Texas homesteader brings art to life.
Nothing inspires an artist like a blank canvas, and the property that Sandy Winokur purchased in the late 1990s south of San Antonio was about as close, figuratively speaking, to a blank canvas as a potential Texas homestead can be.
“There were a few cattle pens and an irrigation well that had about played out,” Sandy recalls. “There was very little in terms of infrastructure, but the big oak trees were glorious. I thought it would be a great place to start the venture.” That venture was building a homestead surrounded by oaks and olives—thousands upon thousands of olive trees now planted on about 50 of the homestead’s more than 200 acres.
At this stage of her life, Sandy Winokur is an olive grower. Scratch that thought—she is an olive dreamer. She has been many things: Dr. Saundra C. Winokur has been awarded advanced degrees in psychology and child dev-elopment, has been a teacher, has studied art in Chicago and printmaking in Italy, and was part of the New York art scene before she returned to her Texas roots after the passing of her husband, Stephen. So she left behind Manhattan and her art career to start from scratch on sandy soil. “I have the beach, but no ocean,” she quips.
But she has figured out how to grow olive trees on that beach. She’s not quite sure when her dream became her passion. “It’s like somebody tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Why don’t you grow olive trees,’” she says. “It has been a continual learning process to figure out how to do that.”
She started with a trip to Egypt and meetings with that country’s agriculture officials, and eventually overcame the challenges of growing olive trees in pure sand. Fast-forward to today, and Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard has put approximately 11,000 trees into production, and operates a nursery where thousands of seedlings are available for sale to those who want to share Sandy’s dream of a new Texas oil boom. “I compare the olive industry in Texas today with the early days of the wine industry,” Sandy says. She points to statistics that show American consumers using three times as much olive oil as they did in 1992. “There is so much opportunity out there ahead of us,” she insists.
Tree test. Chasing that dream starts with some basic agronomic work, such as figuring out which of the world’s 700 varieties of olive trees are best suited to Texas soil and climate conditions. Workers at Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard track a number of varieties (38 so far) for their viability and productivity. There’s a variety called Arbequina from Spain that’s looking good, but there are other varieties from France, Italy, Tunisia, and even the U.S.
(the Mission variety) that look promising.
Some of these varieties are best suited for producing olives for the table, while others are bred for oil production. A few varieties are dual purpose. But Sandy is primarily concerned with the oil, and she has imported a press to turn her harvest into a premium olive oil. “We produce extra virgin olive oil,” she says. “Our oil surpasses international standards as well as the more stringent standards set by the California Olive Oil Council.”
If you want to get an earful, ask Sandy (or any other olive grower) to talk about standards for olive oil. There is a great deal of scandal these days in the international olive oil trade, where some large players are accused of blending their products with lower-quality oils from other sources.
In the most simple terms, olive oil is rated on its “free fatty acidity.” The international standard for extra virgin olive oil is 0.8 percent; California sets its standard as 0.5 percent. The oil from Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard has exceeded these standards, running just a bit above 0.3 percent.
Just as it is in the wine industry, there are people who are really serious about the flavor and character of olive oil. Experts recently described an extra virgin oil produced from the fruit from Sandy Oaks’ Arbequina and Picual trees as having “a complex, buttery flavor at the front of the palate.” While Sandy Winokur appreciates the comments of the olive-oil connoisseur, she is most pleased by the reaction of her customers who are new to the local oil scene. “We have people who really adore the flavor of the olive oils that we have to offer,” she says. “It’s been really great to see the way they have responded.”
Olive outreach. Introducing folks to the world of the olive is what drives Sandy these days, as she has become something of an olive evangelist. “With my teaching background, I always thought that I would like to host tours and tell people how to grow olive trees,” she says. “I enjoy the chance to showcase the tree and all the products that can be made from the tree.” And tell that story, she does, to an audience that just keeps on growing.
She opens her orchard to the public every Wednesday through Saturday. Each Saturday morning, Sandy (or sometimes an associate) hosts a walking tour of the grounds, a combination show-and-tell that gives newbies an overview of the olive-oil process from tree to bottle. But that tour is just a start of the experience in a visit to Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard, which has become a “day-cation” destination. Visitors can stroll the beautifully manicured grounds and walk pathways lined with olive trees, rose bushes, shrubs, flowers, and fragrant herbs; the orchard also offers a cozy farm-to-table cafe, where visitors can enjoy olive-influenced fare that includes a delightful tea made from olive leaves. “Olive tea has twice the antioxidants of green tea,” says Sandy, ever the olive salesperson.
The orchard also features an event center as well as an outdoor kitchen with shady patio seating. Those additions have made it an ideal venue for a variety of occasions, capable of handling groups of more than 100 people. The orchard also has become a popular stop for Texas bus tours, which brings a steady stream of visitors during winter months.
Beauty bonanza. Those visitors can view a wide selection of olive-based products at the orchard’s gift shop. The orchard’s olive oil is available, of course, but featured throughout the shop are a variety of soaps as well as hair care and skin care products. The orchard’s on-site guru, Margaret, puts together handcrafted soaps made from pure olive oil along with olive leaves, olive leaf tea, and an array of healthful, fragrant, and natural components. She also contributes skin care products such as the gift shop’s top seller, olive butter lotion, which is a creamy and light moisturizer. “Just splash some water on your face, apply the lotion, and put on your make-up,” Sandy says. “You’re set for the day.”
Some visitors become long-term customers, using the sandyoaks.com website for future purchases. The website also gives updates on the orchard’s frequent seminars and workshops, ranging from cooking classes to “how-to” sessions on making floral waters as a refreshing alternative to essential oils.
Living art. While all this olive outreach sounds exhausting, Sandy continues to hone her creative side. The house that she designed, featuring a striking stone exterior, includes an artist’s studio where she works on portraiture, as well as her abstract art and even a new venture into landscapes.
But it is the homestead itself that has become her living canvas, and she has poured her energy into this magnum opus, showcasing an artist’s viewpoint around every corner.
Sandy designed each structure on the site, from the house and the event center to the workshop that holds the imported Italian olive press. “I worked with a builder who finally told me, ‘no more designs on a paper napkin,’” she says. “We have to get serious about this.”
Those designs took shape as Sandy’s dream of a fledgling olive industry also took root. “This has all just evolved,” Sandy explains. “We just did what needed to be done, whether that was the outdoor kitchen or the expanded gift shop or the commercial space to prepare meals or make the beauty products. I suppose the only thing that has surprised me has been the scale, the number of people who visit us as well as the number of customers that we have been able to connect with our olive trees.”
Pioneer spirit. Sandy was born and raised in Texas, and her ancestors were pioneers with connections to ranching and cattle, including the iconic Longhorn breed. In fact, Sandy has a few of those grazing on her homestead, completing that connection to the past. And, with her enterprising spirit, she is mating them with a Japanese line to develop a Waygu beef that she intends to offer for sale to her numerous visitors to Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard.
Sandy is a modern pioneer, out to prove that Texas can host a new oil boom based on one of agriculture’s oldest cultivated crops. “Olive trees have been in cultivation for at least 6,000 years,” Sandy points out. “In fact, the olive tree is capable of extreme longevity, lasting thousands of years if properly cared for. On the Sinai peninsula, I saw olive trees that had been around since the time of Christ.”
Sometimes Sandy takes a moment to ponder the long view, especially at the end of a busy day. “The sunsets here among the oaks and olives are just beautiful,” she says, with the perspective of an artist honed by the experience of an olive grower.
She wonders how this canvas will look in a thousand years, knowing that it is possible that her trees as well as the Texas olive industry might both still be thriving. And to think, all of it started on a blank canvas of land just outside Elmendorf, Texas. “I just decided this was what I wanted to do, and never looked back,” Sandy says. “It’s been fun.”