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Olive oil pilgrimage brings Midwesterners to Greece in pursuit of liquid gold

In Forum Communications' special report "Liquid Gold," we travel overseas with a group of Midwesterners as they go back to the cradle of Western civilization to learn life-changing lessons about slowing down, eating for pleasure and connecting with others to make the world a better place. And it all started with a simple bottle of olive oil.

The words "Liquid Gold" are superimposed on an image of a city stretching away from a high vantage point.
The sun rises over Athens, Greece. In the first part of Forum Communications' "Liquid Gold" series, we look at how a group of Americans is learning to slow down, eat for pleasure and connect with others.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum
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An image with olives and leaves in the corner reads Liquid Gold, Exclusive Series, Story 1 of 5.

ATHENS, Greece — Dawn doesn’t break in Athens the way it does in some cities. It’s eerily quiet here, even at 7:30 a.m. when many American cities are already bustling with activity. But as the sun starts to rise and a pink hue creeps into the lavender sky, the 5 million residents of Athens ease ever so slowly into their day. After all, it’s a late-night kind of city, with dinner often not served until 10 p.m.

However, the morning isn’t so bad when your eyes open to see what others have seen for centuries: a spectacular view as the morning light envelops the Acropolis, the ancient fortress built upon the rocks above the city.

An upward view of the columns of the Acropolis.
The sun shines on the Athenian Acropolis on Oct. 12, 2021.
Contributed / Michaela Chorn

A short time later, just to the west, on the limestone rocks surrounding the ruins, a group of Americans, undeterred by a light drizzle that has now crept in, listens to Peter Schultz. He's a pied piper under a black umbrella — a man we’ve followed 5,000 miles across the ocean for a shot at immersing ourselves, even for just a short time, in a new way of life in a very old land.

Schultz knows how to spin a tale as he prepares us for our day of walking through the Athenian Acropolis, including the Parthenon, the most revered of all ancient temples.

A small group of people on a scenic rock outcropping overlooking Athens.
Peter Schultz, center, under the black umbrella, talks to a group of Americans who have traveled with him to Greece to learn more about olive oil. Before they tour the Athenian Acropolis, Schultz gives them some background in the hills above Athens.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

He shares all the facts we need to know, like the professor he is, but he’s definitely that “cool” professor who peppers his anecdotes of Greek gods, goddesses and historic battles with words like "bro," "dude" and "epic." With Schultz’s narration, ancient Greece comes alive like a hot, new Netflix series.

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For the past 10 years, the charismatic Schultz has taken a group of mostly Midwesterners to Greece, the country he calls “the center of my world.” But it’s not simply a vacation to learn about the country credited with giving us democracy, literature, religion and the arts. It’s much more than that.

A man with a black umbrella reclines on a rock formation with Athens stretching away in the background.
Peter Schultz gives the group of Americans a brief course on the history of the Acropolis before they walk through the ruins.
Contributed / Ron Phillips

As Schultz would say, it’s “mind-blowing when you can witness the world shrink before your eyes.”

Over the next several days, we invite you along for Forum Communications Co.'s "Liquid Gold" series to see how bridges are being built from the Midwest to the Mediterranean. And it all began with a simple bottle of olive oil.

Schultz’s love affair with Greece started in 1997, when he was a graduate student working on his dissertation in Athens with prominent archaeologist Olga Palagia. He was working on the art and restoration architecture of a small temple within the Acropolis. But it was something that happened away from school that would alter the course of his life forever.

Like a lot of grad students seeking to please their adviser, Schultz couldn’t say no when Palagia asked if he’d be willing to help her husband, Eugene Ladopoulos, put labels on bottles of olive oil he was producing on their farm 2 1/2 hours south of Athens, in Mistras.

A young man poses and smiles with his arm around an older, smiling man.
Peter Schultz met Eugene Ladopoulos while working on his Ph.D. dissertation with Ladopoulos' wife, prominent archaeologist Olga Palagia. Ladopoulos needed help packaging the olive oil he was producing on his farm.
Contributed / Peter Schultz

“I didn't know what that entailed at this point. But I went over to his warehouse, and he was there with crates of olive oil,” Schultz explains. “And we sat there, sort of in this barn, sticking on the very first labels of bottles of his olive oil: Mistra Estates extra-virgin olive oil.”

At the time, Schultz, who grew up in Minnesota, Texas and California, was like a lot of Americans in thinking that olive oil is olive oil is olive oil.

He certainly wasn’t sampling as he was labeling the bottles in what he called “the dusty old warehouse,” but later Ladopoulos gave him a bottle to try.

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Schultz put it on a simple Greek salad, with cucumbers, tomato, feta cheese and red onion. Then he took the bite that he said changed his life.

“I remember the contrast of this fresh ground pepper on that white feta. It was just dripping with oil and I took a bite. I took one crunch and it was sort of like a firework going off in my mind. Right? Not just the mouth. It was a soulful experience,” Schultz said.

Olive oil pouring over a Greek salad containing Kalamata olives, red onion, tomato, cucumber and feta.
Olive oil pouring over a Greek salad containing Kalamata olives, red onion, tomato, cucumber and feta.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

OK, but life-changing? Really? Yes, when you consider what happened a few years and several bottles later in 2004.

Peter had been living in Greece for about seven years when Eugene asked him if he’d be willing to bring the oil back to the Midwest to share with people there.

“My first response was, ‘Well, you know, where I live, we like butter and lard. That's what we're into.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, you have to try, Peter, because everybody loves good things.’ This is what he said in his way. And that simple sentence became sort of the basis for this,” Schultz said.

However, they got off to a rough start, importing 40 cases of oil and selling very little of it. Moorhead restaurateurs Tony and Sarah Nasello ended up buying him out to save him from the loss.

Two bottles of olive oil stand tall on a table of food.
At first, the olive oil Peter Schultz brought back from Greece was a tough sell. But soon, word of mouth from people who loved it made it very popular.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

“But the next year, the people who did buy bought again and told their friends, and that is how it started. That was 16 years ago now. And every year, it's grown in the same sort of way, sort of word of mouth,” Schultz said.

As the popularity of the oil grew, some of Schultz’s customers started to wonder why Ladopoulos’ oil was so good. Schultz would explain that it comes directly from Eugene’s small farm of olive trees that have been around for centuries. It’s natural and unprocessed, and each year the tastes are different based upon the weather and other environmental factors.

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But better than explain it all, Schultz started to put together a pilgrimage of sorts. Every October, he began to take about 10 people with him to walk the city streets and cobblestone paths of Athens, Sparta, Mistras and more to learn where and how the oil is made and to show off the place he calls his second home. He switches from speaking English to Greek in a heartbeat.

For those of us who followed Peter from site to site for a week, we most often heard him utter “Páme,” meaning, ”let’s go,” or “Teleios,” meaning “perfect,” when talking to the friendly Greek people who helped us along the way.

A woman smiles for a photo.
Michaela Chorn, an artist from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, made the trek to Greece with Peter Schultz's group in October 2021.
Derek Fletcher / The Forum

Michaela Chorn, an artist and tattoo artist now living in the Twin Cities, has wanted to come on the trip since she met Schultz when she was a student at Concordia College in Moorhead, where he was teaching at the time.

“He's someone you want to be around. He's someone that makes you feel important and special and that you have a lot of potential and that you should chase that potential and achieve your dreams, as corny as that sounds,” Chorn said.

In tomorrow's installment of "Liquid Gold," we dive deeper into how olive oil — the reason these Americans are here — has played an integral part in Greek culture and life — and why Thomas Jefferson called the olive tree one of his most important contributions to American history.

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.

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