her full-time job at a local church), Cory has been studying up on olives and is even learning Italian so he can better communicate with the Italian olive farmers. “I started out with one hour of Italian TV a day; usually soccer,” he says. “Then I used Rosetta Stone.”

The mom-and-son duo recently opened a second shop, this one on Beacon’s Main Street. Cory has already started scouting for a third location. “I can’t tell you where I’m looking,” he says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t want someone else to steal the idea.”

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