The Story Behind Piro, Tuscany’s Buzziest Olive Oil | Wine Enthusiast
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The Story Behind Piro, Tuscany’s Buzziest Olive Oil

In the minds of consumers, Italian olive oil production is romantic—its ancient stone presses and undulating landscapes. So it might seem incongruous that one of the most exciting olive oils from Tuscany is embracing modernity, technology and precision. But like the wine industry in recent decades, perhaps that embrace is exactly what olive oil needs.

Romain Piro and Daniele Lepori are certainly not the people you would expect as the faces attempting to lead an olive oil revolution. Piro, a Buddhist Frenchman, moved to Tuscany 15 years ago to study at a Tibetan cultural center and eventually, slowly, began to cultivate his own olive groves. He was introduced to Lepori via an elderly neighboring farmer who insisted to Piro that the young, fast-talking, Rome-raised technologically-inclined miller was his best match. The two egged on each other’s obsession with the minutiae of olive oil, and together they began questioning a lot of the traditional givens around olive oil production.

Olio Piro production
Olio Piro production / Image Courtesy of Vikki Colvin, Olio Piro

Machines, But with a Human Touch

For Piro and Lepori, a passion for science and technological improvement is as sexy as the scenic groves. While olives, like wine, have a sense of terroir and varietal, the olives themselves “are only 20%” responsible for an olive oil’s resulting flavor. “The rest is the milling process,” Piro insists.

While they do also focus heavily on the quality of the olives they use, he likens the relationship between the olive growers and millers to the historical one between restaurateurs and chefs. “For many years chefs were just cooks and the restaurateurs got all the credit,” Piro says. “Their name was on the space in the way growers’ names are on the bottle.” But the miller is like a chef in that they’re “the person actually making the food that everyone is raving about.”

That process to make the oil is actually a speedy one—you can harvest in the morning, mill in the afternoon and immediately have olive oil—but so many variables can affect the final product. Most olive oil today is milled in facilities with giant machines and steel tanks. (Yes, even your single-varietal, family-owned, small-batch oil is likely processed with machinery.)

This is often a good thing: Technological improvements at the mill level have slowly raised the quality of olive oil in recent decades. The advent of better temperature control, better separation and better storage options reduces rancidity, fermentation, oxidation, excess particulate matter and all the other myriad defects that can tarnish an oil.

For many producers, that technology means they can hit a button and let the machine estimate what the olives need. But Lepori has built his reputation on a level of precision that most mills don’t employ.

Like a mad scientist, Piro constantly monitors the olives during the milling process. He pinpoints visually when the olives are done (under-mix and you waste oil; over-mix and you heat the oil, which degrades the quality). Then, instead of filtering and bottling immediately, he allows the oil to rest for three to seven days to allow particulates to settle and molecules to stabilize.

Olives / Image Courtesy of Vikki Colvin, Olio Piro

Embracing New Technology

With that attention to detail in olive growth and milling and oil bottling, Piro and Lepori were already making an excellent product, dubbed, unsurprisingly, Piro. But the oil’s biggest leap forward came when a group of researchers at the Consiglio Nazionale delle RicercheItaly’s largest research council—asked if Piro could test out a vertical pressure filter that had originally been developed for wine.

The results were remarkable. The average unfiltered Italian olive oil is 1500 NTU—or, to get really geeky, the Nephelometric Turbidity unit, which measures how many extra non-olive oil particles are in your oil. It’s essentially a measure of adulteration. The new filter surpassed all others they’d seen, bringing Piro and Lepori’s oil to a shockingly low 135 NTU. The result is a more stable oil with higher polyphenols, the molecule typically associated with olive oil’s health benefits.

Meanwhile, Piro and Lepori had brought on Piro’s sister, Charlotte Piro, to distribute their oil in the U.S. She’s as passionate about talking about the oil as her brother and partner are about making it—and she exudes excitement explaining all of their many recent accolades, such as recently reaching a 97 out of 100-point score from Flos Olei, a respected organization that rates olive oils across 56 countries and five continents. (Think of it like Wine Enthusiast’s Tasting Department, but for olive oil.) Less than 100 oils are ranked 97 or above, and almost all are made by more established producers since year-over-year consistency is a rating factor. Piro’s rating is a striking achievement.

For olive oil experts like Nancy Ash, who has traveled the world for decades consulting and educating, what Piro is doing is an exciting step forward. While some producers do filter their oil and others rack it (letting it sit to allow particulate matter to settle out), Piro is essentially doing both and at a higher level.

“Other producers I know who are filtering, do it immediately,” Ash says. “And I really do think it’s that last filtration step which they do which is different—I’ve never seen that kind of filter before.”

Olio Piro next to bread and olive oil on a plate
Image Courtesy of Ali Rosen

Honing in on the U.S. Market

The Piro team is focused on the U.S. market, an oddity in a country renowned for holding onto its best products. Italian goods often sell out at home before their producers bother with America’s extensive import regulations.

However, considering that Piro is a new product, and that Charlotte Piro is based in the U.S., an opportunity to build brand awareness stateside was more appealing than starting in a market that historically already gets the best oils. But of course, even the U.S. is a saturated market, Ash points out. 

“Large producers have millions of dollars to spend on marketing and advertising and they tend to get in front of the consumer first,” she says. In light of that uphill battle, Charlotte Piro’s tactic hasn’t prioritized educating consumers on process, but rather trying to get them to taste the oil.

Piro Olive Oil founders
Piro Olive Oil founders / Image Courtes of Vikki Colvin, Olio Piro

“Right now we don’t even go that far into the technicity of our production because the product is so exceptional,” she says. “And this is what people look for—people look for things that are delicious…If you are a foodie with a palate, and you taste the fresh olive oil for the first time, that’s the only thing you’re going to want from now on.”

It’s a bold statement for a fledgling brand, but one backed up by numerous accolades in a market that now is more comfortable championing products that are primarily direct-to-consumer. And because of that, as Piro grows in popularity, the brand’s footprint is also expanding.

Starting with next year’s harvest, Piro will be made in Montalcino after being chosen over many larger producers by the Comunitá di Montalcino (the town’s civic and economic community organization) to take over its long-standing mill. With a bigger space and a goal of increasing output, the Piro team hopes to make Montalcino as well known for olive oil as it is for wine.

It’s a goal as audacious as changing norms in a historic industry. Maybe there is more education needed to overcome that longstanding romantic view of olive oil and to better help consumers understand the ways technology improves it. For now, at least, Piro seems to be turning those views upside down, one bottle at a time.