You find it in every kitchen, but what do we really know about the olive oil on our shelves? Wonder Valley and the creative couple behind it are bringing a new measure of quality to this ancient oil hiding in plain sight. As the founders of Wonder Valley, Alison and Jay Carroll are creating their own version of the good life just outside the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. For them, living in the desert affords a pace of life and the space they need to cultivate a rich existence with just a few exceptional essentials.
California olive oil production is only about 130 years old compared to the centuries long history of our European counterparts, so it’s fairly young. Twenty years ago it was still a rather unregulated industry, so a group of growers got together and formed the California Olive Oil Council and started their own certification program. I was the Marketing Director for the council for about two years doing industry advocacy, consumer education, and overseeing the certification program. The unique thing about olive oil is that it requires a professional taste panel to provide quality control. So I would use these established panels and conduct blind tastings every week. From that experience I fell headfirst into olive oil production and tasting. I loved it. I felt like California olive oil was exceptional and more people need to know about this. It’s exciting that an industry is policing itself and going about things in the hard, right way. I think that’s something worth talking about and celebrating.
We already were working on Wonder Valley the last year we lived in LA but it was definitely a brand without a plan. We just knew what we liked and had a lot of passion so we put all of our energy into that. The first year we just picked a quantity to produce that we knew we could store in our spare bedroom. We just calculated, okay, how many bottles will fit in this room? 600? Okay we’ll do that. My husband has a background in branding and my background is in marketing and food advocacy, so we collaborated on this pretty far out bottle that people got excited about. It’s totally self-started just between the two of us. Most of our retailers are home goods stores or fashion shops, places where olive oil has never lived on shelves before. Now that we have our own physical shop it’s filled with things that I believe in and that I like. It’s snowballed into different things, but the olive oil is the backbone in everything we do.We’re going into our 5th harvest this year and just happy to keep doing it.
We knew we were ready to get out of LA. We’d been living in cities for over a decade, in the Bay Area and then in LA. We’re both really into architecture and interior design so we were ready to collaborate on designing and building something. We had just started working for ourselves individually and the fact was we just didn’t need to be in LA. We could kind of live anywhere at that point, so we decided to put down roots here and see how that felt.
One thing I hope people take away from what we’re doing here is that there is life outside of cities. I’m blessed because I’m city adjacent so don’t get me wrong, but life is good out here. The creative freedom it’s allowed me is invaluable. It’s given us a lot of flexibility not having to chase work like we used to. We can just take our time and only take projects we’re really excited about.
I cook a lot. For me there’s nothing more relaxing than to just spend a whole day making a mess in the kitchen or cooking over an open fire all day. That feels really exceptional to me. I also really enjoy the process of designing our home so I’m constantly learning CAD programs and sketching in my free time. We have great friends nearby, so hosting is a big part of our lifestyle. Aside from the natural beauty of this place you kind of have to inspire each other out here. A lot of our ideas come from a more internal place because it’s so quiet where we are.
We also travel quite a bit. For the past five years we’ve been taking a good chunk of the summer off to go to coastal Maine where my husband is from and turn our phones off. In the beginning we didn’t have that many products and I would physically run out of olive oil, so the shop was closed until the next harvest. I think it teaches people that this isn’t just some condiment that you can have on your shelf forever. Just taste it! Taste mine and then go taste whatever old thing might be on your shelf. You don’t have to be a professional taster to experience the difference.
I like that people are starting to understand that this is an agricultural product and it’s good to work with that, that in November beautiful new oil is ready, and in the summer we’re winding down for the year. The summer is a natural pause, to bring new energy. But the rest of the time we’re working hard. I work seven days a week, but I spend a couple of hours each day doing something for me, and giving myself permission to have that good life moment, whatever that is. That keeps me going, keeps me refueled. But that month in Maine is super critical. Just piles of books, cold air, and seafood. It’s good.
I’m never trying to prescribe anything, like a protocol or some magic supplements that are going to make you more beautiful or younger or thinner. I’m more about giving people the elemental tools to build around that. Our skincare is rooted in the idea that there are active botanical plant extracts that can support and nourish most skin types. A big practice for me is just tapping deeper into my own intuition. I think it’s easy with so much information coming at you from all different directions to feel inundated and that you somehow lack expertise or that there’s this voice of authority you should listen to telling you how you should buy your makeup or your cleaning supplies or what kind of olive oil is good.
I think everyone has a pretty powerful intuition they just might not know how to listen to it. The better I take care of my body the louder that voice talks to me. I think that’s a really powerful thing. I’d like to support people being able to make those decisions rather than giving them a lifestyle brand that they can copy and paste into their lives to feel hip or something. The way people use the olive oil is so different. Some people do make their own face oils out of it, some people drink the whole body and do a kidney flush, other people do rad stuff in the kitchen with it. It’s all over the place. But health is a balance. It’s easy to get obsessed and have a lot of negativity and rules around it and feel like you’re never doing enough. A healthy dose of moderation and a sense of humor is super important. In a general sense people want to “fix” things. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Just eat real vegetables and fruits and wear chemical free things. Don’t get me wrong I drink a lot of mezcal and sake and have a good time. It’s not all juice cleanses and abstinence.
I’ve always wanted to run my own business, I just didn’t know in what capacity. I lived in Philadelphia for about 10 years before moving west. I don’t think I even had the vernacular to dream as big as we’re living right now back then. I moved to be with Jay and he just blew the lid off of living for me. Just the quality of life we could have, the creative jobs we could have the type of creative people that we could surround ourselves with. We don’t always have a plan. It’s usually just, let’s try this for a little while and see how it feels for a little bit. Right now we’re loving where we are.
It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it for me. This doesn’t work for a lot of couples, and I think we had our eyes wide open to that. We just decided we’ll pull the plug or burn any business to the ground before it jeopardizes our relationship. It can be hard to go have a date and not talk about work, or to not see each other through this coworker lens. It’s a lot of checking in with one another. In the beginning we would go toe to toe on different ideas and I think we’ve just learned how to respect one another in that process. I think what we’ve learned to do really well is to divide up the work, almost to the point of writing our job descriptions. That way we can nourish each other’s expertise. It’s a challenge, but he’s a great partner. I’m immeasurably proud of what we build together and that I have a partner that can inspire me and challenge me.
I think it’s easy to get lost in anything when you’re doing it with someone whether it’s having a kid or a business or buying a house even. We’ve made an active decision to protect our boundaries as individuals and to nourish that. His brain works so differently than mine, and to me that’s a beautiful thing to celebrate rather than to try to be on the same wavelength all the time. That’s something I’m learning and working on all the time.
It’s funny how self-imposed deadlines can work on you. I definitely put a lot of expectations on our timeline and our business. We have so much to do on top of that with all the freelance work that we do outside of our two jobs. Our dance card is pretty full. So I always feel that pressure, and then I’ll take a hike and realize, wait! I’m in the desert, what am I thinking? The desert is funny in that it’ll work against you when you’re trying to go too fast. You feel like you’re just swimming upstream. It just has a different agenda. Some days you have a windstorm and lose your internet and you say okay, I guess we’re not working today. It’s different but it’s good.
Even so, it’s hard to ever clock out, or to feel like you’re doing enough. Small businesses can be a real vampire on your energy. So being in the desert has these built in reminders just to stop and replenish yourself. At the end of the day, we’re a really hard working couple. We have a lot of blessings, but everything we have we’ve built ourselves through a lot of hard work. That’s kind of the point. Life is all about the pursuit of those dreams. I don’t think we’re ever going to arrive. It’s the climb; that’s the fun part. We’re always fine-tuning the vision and dreaming bigger, and I think that’s why we work for ourselves. It’s not because it’s easy, but I feel so lucky to have the life I live. It’s a good one.