Interview with EXAU Olive Oil co-founder, Skyler Mapes

Written by: Sarah Ubertaccio



Time to read 7 min

The world of extra virgin olive oil is a big, scary vast one – especially for the consumer. Over the past 30 years, the olive oil industry in the U.S. has exploded, with fierce competition and a whole lot of nuance.

Fortunately, the founders of EXAU Olive Oil, Skyler Mapes and her husband Giuseppe Morisani, are trying to bring more transparency and trust through their hands-on approach and family legacy. In 2017, they launched EXAU, following in the footsteps of Giuseppe’s grandparents, and have since then become a fan-favorite in the olive oil community (including within our Italian cookbook club).

In an effort to learn more about the mission of EXAU, we sat down with Skyler in a one-on-one interview. She shared with us EXAU’s story, vision, and hope for the future. She also gave us an olive oil etiquette lesson, covering how to buy, store, and use olive oil the proper way.

How did you and Giuseppe get started in the world of olive oil?

We very much fell into the olive oil industry unintentionally, but in hindsight, it seems like such an obvious choice for the next phase of our careers. Giuseppe’s grandfather was a farmer and cultivated many different types of crops including grapes and olives.

While most of the crops were reserved for commercial use he saved the olives and resulting oil for his family. They used the ancient tradition of preserving food sott’olio, under oil, and jarred just about everything including some of our favorites like eggplants, mushrooms, onions, peppers, tuna, and more!

When Nonno Francesco passed away he left behind many beautiful trees but with time family members moved away or pursued other types of work away from the countryside. That is until one day when Giuseppe was standing in the olive oil section of a fancy grocery store in Oakland, California. He couldn’t believe how many options there were for Tuscany and Sicily but Calabria was nowhere to be found.

He missed the EVOO from his home so called his mom and asked her to ship some over. She agreed but then our friends started asking for some too. And that’s when Giuseppe had the bright idea to start an olive oil company.

I was working in the architecture industry and wanted nothing to do with agriculture, but feeling complacent and looking for a new adventure went to work at a local winery in the cellar. And that’s when I fell in love with the energy and excitement of harvest. I had a background in design and so I was drawn to the idea of crafting a beautifully designed brand.

In 2017 we worked our first harvest for what would become EXAU on our property which sits in Calabria, Italy just above the Ionian coast. In the early days, we just sold to family, friends, and worked a lot of markets. From there we’ve expanded and that’s how EXAU got its start!

What do you think makes EXAU different from other extra virgin olive oils?

Unlike many other brands on the market right now, we own our groves and grow our own fruit, therefore, are responsible for each step of production at EXAU. We’re not just brand owners or salespeople, we are farmers.

In the spring we trim our trees, in the summer we tend to the young fruit, and in the fall we harvest and mill. This hands-on approach is becoming less and less common as trendy new brands pop up and purchase oil from larger companies. The industry is becoming very industrialized and commercial but at EXAU we want to preserve those old traditions, our family legacy, and most importantly the environment!

Tell us about your new book, The Olive Oil Enthusiast. What can people expect to find in this book?

The Olive Oil Enthusiast is everything we’d want to sit down and tell you over a private tasting or dinner party. It’s a window and guided introduction into the heavily veiled world of olive oil. It provides context for the history of the fruit and the way production has evolved over the past few centuries.

It dives into the different grades of olive oil breaking things down into digestible chunks. The book also includes examples of desirable flavor profiles, food pairings, and 20 recipes for folks that really love cooking with EVOO. And lastly, it talks about how enthusiasts can shop, store, and use this amazing cooking fat in their everyday lives.

I love that. So without spoiling the whole book, what is one thing you want people to know about how quality olive oil is produced?

High-quality EVOO starts in the grove. Since olive trees take between 5 to 10 years to truly yield enough fruit for harvest, the oil in your pantry took at least 8 years to make. This is always mind-boggling to consumers because EVOO is a product that should be consumed within 2 years of the harvest date. But it takes so much longer to make. This is also where the product takes a huge departure from wine, much of which can be stored for years and actually improve in taste.

In addition, olive trees can be finicky and honestly, prima donnas. While their life span is pretty much never-ending they are quite sensitive plants. They require year-round care, especially in the early years. Giuseppe is constantly walking through the groves checking on the health of the trees and making adjustments to their care as necessary.

But this level of care isn’t something larger brands can offer. Smaller, family-owned brands like EXAU are able to make these types of specialized treatments and adjustments. We also do not practice super-intensive farming, a highly commercialized style of growing where trees are planted in rows like bushes. Our trees are planted very far spread out from one another which allows them to breathe, promotes biodiversity, and creates an ecosystem for other critters. It also prevents the spread of diseases and increases the overall lifespan of our plants which is exactly what we want as we think long term.

Lastly, small family-owned brands have a much more vested interest in their properties because many of the trees were planted by family members who have long passed on. The trees act as portals to many farmers’ ancestors so they take care of the property extremely well.

Buying olive oil these days can be a daunting task. What things should people look for on the label or when reading about an olive oil producer?

The most important thing is to buy from a small producer you know and trust. This is because producers want to help consumers better understand the product as a whole. In addition, they have much more control over their properties and the product as a whole since we go through the process from tree to bottle.

Look for small family producers who own their groves and work with local farms to source more fruit. This shows they are not only investing in their own property but their local community. This is especially important in places such as southern Italy where many young folks have left to find work in other countries. Purchasing from these brands really helps rebuild the local economy and creates more jobs for people within the region.

When shopping at a store look at the back of the bottle and check for the following:

  • Harvest date, which is not to be confused with the bottle date. The harvest date tells you exactly when the fruit was picked and milled into oil. While the bottle date is just the date the product was packed into a bottle.
  • Country of origin, and preferably a region of origin such as Calabria or Puglia. This information tells you which country the fruit was grown in. You want a single country and region of origin.
  • Dark glass bottle or metal tin, to protect against photo-oxidation and protect the composition of the product. When EVOO is exposed to air or light it begins to oxidate. Therefore, it’s best packed in a dark glass bottle or tin which greatly reduces exposure.
What common misconceptions are there about using and storing olive oil at home?

While olive oil doesn’t expire it does go bad. Since it’s a pure fat the correct term is that it goes rancid over time. Home cooks should use olive oil regularly. Do NOT save the good stuff for a special day because the next thing you know the special day is two years from now and it’s gone rancid. Today is a special day, use it. Treat it more like a fresh juice. And once a bottle is open consume it within 45 days for peak flavor profiles. After that, the intense flavors start to taper off.

When it comes to cooking with extra virgin olive oil, what’s one of your favorite uses that you think more people should know about?

It’s a tie between sauteing and baking! I absolutely love using the Turi for asparagus in the spring because it brings out so much of the herbaceous notes of both the oil and the vegetable. I also love using EVOO as the foundation for our Pasta al Pomodoro 2.0 recipe which is absolutely epic. It gives such a strong foundation to the dish and carries both the garlic and basil perfectly.

As for baking, my favorite sweets in the world (at the moment) are the olive oil brownies from our book. EVOO pairs exceptionally well with chocolate, which also happens to pair well with salt. The product provides a fudgelike texture and a level of decadence that is just perfect. A lot of people think the grassiness of EVOO will overpower sweets but in the right context, it’s heaven.

Beyond producing top-notch extra virgin olive oil, what is your vision for EXAU?

More education for consumers, more books, and more products! Building EXAU has been an amazing journey and we want to continue growing this brand. The heart of our work has always been communication and helping consumers better understand our favorite cooking fat so that will remain the core of our work.

We had an incredible time writing our first book and really feel called to continue on our journey as authors. So we will continue writing and see where it takes us! We’re here for the ride.

Sarah Ubertaccio