tampabay.com

Pressing grape seed oil for more

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 10, 2007


NAPA, Calif. - Call it the biofuel boomerang. Valentin and Nanette Humer sell their gourmet grape seed oil to upscale Napa Valley restaurants. Then they pick up the used oil to run their company cars.

The fry 'em up, fill 'er up approach saves restaurants money, greases the wheels of recycling efforts and makes the Humers' wallets a little fatter, too.

"We haven't seen a gas station in two years, " Valentin Humer said with a laugh.

Humer, founder and president of Napa-based Food & Vine Inc., is an Austrian-trained chef and hotelier who became interested in grape seed oil more than 15 years ago.

He and his wife put together a taste panel of renowned chefs, including the late Jean-Louis Palladin, to develop a grape seed oil they liked, then worked with a leading Italian producer to make their product. The oil, packaged in Napa, comes in UV-protective bottles to maintain freshness. Their products include herb and spice-infused oils.

In a tip of the hat to the two main suppliers of grape seeds, the oil is sold under the name "Salute Sante" - Italian and French for "To your health."

Grape seeds are a byproduct of the wine industry, left over along with the skins after crushing. It takes a lot of grape seeds to make grape seed oil: About 1 ton of grapes makes about 1 liter, or 33 ounces, which sells for $16.95 on the company's Web site.

But the tiny seeds are worth crushing. The oil is prized for its light, clean taste and high smoke point.

Eventually, the couple would like to use California grape seeds to make their oil, though there aren't any grape seed-crushing facilities in the state and it would take a sizable financial investment to create one. For now, grape seed oil is "where olive oil was 25 years ago, " Humer said.

Jeff Mosher, chef of Julia's Kitchen in Napa and a Humer customer, likes grape seed oil for dishes when he doesn't want anything fighting with the food's natural flavors.

Being able to get rid of the waste oil for free is a slick benefit.

"It's a good product anyway, and it stands up on its own merits, " Mosher said. "Any time you can use a byproduct like that for something useful, I think it's great for Valentin and it's great for society in general to be able to use our waste like that."

To turn leftover oil into fuel, Humer uses a series of filters to screen out any food or other particles. Then it's ready to be pumped into the company's vehicles: two Mercedes and a Ford pickup, all of which have been adapted to run on biofuel.

Interest in biofuels has increased in recent years with a number of people running modified vehicles off restaurant waste, said Robert McCormick, a principle engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. But using it as a commercial venture is less common. And providing the fresh oil in the first place sounded unusual, McCormick said.

"It's so interesting that they've got this cradle-to-grave thing going on, " he said. "They're closing the loop and making sure that it doesn't go down the drain."