Walking into the Seka Hills tasting room, nestled in the heart of the verdant Capay Valley, you get a clear sense of prosperity and welcome. The wide-open room with smooth wooden floors, comfortable lounging chairs, tasteful retail displays, and modern bar front all blend handsomely together, complemented by views into the adjacent olive mill.
And the scent of the mill crushing what will soon be Seka’s highly-rated olive oil perfumes the air. During this time of year, you can watch as the mill’s employees keep hard at work in the background—part of the unique charm of this Yolo County attraction. You can taste wine and olive oil, enjoy a variety of events, relax inside or outdoors on the spacious patio and lawns.
The overseer of this operation is Jim Etters, a thoughtful, gregarious, quietly passionate man. Dressed in a trademark flannel, blue jeans and trucker hat, Etters shuttles back and forth to check on the progress of the 82 acres of super high density Arbequina olive trees, which the mill receive to process 24 hours a day for the next month at least.
The olives are just one of 16 crops Etters oversees as the director of land management on the 1,400 acres currently in use, requiring the hard-working Woodland native to put in six 10-hour days for most of the year.
“People don’t really realize that farming is a lot of work,” Etters says, half joking as he makes the rounds in his white 2016 Ford F-150 that has already accumulated nearly 10,000 miles from
Etters’ perpetual motion.
But perhaps no one realizes this concept better than the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribe, who own the Seka Hills label, thousands of acres of farming and rangeland, and the adjacent Cache Creek Casino Resort and Yocha Dehe Golf Club.
Like the tasting room, each separate satellite of the tribe’s business ventures depict prosperity on their ancestral land in the vicinity of Brooks on Highway 16.
Surviving and Prospering
It’s this very land that the now roughly 75-strong Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribe fought for more than 100 years just to inhabit.
Commonplace in the early 1900s, the Federal government forcibly removed the tribe’s ancestors from their village, granting what the government named the “Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians” a reservation in Rumsey, about 12 miles north of their current holdings.
With farming land in Rumsey barren and dry, many in the tribe struggled for years to survive. Then in 1940, they won a long-fought battle to re-locate to a more favorable parcel closer to the Capay Valley, where they began to farm on a small scale, though not one large enough to end their dependence on the US Government.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that portions of the tribe’s ancestral lands were returned to them, leading to the construction of Cache Creek Casino Resort, which helped turn around their fortunes.
Still, it took over 100 years of uphill struggle until the tribe changed its name to its current moniker in 2009, and created the Seka Hills label in 2012, named for the Blue Hills overlooking the valley. Looking to bolster use of the vast land they finally reclaimed, Yocha Dehe hired Etters in 2003, advising him via a five-person Tribal Council as to the wishes of the community.
“What we’re really trying to do as a staff is fill the tribe’s vision for sustainability and continued economic development on their land,” Etters says. “Their connection to the land and the importance of caring for the land is something that we think about all the time as we’re making decisions out in the field and even in our day-to-day operations. That connection to the land is really amazing and it’s something I’ve never seen before.”
And in collaboration with Etters, the tribe began to farm perhaps its most famous current crop in olives, producing amazon.com five-star customer-rated oil.
Up until the last 15 years, olive oil wasn’t produced much in California due to technological limits, ensuring that crops required hand-picking, therefore rendering it cost-ineffective due to labor costs.
Times have changed, however, as the introduction of super high density olive trees proved small enough in stature for machine harvest, kick-starting an olive oil boom in the state. Last year, Seka Hills alone produced roughly 50,000 gallons of the product on site.
While overseeing the process, Etters speaks like a football coach, explaining the “adjustments” he makes on the fly to combat the hand mother nature deals him each year.
“We’re dealing with drought, we’re dealing with pest pressure, every year is different,” Etters says. “That’s what makes that culture so interesting to me and so challenging, is that every year is different and you have to deal with everything it gives you. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad.”
Making the Most of a Good Situation
As Etters watches the massive olive picking machine devour tree after tree, shaking off and dumping the fresh fruit into an adjacent truck, another Yolo County native is hard at work, as executive chef Casey Willard meticulously prepares a cheese, meat and fruit board with the presentation quality of a Michelin star-rated restaurant.
While Etters and Willard share similar upbringings and interests in farm-to-table movements, their jobs could not be more different, with Willard responsible for taking what Etters’ operation provides and turning it into high-quality bites for the tasting room and healthful meals for the tribe’s school.
It was Willard’s formative years in Yolo County that resulted in a love for the culinary arts, with the chef citing the memory of biting into a kosher salt-seasoned tomato freshly picked from his grandfather’s garden in Winters as the origin of his passion.
Wearing his Yocha Dehe customized white double breasted chef’s’ jacket and the white and red hat of his former employer Texas Tech, Willard explains his relationship with the tribe as he prepares to show off his creativity at a pair of upcoming events (see sidebar).
“It’s a trust factor,” Willard says. “They trust me 100 percent to produce the best quality and to represent them in the best way possible. When it comes to menu production, when it comes to what I serve on a daily basis, they trust me. No one signs off on anything. It’s something I had to get used to because before I had food and beverage managers, I had GMs, I had many people I had to check off menus to, to kind of get the blessing on, but now it’s kind of just whatever I want to do, whatever’s seasonal, whatever I think they’ll like.”
Willard’s creative freedom has produced some of the tasting room’s most popular dishes, like the rich Nisqually Salmon Sandwich and the juicy Chicago Style Beef Brisket.
Upon request beforehand, Willard and the tasting room staff will even prepare custom catered meals for visiting parties, often using the fresh fruit, vegetables and meat products produced on the property.
“It keeps everything fresh,” Willard says about the wide variety of assignments. “The mill really helps me stay up to date in the culinary world. I try to showcase everything.”
With the trust, creativity and teamwork displayed in the entirety of the Seka Hills operation, it’s perhaps no surprise that in addition to Etters and Willard, nearly every staff member at the label also hails from the county.
“Yolo County really is an agriculturally-based community,” Etters says over the phone while on yet another run. “Having that connection to the local community and being born and raised in Yolo County definitely has its advantages. I think overall, it’s a great group of people to work with. I think across the board, having people that have that connection to the community, that live here locally, it’s a good thing.”
On his way back to his Dixon home, Willard can’t help but agree even if he never imagined settling down locally.
“I don’t take a day for granted. It’s full circle for me,” he says. “I’ve worked for other companies around the states, but being able to come back home, develop the roots that I thought I didn’t want to develop, but now that I have developed the roots, I would never pull them up.”
It’s perhaps fitting then that after spending so much of its history uprooted, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Tribe, in collaboration with Yolo County natives, can say now that its roots have never been stronger.
Two Must See Events on the Horizon for Seka Hills
With the turning of the leaves in the Capay Valley comes harvest, and with harvest comes events, as Seka Hills is set to host a pair of gatherings to showcase its finest products fresh off the mill on the property.
First comes the Olive Crush Festival, a Sunday afternoon gathering from 12pm to 4pm on October 30. In addition to olive oil and honey tastings, mill tours will be available in a festive event that will include live music, food trucks, a couscous dinner from executive chef Casey Willard and the company’s famous olio nuovo.
Italian for “new oil,” olio nuovo has a much shorter shelf life for its vibrant flavors, making it truly a seasonal delicacy. To celebrate this delicacy though, guests can return to Seka Hills the following Saturday, November 5 for a 5pm Olio Nuovo-themed dinner prepared by Willard. Featuring wine pairings with locally sourced ingredients, perhaps the highlight of the menu is Willard’s olio nuovo ice cream, prepared in collaboration with Cache Creek Casino Resort’s culinary staff. “Ice cream is a good bridge for a lot of ingredients, you can do a lot of stuff with ice cream that tends to work out,” Willard said. “Olive oil is a fat and ice cream is a fat-based substance. It just kind of pairs well.”
Tickets for the dinner cost $60 each and can be purchased at the tasting room or at www.sekahills.com.
Article by Evan Ream.