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Striking Oil

Under the Tuscan Sun, Two Expats Bring Their Harvest Home

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by Janice Holly Booth

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In 2005, Californians Keith and Tania von Barkenhagen flew to Italy to live abroad for a year, one dog and seven suitcases in tow. They quickly became smitten with olive oil freshly harvested from local trees, calling it “fruity and peppery, nothing like the flabby, tired oil in the US.” On occasional trips Stateside, Keith and Tania brought home a few bottles of the provocative elixir to share with friends; soon, the demand exceeded the capacity of their suitcases. And a light bulb flashed over Keith’s head.

“I had to introduce Americans to this amazing, healthy product and help share with people what the ‘real’ stuff is like,” Keith says. A test shipment in 2006 sold out in weeks, and their “year abroad” became a permanent move. Neither Keith nor Tania had any background in farming when they decided to launch an artisan olive oil business. There was another problem, too. In addition to their lack of agricultural skills, they were missing something else: olive trees.

Undeterred, they contracted with a farmer who was farming organically, harvesting early, and working with trees that dated back to 800 AD. Keith called it “a match made in heaven.” Thus began their dream, L’Arte dell’Olivo, a company specializing in fresh-off-the-trees olive oil, their products intended to appeal to the top tier of the US market. It was a risky proposition, especially since the marketplace is already saturated with olive oil and many Americans don’t necessarily appreciate – or are willing to pay for -- its various nuances. But Keith, 41, was no stranger to entrepreneurial risks: as a kid growing up in his Norco, California neighborhood, the six-year-old first displayed his capitalist prowess by selling eggs from the 50 chickens his family kept in the back yard, then expanded to sales of gum and candy at his elementary school. Ten years later, he dropped out of school at 16 so he could open a computer store; at 19 he was recruited by a company to be their manager of network technology. During the dot.com craze, he had one of his own -- iTech (before Apple ever cornered the “i” market). With his background a resume of bold moves, Keith was more than ready to tackle the challenges he’d face as a neophyte in a country and a culture that wasn’t his.

Tania, 45 – who studied photography and has certification in graphic design -- met Keith in 1995 in an AOL chat room during the days of dial-up. They married in 2002 while Tania was making her living as an accounting software consultant. Three years later the couple made their trek to Italy, and as usual, Life had some surprises in store for them at their destination. Tania began a blog called "Eurobimbo’s Journey to Enlightenment”, which became so popular it received nearly 10,000 hits a day. She managed Keith’s accounting affairs, but some dark feeling began to overtake her. “Here I was living my dream in Italy where I could indulge my love of photography, but I realized no-one needed me,” she said, referring to her former, sometimes overly-demanding clients. She collapsed into a depression that lasted nearly eight months. “You can be anywhere in the world and still be unhappy if you haven’t figured out what you want.” Tania had to learn how to like herself again.

Eventually, she emerged from her dark place and obtained Italian citizenship (she is half-Italian), continued her blog, and began to work in the wine industry, penning another popular blog called “Tuscan Wine Notes.” When she’s not otherwise occupied with L’Arte, Tania leads wine tours, helping to promote local wineries in Cortona, where she and Keith live, the location for the famous novel and movie, Under the Tuscan Sun.

L’Arte dell’Olivo is three years old and poised for a transition. The von B’s now have long-term leases on olive groves they manage and harvest themselves. From the beginning, Keith and Tania have handled almost every aspect of production and packaging, right down to placing the labels (designed by Tania) on the bottles. And because they lack a major distributor, the von B’s have an unusual distribution method: immediately after harvesting their signature oil – Nuovo -- they bottle and ship it to the US, following along behind and selling at home parties; a surprisingly effective – though exhausting – method of distribution. At the conclusion of these parties, the von B’s take in a tidy sum, the guests seduced by the unexpected, explosive flavors of the oil. This is how they introduce their product into the lives of new customers because – lacking a major distributor – they’ve got to do it themselves. “We know if we can get our product in front of people we will have customers for life,” says Tania, “so these parties are worth it.” Keith believes a turn-around year is on the horizon, a transition from him underwriting olive oil to making money from it. Their products have won prestigious awards all over the world, but Tania insists that they keep learning as they go along. “Honestly,” she says, “this past year it felt like clown music was playing in the background for everything we were doing.” They admit that making the dream of L’Arte into reality has consumed their lives, but that’s going to change. This year, they’ll focus on fewer home parties and replace them with larger events, for one thing. Each anniversary offers a chance to revisit and re-tool their goals for L’Arte. It’s an ongoing metamorphosis but the von B’s recognize that downtime is essential. “It’s time to automate and delegate so we can simplify our life a bit,” says Keith, “getting back to being able to smell the roses and spending more quality time together in the town we’ve fallen in love with.”