March 4, 2010
BY SETH SCHWARTZ, Correspondent
Olive oil mavens will go to great lengths to purchase premium vintage. That's why Country House Restaurant in Alsip is shipping bottles of its own brand, Pylian Estates, to destinations across the United States. Word of mouth travels fast. And one taste is all you need to sample the pristine quality.
"Pylian Estates is outstanding," said Rebecca Courtright, who owns Courtright's four-star restaurant in Willow Springs with her husband, Bill.
"It's made with the first cold press and it's organically grown. It has a beautiful sweet taste. There's no bite or bitterness to it; the balance and acidity level is perfect."
A well designed, appealing label can often hide the contents. In fact, the majority of olive oil distributed from Italy was found to be mixed with other oils from Mediterranean countries and is anything, but "extra virgin." The story of how Paul Boundas brought his oil to Chicago began at the turn of the 20th century when his great grandfather, Tom Boundas, one of six siblings, emigrated and went to work in the salt mines of Salt Lake City, Utah. His next stop was the steel mills in Indiana; later he opened a cleaning and tailor shop on the corner of 35th and Archer.
There was a dowry system in Greece at the time and he sent money home so his four sisters could get married before him. Boundas' maternal grandfather, Louis Kiriakoulis, had a grocery store just down the block. His son, Ted, the 1957 valedictorian at St. Rita, ended up graduating from Harvard Law School. He's now a senior partner with Boundas, Skarzynski, Walsh and Black with offices in Chicago, New York and London. His sons, Paul and Dave, took over Country House Restaurant in Alsip. The Boundas family returns to Greece once a year to see their extended family, scattered in small towns along the majestic Pylos coast.
Eight years ago, Ted built a home on his ancestral roots to relax in for his periodic visits. There's a rich history in the soil. The lush olive groves have produced olive oil for 5,000 years. There are tombs from the Mycenaean era, classic temples, Byzantine churches and medieval castles. In the classic Greek epic, The Iliad, Homer describes Odysseus sailing into the port of Pylos. The Boundases would always bring back olive oil for personal consumption.
One day Ted said, "We should bring it back and sell it." So they did. In 2008, their first shipment of 65 liters came in and went out the door even faster. Next, they brought in 110 gallons. Last November, Paul and his dad assisted in two days of annual harvest, which runs mid November to early December, from trees that are on their own parcel of 20 acres. The tree shown on the Web site, pylianestates.com, is 500 years old. The latest shipment was 275 gallons. The exact date of the harvest is on the label. The acidity rate is .03-.05 percent. "Our sales went a lot faster than expected," Paul said. "People want to trust that they're getting what they paid for. On the Web site we show the harvest, the oil at the press and all the steps involved in the process."
So far, Country House has shipped cases to Houston, Seattle and Florida The American market, which accounts for 10 percent of all sales outside of Europe, spends $1.5 billion and is growing at a rate of 10 percent annually. A gallon goes for $40 and a 375 milliliter bottle costs $15.75. A case of 12 bottles is $156. Discounts are available at the store. Several connoisseurs bring in gallon containers. Others have brought in five gallon drums for refill. "There are a lot of high-end products out there that cost twice as much as Pylian Estates, but this is so much better, there's no comparison," Courtright said.