ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

You think that beer guy is 'the most interesting man in the world'? Time to meet Eugene Ladopoulos

Eugene Ladopoulos is a former economic advisor who traded in his business suit for a quieter life as an olive farmer. But his passion project is now touching countless lives in the American Midwest.

The words "Liquid Gold" are superimposed on a photo of a mustached man holding out an olive.
Eugene Ladopoulos, a one-time economic advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Athens has turned his attention toward producing olive oil on his small farm in Greece. For more than a dozen years, he's worked with Moorhead resident Peter Schultz to share his love of olive oil with Americans.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum
We are part of The Trust Project.
An image with olives and leaves in the corner reads Liquid Gold, Exclusive Series, Story 3 of 5.

MISTRAS, Greece — It’s important to get your head in the right space when you come to Mistras, or Mystras, in southern Greece.

It’s miles away in distance and mindset from the metropolis of Athens 2 1/2 hours to the north. As you make the isolated drive into Mistras, the first thing you’ll notice is Mount Taygetos, a beautiful, rugged mountain covered in a sea of green olive trees. On the side of the mountain are the remains of Byzantine castles and churches.

A large, hold stone castle-like structure is built into a lush, green hillside.
The Panatanassa Monastery is the only inhabited structure at the Mistras Byzantine archaeological site. Currently, a handful of nuns reside there, surrounded by the medieval ruins of churches and castles inhabited in the 13th century.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum
An orange and white tabby sits next to a black and white tuxedo cat as they perch on the outside windowsill of a restaurant.
Stray cats can be found all over Greece, from the monastery at Pantanassa to these cats checking out a restaurant window in Monemvasia.
Contributed / Michaela Chorn

The ruins of a medieval palace and churches are open to anyone who wants to navigate the rugged cobblestone paths. The town on the mountain was virtually abandoned by the 19th century when the modern town of Sparta popped up in the valley.

The only inhabitants today are a handful of nuns who still live at the Pantanassa Monastery, tucked away amid the greenery and stray cats.

So maybe you don’t need to get your mind in the right space after all — it just happens when you get here. As the Greek City Times wrote, “As soon as you arrive here, you sense a strong spiritual energy, which brings peace and calm to the body, mind and soul.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Perhaps that’s why Eugene Ladopoulos is the way he is. A native to the region, Eugene seems to radiate light. An infectious enthusiasm that isn’t dampened by this very damp day. He’s not letting a little rain and a lot of mud stop him from sharing his passion: his olive trees and the oil they produce.

A mustached man peers up at olive branches from under an umbrella.
Eugene Ladopoulos likes what he sees as the olives in his grove soak up the rain on Oct. 14, 2021.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

Ladopoulos is the man behind Mistra Estates Olive Oil. In today's installment of Forum Communications' "Liquid Gold" series, he is taking a group of Americans on a tour of his beloved grove.

The rain is unusual. It’s been a dry summer. The ground is still brown, but Eugene is happy to see the green poking through. He’s even more pleased as he looks at his trees and the olives that are growing larger.

“All of the rain, we are not happy, but look at them, the olives, they are happy,” he said.

People walk through an olive grove on a rainy day.
Despite the unseasonably damp day, Eugene Ladopoulos was energized showing a group of Americans his olive grove near Mistras, Greece.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

He insists those on the tour soak up more than the rain — he wants us to engage all of our senses and immerse ourselves in what the land and rainfall is giving us.

He is a genteel scholar, farmer and philosopher. He loves his trees, he loves his land. He loves his country, and he is so proud of what he is producing. I don't really know anybody quite like him,” said Peter Schultz, an archaeologist and entrepreneur in Moorhead, Minnesota, who first met Eugene while working on his Ph.D. dissertation with Eugene’s wife, Olga Palagia, a highly regarded professor of archaeology.

An older man with glasses ad a mustache offers a gentle smile.
“He is a genteel scholar, farmer and philosopher. He loves his trees, he loves his land. He loves his country. And he is so proud of what he is producing. I don't really know anybody quite like him,” said Peter Schultz about his friend Eugene Ladopoulos.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum
A gnarled, twisted trunk of a tree.
This tree in the Ladopoulos estates is around 1,000 years old. The twists and turns of the bark show how the weather impacts its growth.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

The two men struck up a unique friendship and soon a partnership to bring the olive oil Eugene was producing on his farm 1 mile away from Mistras to the United States. The people walking with Eugene today have purchased Eugene’s oil.

They learn from the man himself what goes into producing it. He darts from tree to tree like a man half his age, energized by the thousand or so trees on his land, some close to 1,000 years old.

ADVERTISEMENT

Eugene said there are about eight or nine varieties of olives grown on the trees. Sometimes, one tree will have three or four varieties growing on it.

Water droplets dangle off the bottom of green olives.
Raindrops fall off some olives at the Mistra Estates olive grove in the southern Peloponnese area of Greece.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

The trees are often surrounded by wildflowers, blackberries and oregano. Just inches from the base of the tree, they can influence the taste of the harvested oil.

We had so many questions for Eugene about his olive trees, the harvesting and the man behind it all. To get away from the rain, we went to Eugene’s 19th century barn, where he fed us pork and potatoes roasted over an open fire.

A group of people sits along a long, wooden table.
After touring the olive groves, a group of Americans enjoy food made over an open fire in Eugene Ladopoulos' 19th century barn.
Tracy Briggs / The Forum

Despite Eugene looking like someone who has grown up working the land, farming came relatively late to him.

“I was the economic adviser to the U.S. Embassy for 30 years,” he said.

That’s right: an economic adviser to the U.S. Embassy in Athens. A big job. In fact, he worked in the area of business, economics and marketing for 50 years.

But he traded in his suits and ties a few years back to work the land. He was inspired to buy and develop the land by the ancient Spartans who lived nearby. It became his passion project — one he won’t do halfheartedly. He said he doesn’t spray his trees with any chemicals for fear it will affect the taste of the olive oil or even harm those who consume the oil.

Harvesting, which happens anywhere from October to February, is also done with care for the earth and nature. Schultz explains that unlike larger operations that use machines to shake the olives loose from the trees and can affect nesting birds, at Eugene’s grove, harvest is gentle.

ADVERTISEMENT

A misty olive branch in the foreground of an olive grove
The summer of 2021 was dry for Eugene Ladopoulos' olive grove near Mistras, Greece. Rainfall in mid-October was just what the olives needed before harvest.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

“We will lay down nets, and we will trim the branches and then handpick the olives," Schultz explained. “In a small single estate outfit like us, we know where the birds are, we know where we need to handpick around them, so we are nurturing our shared landscape there with no harm to any creature.”

From there, the olives are put through a mechanical olive press, a technology that has been around since about 3,000 B.C., around the same time period as some of the oldest trees in existence. The oil is then put in vats to settle for anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.

Our oil tastes different every year, and the reason why is that there are no inputs. So whatever the earth gives the tree that season is what we will get,” Schultz said.

That means oil from a wet year might taste different than oil from a dry year. The taste might also change depending upon which varieties of olives are most prevalent in that year’s crop.

Water drips from a heavily laden olive branch.
Olive oil will taste different year to year based upon the percentages of the different varieties of olives harvested.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

But every year, the oil from Mistra Estates comes from the first pressing with no additives — a true extra-virgin olive oil — unlike much of the oil on the market.

In 2012, the University of California, Davis did a study of of all oils on the shelves of American supermarkets, and found that about 87% of all of these oils claiming to be extra-virgin olive oil were, in fact, fraudulent," Schultz said. "They were cut with other oils, they were not extra-virgin or they had chemical profiles that did not line up with the definition of extra-virgin olive oil."

Olive oil industry officials blame the Italian mafia or the agromafia for tampering with extra-virgin olive oil by mixing it with lower grade oils. The customer who thinks they’re paying for top-grade oil is usually not getting it.

Ladopoulos is quick to point out there are very good olive oils to be had in America. Sometimes you just need to do your research. Experts say if the oil is too cheap or too light in color, it might not be extra-virgin olive oil — despite what the label says.

A red and brown stone building sits high on a hill above an olive grove.
Eugene Ladopoulous' olive grove is located in the shadows the archaeological site of Mystras, Greece, which overlooks the town of Sparta in Laconia Peloponnese on mainland Greece. One of the most important sites in Greece, the region is steeped in history, from medieval ruins to ancient olive trees.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

Ladopoulos and Schultz are doing their part to help some foodies in America know they’re getting pure oil by bringing it to them almost straight from the tree. But right now, Ladopoulos as a small producer doesn’t have the capacity or even the desire to sell to the masses.

They are now importing oil to Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks in North Dakota, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Duluth and Detroit Lakes in Minnesota, and Austin, Texas. It’s usually available by pre-order months in advance or at one or two specially selected places in each town. For more information, email peter@peterschultzimporter.com .

Two bottles are labeled "Mistra Estates Ladopoulos Extra Virgin Olive Oil."
Schultz and Ladopoulos aren't looking to conquer America's olive oil market. “We don't want it to be everywhere," said Schultz. "That's the liquid gold ethos, right? It's a hidden treasure, right?" Ladopoulos said he appreciates sharing what he has produced and meeting new friends from the United States.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

We don't want it to be everywhere,” Schultz said. “We want it to be something that you have to seek out. That's the liquid gold ethos. It's like a hidden treasure, right?"

But for Ladopoulos, the treasure also comes from something else — the relationships and friendships he is making with the Americans who make the pilgrimage to his land every year.

This is my payment, my pleasure,” Ladopoulos said with a satisfied smile so big, his eyes crinkle at the sides. “If you do something, love it! That’s my pleasure to meet nice people and to share something given by nature.”

In tomorrow's installment of the "Liquid Gold" series, we'll take a closer look at how the use of olive oil in a Mediterranean diet has promising results for heart health.

Liquid Gold

For more information about Forum Communications' series and read all published installments, visit www.inforum.com/liquidgold . Tune into WDAY-TV at noon Saturday, April 9, to watch our full-length documentary, which will also be available on the Liquid Gold page beginning April 11.

Tracy Briggs is a News, Lifestyle and History reporter with Forum Communications with more than 30 years of experience, in broadcast, print and digital journalism.
What to read next
Food columnist Sarah Nasello will give away a dozen Italian Butter Sweets next week as part of her weekly SarahBakes Holiday Giveaway.
“Bones and All” is the feature film adaptation of the 2015 novel of the same name by Camille DeAngelis. The road film is about the romance between two young cannibals who are searching to find their
The Minnesota State High School League changed its rules, allowing boys to compete on dance teams for the first time starting in 2019. Now 14-year-old Salman Masood no longer has to learn the Austin
Mandu is a Korean dumpling that my family and I make a couple times a year.