If you're a fan of great olive oil, get ready to start dipping — into your wallet. That stuff's going to get expensive.
As a result of what the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is calling "The Black Year of Italian Olive Oil," the olive harvest through much of Italy is down 35 percent from last year. Things are even worse in Spain, where one group projects output to be half of last year's record harvest.
Although the rest of Europe hasn't been hit quite that hard, production in most countries is forecast to be far below last year's. The overall world output may fall 20 percent, according to industry researcher Oil World.
Even in California, the rapidly growing olive oil industry has been slowed by drought.
As a result, shoppers are going to have to pay more for good olive oil than they have in the past — when they can find it. And they're going to have to be even more careful about reading labels to be sure they're getting the real thing.
There are multiple causes for the situation.
In Italy, the weather was horrible at all the most crucial points. When the trees were turning flowers to fruit in the spring, freezing weather suddenly turned scorching, causing the trees to drop olives. Summer was hot and humid, leading to all sorts of problems. Then in mid-September, there was a major hailstorm, knocking much of the remaining fruit onto the ground.
Compounding the problem was a troublesome infestation of a fruit fly spreading a disease known as "olive tree leprosy."
"For olive oil producers, 2014 is the year they wish had never happened," said Rolando Beramendi, who imports fine Italian oils through his company Manicaretti.
"The weather was so strange — terrible hailstorms, unusual wet weather," he said. As a result, one of his top producers, Tenuta di Capezzana in Tuscany, isn't going to make any oil at all.
"They ran the press one day and then just said the quality was so bad that they just turned it off," Beramendi said.
Pamela Sheldon Johns, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Tuscany where oil is made, wrote on her Facebook page: "No olive harvest this year. No oil.
"I couldn't believe it when I heard that other artisanal producers here in southern Tuscany weren't picking, so I went to check every one of our 800 trees. All bad. Olives on the ground, others still on the tree but withered. Not even a few olives to make an oil for our own use."
The government's "lack of long-term strategic planning on a national and regional level" is being blamed for making matters worse, said olive oil expert Tom Mueller, author of "Extra Virginity."
"Aside from the weather and fly, this low harvest is also an expression of the rapidly deteriorating olive oil industry in Italy, where more and more oil is imported, and less and less is made from Italian trees," he wrote in an e-mail.
He warned that the shortage might lead to cheaper oils from other countries being imported and sold as fine Italian, lesser grades being labeled extra-virgin, even the addition of vegetable oils.
Indeed, Olive Oil Times has already reported a 45 percent increase in imports of oils into Italy.
How to cope
Given all of this, what's an olive oil lover to do?
Beramendi said that shopping carefully can hedge the odds in your favor. "If anything, this is going to be the year when we realize who are the honest producers and who are cheating," he said.
Pay attention to the label, he said. A wrinkle in Italian labeling laws allows producers to label their products by where they are bottled, not necessarily where they are grown. Therefore, a company in Tuscany that imports Algerian oil can sell it as Tuscan oil.
An exception, Beramendi said, is oil labeled "produced and bottled by," which has to have been grown by the estate that's selling it. Even better are bottles that are marked with the harvest date.
Mueller advised trying Greek oils, which were relatively unaffected.
"This is the reality of extra-virgin olive oil," he wrote. "Some years the harvest just isn't good, even in the best production areas in the world, and oil is scarce or of poor quality. Just as some vintages of a given wine region are so-so, some excellent.
"People need to understand that this is a fresh agricultural crop, a fresh-squeezed fruit juice, and not an industrially produced liquid fat."