One of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2020 and a hit amongst celebrities, EXAU Olive Oil is becoming one of the best luxury olive oil brands on the market.
Created by Skylar Mapes and her husband Guiseppe, EXAU redefines the purpose and importance of olive oil in cooking. The extra virgin oil brand is the creme de la creme of the olive oil industry. It can tolerate high heat and covers food in a protective coating to hold in antioxidants that typically are lost during cooking. Curated through a process rooted in love and care, Mapes never imagined she’d end up growing olive trees in Italy.
Originally, she’d entered a career in architecture designing building models for tech companies in the Bay Area. But the role was unfulfilling and left her desiring more in life.
After spending some time working in a wine cellar, Mapes developed a passion for creating and innovating. Working with the equipment alongside a team smashing her feet into barrels of grapes filled her with fresh energy she’d never felt at her architecture job.
“It was renewable energy and when I was working in the architecture industry it was not renewable energy,” Mapes said. “It was like fossil fuel.”
Her husband had previously mentioned wanting to get into the olive oil industry. He’d noticed there wasn’t much variety on grocery store shelves. The pair decided to create something new. Aligned and unified in their vision, the couple launched EXAU. They moved to Guiseppe’s hometown of Calabria in 2017 to create a new life centered around the power of the olive tree.
A brand created for all olive oil lovers, EXAU is the luxury olive oil food connoisseurs and chefs have been waiting for. The company is 100 percent family owned and specializes in the production of specialty, high-quality, extra virgin olive oil. While most consumers may not realize the difference in the olive oil bottles on the shelves, Mapes says the varying quality and taste depends on a variety of factors.
“You can buy a 15-dollar bag at Target, which will last you a little bit but it’s not going to have the same quality as a Hermes bag,” she said. “And that is similar to how it is in the olive oil world.”
There are three different types of olive oil; plain, ordinary extra virgin, and specialty. Usually what you’ll find in most grocery stores is plain olive oil. This oil is a mix of regular and virgin oil blended together for uniformity in flavor. Typically, it’s mass produced. And it is cheap.
According to Mapes, the higher the quality of the oil, the more expensive it will be. With ordinary extra virgin oil, the production standard is higher. During harvesting, farmers overtime work to ensure olives never touch the ground, which could contaminate the end product. However, the process is still very industrial and the olive trees usually are planted close together and poorly cared for. EXAU is a specialty olive oil.
Specialty extra virgin oil comes from olives harvested on family and multigenerational-owned properties. Farmers invest a lot of time and energy into carefully cultivating the trees to produce oils with more complex taste profiles. In Calabria where EXAU is based, Italian families have harvested olives for hundreds of years, passing the tradition down through generations.
“There is a lot of multigenerational wealth in the specialty olive oil industry because there are families that are passing down properties for hundreds of years,” she said. “So you could inherit trees that are 300 years old.”
EXAU and other specialty olive oils also have a plethora of health benefits plain oils don’t have. In addition to preventing foods from losing all of their nutrients while cooking, the oil has increased antioxidants. Scientists are also studying the impact consuming olive oil has on dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Mapes believes the health benefits of specialty oil are one of the keys to a long life.
“Italy has a blue zone where they have a lot of people who are over the age of 100,” she said. “And one of the contributing factors of that is that they consume copious amounts of olive oil, particularly extra virgin.”
One of Earth’s natural elixirs of life, Mapes believes olive oil is a key to a long life. All of these benefits can be found in each bottle of EXAU; taking food health to a new level whenever it’s used while cooking.
“It’s a superfood,” she said. “It’s something that can really heal you from the inside out. It’s incredible and it’s really good for your body.”
Recently, Skylar and Guiseppe planted 300 new olive trees for the EXAU brand. Their property in Calabria stretches over 12 acres and, in total, they have 1000 trees. Due to increased demands, the couple started scaling their business by working with another local farm that produces olives on an as-needed basis. Every day, EXAU is growing more and more.
“This is my life’s work,” she said. “This is not a game.”
Mapes has also been welcomed by the people of Calabria with open arms. Although they were hesitant at first, they warmed up to her and embraced her as one of their own as time went on. A poor town located on the edge of Italy’s southern peninsula, living in Calabria has provided Mapes with a sense of belonging she didn’t think she’d find outside of the US.
“It is so incredibly refreshing to feel that and feel accepted and welcomed,” she said.
She’s fallen in love with the homecooked meals, the Scamorza cheese, and fried delicacies hidden in the streets of Calabria. Being able to bring job opportunities and income into the city fills her with joy and her love for Calabria has grown alongside the EXAU brand.
While Guiseppe handles daily agricultural needs and cares for the olive trees, Mapes works in the background tending to administrative duties and marketing the company. The couple has been a dynamic team for the last five years and is striving for a legacy built on consistency and dedication they can pass on to future generations.
“These trees are going to outlive us,” she said. “This is a legacy project, not just a source of income. I’m not in this to just make money.”
Although product sales fluctuate throughout the year, EXAU has seen a steady increase in revenue and has received celebrity endorsements from Kerry Washington and Chrissy Teigen. While Mapes says she manifested a lot of the positive things happening for the EXAU brand, she is most thankful for the everyday, repeat customers to continue to purchase the luxury olive oil time and time again.
“To see them still with us, I feel like I’m glowing up with them,” she said. “They are able to see me grow as a person and I’m able to see how they are integrating extra virgin olive oil into their lives.”
Previously only available in the US, EXAU is now available for shipping in Canada. The olive oil can also be found nationwide in Crate & Barrel stores.
Mapes is one of only two Black women in the world to own an olive oil company. Currently, the industry lacks diversity and has many barriers to entry that prevent people of color from getting into the manufacturing process of the plant. She believes the industry is homogenous and boring and will continue to be so without the innovation that accompanies diversity.
“It’s time for diversity in the industry, but if we look at the history of the olive plant and we look at the Mediterranean basin, Black folks and people of color are not strangers to this product,” she said.
Black people are no stranger to the olive tree and Mapes says it’s time to change the narrative of the oil. Olive oil isn’t a product set aside for the rich and white, but a multicultural oil than has crossed many geographical borders. From North Africa to Palestine, the olive tree has long been a part of the history of Black people.
“We’ve had our hands in agriculture since the beginning of time and this is just another form of agriculture,” she said. “And there are so many ways to be creative with olives and do fun things with olive oil, so why shouldn’t we be in it?”