With its world-class olive oil winning kudos and awards in contests and a country whose very symbol is the olive tree, Greek producers and governments have let the international market slip away to countries and lesser brands.
In a feature, Politico pointed to the irony of the loss, noting that famed poet and Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis wrote that through the ages of occupation and setbacks that Greece would always be able to resurrect itself if it was left with only an olive, a vine, and a boat.
That hasn’t helped the olive oil industry gain a foothold for a product synonymous with a country that has 170 million olive trees, ranking as third largest olive grower after Spain and Italy – which buys Greek olive oil in bulk and rebrands it as Italian.
Olive trees cover 11.6 million acres in Greece, said the site Grelia, noting that 81% of cultivated olive trees are cultivated for olive oil while the remaining 19% produce table olives, including the famed variety from Kalamata in the Peloponnese that win worldwide acclaim.
In theory, Greece should be an olive oil superpower, said the report, noting that an unusually high percentage of Greek olive oil is the prized and coveted extra virgin but there hasn’t been a concerted effort to market it around the world despite its quality.
While a good October harvest is expected after a poor season in 2018, Greek producers will still wind up selling in bulk to Italy on the cheap and see Greek olive oil suddenly called Italian, losing even the origin that could be protected and seeing it sold for big profits by Italian companies.
Just 27 percent of Greek output is labeled and branded in Greece, according to the National Bank of Greece, with Politico saying that some blame a system of agricultural cooperatives tied to political cronyism, others saying farmers don’t know how to guarantee consistent quality to retailers and the new New Democracy government in no rush to fix it.
Like a steadily increasing number of Greek producers, Kolalas has taken the bold step of cutting free from the local cooperative to bottle his own branded oil: Ev Zin, which means "live the good life" in Greek.
The traditional Greek model is that farmers, who usually only have a very small number of trees, need to pool their oil at a cooperative to accumulate the volumes required for export. But the model has fierce critics, who argue that co-ops have been irreparably tarnished by corruption.
Greek politicians have used agricultural cooperatives as a dumping ground for patronage hires to party loyalists looking to get rich off other people’s work and no party, including New Democracy, seems to want to change that, limiting the ability to create high-profile brands abroad.
“This is one of the biggest curses here in Greece,” Kolalas said of cooperatives. “The concept may be fine but the implementation was a disaster. Everyone wanted some of the honey. And honey here means money,” as he said producers were being asked to sell at less than their cost.
Producers such as Kolalas are now pushing to cut out the middleman. He is now selling his oil for 13.50 euros ($15) per bottle online, and marketing it to big retailers in Athens, France, Germany and Britain, partly through dedicated online retailers.
Gaia Epicheirein, the Greek farmers’ association, told the site that olive growers shouldn’t give up on cooperatives but make them work better as the treasured green gold from Greece is facing competition from inferior qualities coming out of Turkey, Tunisia, and Israel.
Vasilis Pyrgiotis, an olive oil expert at Gaia Epicheirein, said that one of the biggest failings of the Greek industry is that farmers are too individualistic. “We don’t have a tendency to work together,” he said. “We all believe our family, our village has the best olive oil.”
Pyrgiotis explained that big foreign buyers want guarantees of quality, at significant volumes. “This why we have to cooperate.”
Vasilis Frantzolas, an olive oil consultant, said the country has been lagging far behind in the scientific and other know-how needed to persuade buyers that their product will be of a consistent quality each year.
He said that Greek bulk oil was priced at 2.40 euros ($2.67) per kilo, compared with more than double that in Italy also because of that inability to guarantee quality year in, year out. He said he has no faith in the hopelessly “corrupted” cooperative system and is now offering his own oil-making seminars, teaching sommelier skills and inviting Italian experts to share their know-how.
Kolalas also said Greeks at home should be using olive oil as an all-purpose cooking fat, and should treat the different olives like wine grapes. “You should have different olive oils on different foods," he said. "Thassos’s Throuba olive is not so good with grilled fish as a Cretan Koroneiki.”