She was a Texas girl. She was a San Antonio girl. So, after a time of traveling and setting out the 'welcome' mat upon the doorstep of one distant place after another, Sandy Winokur decided to set down roots near to where she had first sprouted. Sandy Winokur came home to South Texas.
Sandy was born in San Antonio, moving about across the state and then on to Ohio, California, New York. For awhile she taught elementary school, but eventually received her PHD in cognitive development and taught psychology at the university level. She wrote books and studied art in Tuscany, at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the New York Academy of Design.
An educator, an author, an artist and illustrate, a traveler, when Sandy found her place in Elmendorf she also became one of the first to plant an olive orchard in Texas.
"I seemed always to end up in an olive orchard," she said. "And so when I decided to move back to Texas, I thought it would be great fun to try an orchard here, because when I had visited these places they always reminded me of some part of Texas."
On 268 acres of land just 20 miles south of San Antonio that once held only a well-house and a tank, now sits a thriving organic concern of olive orchards, stone buildings housing kitchen, classroom, olive press, gift store, dining room, shady patio and outdoor kitchen, a gift shop, a certified nursery and 70 head of cattle, including several longhorns.
Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard got into agri-tourism in 2007. You can find them at the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market on Saturdays. In Elmendorf they hold culinary classes and events like the Passport Adventure Series where guests explore the food and wine products of a particular region (June 22 it's Australia.); art workshops; fundraisers - like the one coming up October 13 for the Clearity Foundation; corporate events; and now weddings.
Every Saturday, Sandy conducts a tour through the grounds and tells the story of then and now.
A battle to begin with
Back in 1998 there were only eight such orchards in Texas. Now, Sandy tells the group, there are about 50.
But it was rough 'hoeing' to begin with. Her first batch of 1,000 trees ordered from Egypt met their doom sitting in Heathrow Airport. The second batch didn't fair much better.
"When they got to Houston they had knots on the roots, and so they fumigated the whole lot. So now I'm down 2,000 trees without planting one," Sandy recalled. "At that point I said I think I'll go to California. I had enough money to buy 450 trees."
Sandy gets her trees from an olive nursery in Spain now. She discovered they adapt very well to growing in Texas.
"If you travel around the world you'll see they are growing in sand and they're growing in rock," she said. "Their roots are very shallow, and this is why they can grow in so many different terrains - because the important roots are one foot below the ground.
"They anchor in pretty well because they go well beyond the canopy, and really in a drought you could get water to them more readily, if you're irrigating - which you have to do - than, say, if you were trying to irrigate say pecan trees that really have to have deep, deep irrigation."
By 2000 Sandy had 1,500 trees and in 2012, she's counting 11,000 trees - in 38 varieties.
"I love to experiment, so that's my thing," Sandy explains.
But which is her favorite?
"That's difficult. It's like asking you if I had only one child, which one would it be?" she said. "Well, I would know that arbequina is a sure bet, so I would probably go with that. But right next to that would be chemlali because chemlali - first of all, I love to say it, and secondly it is a Tunisia variety and it makes a wonderful olive oil. You know Tunisia in ancient Rome was Carthage, and they kept trying to capture Carthage simply for their olive oil. So the Tunisia varieties produce absolutely wonderful olive oil."
And the best olive for eating?
"Arbequina is possibly one of the best even though it's very small," Sandy said.
She brought the arbequina to her place in 1999 after visiting a nursery in Spain. The trees were an immediate success here in Texas and she let all the other Texas growers know about it.
"We're trying some French varieties right now to see if we can grow the niçoise olive - which is another small olive."
Trouble in the garden of paradise
It's not always a bed of roses at Sandy Oaks and being a purely organic concern has its share of obstacles.
"If you keep in mind that you're farming, you know that weather is always a challenge, critters are always a challenge," said the grower. "I think you just take that in stride that's part of what you're doing. Its a very big gamble. so you just meet each challenge the best you can."
They faced a pretty menacing challenge when leaf cutter ants took out 2,000 trees. Experimenting with different organic pesticides, they finally came up with their own that they've been testing for the past 6 months. It's a concoction made with lecithin.
"It doesn't kill out the nest, but it makes them leave the olive trees alone," Sandy said. "It's absolutely all organic. It can't hurt people who are spraying, and it can't hurt the trees. It really seems to be working as a deterrent."
She points to a group of orchard trees in the distance - "another accidental agricultural experiment."
"Don't touch the oak trees."
Sandy talks about a particularly healthy group of olive trees happily situated next to a stand of oak trees. She explains how the same fungi that give you truffles in Europe - mycorrhiza fungi - comes off the roots of the oak trees and helps the olive trees thrive, resist disease and bear more fruit than other less advantageously situated trees - or any plant, for that matter.
"So now what we do when we plant a tree is we throw in mycorrhiza," Sandy said. "Don't [And I think here she means 'never'] cut down your oak trees."
The discovery, she says, has launched a Texas Tech research project. Which mycorrhiza fungi will deliver optimum results in Texas? We should soon find out.
A tree with a history
Sandy Oaks recently donated three olive trees to the Alamo: a sevillano, a pendolino and a mission. It drives home their historic signifcance since settlers realized the nutritional and healing benefits of olives.
"Mission would have been a distant cousin of the variety that [Franciscan friars] brought over from Spain in the 1760s," Sandy explained. "That variety is called cornicabra, but it was named mission because it was planted in all of the missions."
Enjoy what you're doing
Sandy leads the tour to the olive press and describes the workings in fun detail. Then, it's off to lunch. On this day there is a made-to-order pasta station with grilled chicken, shrimp and smoked sausage or guests may select the braised short ribs with whipped potatoes and market-fresh veggies. Lunch is $12 and includes iced tea and sourdough olive loaf, filled with..olives..and olive oil for dipping, of course. Chef Scott Grimmitt also prepared agave nectar cheesecake with a dulce de leche sauce topped with olive brittle.
"We make here," says Grimmitt about the unusal brittle, "It's a little bit of sweet/savory."
Incorporated into the dining room is the Sandy Oaks gift shop featuring orchard products like: olive oil, scented soaps, balsamic vinaigrettes and olive oil skin products with their signature scent that combines lavender, rose geranium and lemon oil.
Sandy makes the rounds among her guests, answering any residual questions about growing olives, about eating olives - you can't just pick them off the tree, you have to soak them in a brine before they are perfectly palatable - as she gets to know her guests a bit better.
"I think that I love doing what I'm doing because I love people around me and making people happy," she said.
Sandy is working next... I mean now, on breeding her cattle. She has plans to purchase a Wagyu bull. She says breeding the bull (known for the fatty Kobe steak) with her lean Yates longhorns could result in something really special.
It's pretty clear that this Renaissance woman who seems to be constantly reinventing herself could be onto something once again. If you go out and meet Sandy, you'll find her busy, but not too distracted to answer your questions about olives... and maybe about life and the importance of enjoying what you do as you're busy living it. Try her. She's up to it.