Some people dream of the day they can retire, while others finally get there and do not know what to do with their new life. That is not the case for White & Case alumnus Burt Fohrman, who created an ideal retirement for himself by keeping busy with three engaging activities: producing an award-winning olive oil business, riding horses and continuing to practice law.
Burt Fohrman in his olive orchard
In fact, Burt's olive oil business, Quattro® Sonoma County Extra Virgin Olive Oil, recently won gold medals for "Best in Class" and "Best in Show" at the world's largest and most prestigious extra virgin olive oil competition.
So, how did this successful "retired" lawyer get into the olive oil business?
The Making of Quattro
Burt and his wife, Raleigh, own a small ranch in Sonoma County called Riebli Point Ranch, where they raise olives for their olive oil brand, Quattro. The Ranch is located on the upper slopes of a small mountain and overlooks the Russian River Valley. It is the last large parcel of a historic sheep ranch.
When Burt and Raleigh were living in Tokyo, they tried to think of ways that they could make the Ranch economically productive, bearing in mind that they were not physically present to oversee activities, since during that time, Burt was immersed in "some wonderful" assignments working as a partner in White & Case's Tokyo office.
He claimed, "The best olive oil produced in Italy is from some of the hill town areas of Tuscany. The hill town orchards are 200 to 500 meters above sea level." Burt's former sheep pastures are within that range and are primarily west-facing slopes. "Since the land, climate and soil on the Ranch is very similar to Tuscany, I thought about planting Tuscan varietal olives," he said.
"After you plant olive trees, there is no production for at least five years and possibly longer, and production keeps accelerating each year until the trees are 15 years old and then it levels off," he explained. Burt obtained studies from the University of California, Davis that analyzed growing Tuscan olives in Sonoma County. After some additional research, he decided that it was reasonable to proceed. So, 13 years ago, he planted the first part of the orchard with four classic varieties of Tuscan olive trees, assuming that by the time he retired, the trees would be starting to produce.
During the years prior to production, the orchard requires modest physical attention—watering, fertilizing and pruning. Each summer when Burt returned home on summer vacation, he checked the orchard and determined that the trees were doing well and planted additional areas. "I limited the plantings to 500 trees, since I thought that was the limit that I could personally handle and, in addition, with that limited number, I could concentrate on efforts to produce the best quality oil," he said.
Burt retired from White & Case at the end of 2003. Following retirement, he spent 23 months working on the Ranch, building deer fences, installing irrigation systems and expanding the orchard. "Although working the Ranch was great fun and an interesting and challenging diversion from legal practice, it did not involve adequate mental stimulation, so I also took on the position of editor-in-chief of the International Law Journal ( published by the California Bar Association)," he recalled.
The Ranch is operated by Burt, Raleigh and their eldest son, who lives on the Ranch with his family. The family basically does everything themselves, except picking and pressing the olives. According to Burt, it takes a crew of 16 people to pick the olives. Fortunately for the Fohrmans, they have friends who have a small olive press and have an operator who comes from Italy every year to press the olives for Quattro. All other services that the Fohrmans need related to the business are obtained either through specialty providers using the Internet or by an occasional consultant, so they have no permanent employees.
Burt explained, "It was my belief that the best way to produce high-quality oil was to do everything by hand and that is the way we operate. The only machine that we use in the orchard is a weed whacker. We do all the sales ourselves via the Internet, and that includes everything that goes along with it (packing, shipping, etc.). We are a true artisan family operation. As we proceed with our business, my wife and I basically learn each activity required and as we make mistakes, we work to correct them and improve."
Reflecting on the differences between lawyering and operating an olive oil business, Burt says, "The biggest challenges have been doing everything ourselves (we are the staff) and more importantly, dealing with Mother Nature. As a transactional attorney, you learn to deal with the elements of any transaction and with enough years of experience, you can anticipate many situations. Having been a transactional attorney and advising business, it is not a big leap to handling your own business. However, you cannot anticipate Mother Nature. We have to respond quickly to events that swoop down on us—no rain, heavy rain, snow, extreme heat, Mediterranean fruit flies or gale-force winds."
Winning the Competition
The Fohrmans have been selling Quattro olive oil for the past six years. Although they never entered a competition, at one UC Davis class, Burt's classmates and the professors all gave Quattro the highest possible marks for its second year's olive oil. Over the years, the Fohrmans have received numerous email and phone calls from customers remarking about the excellence of their oil. Raleigh, who is also an attorney, had been suggesting for the past several years that they needed to enter a competition to get some feedback on the quality of their olive oil via a professional judging in a competition.
Raleigh and Burt Fohrman with their award-winning Quattro olive oil
The world's largest and supposedly most prestigious extra virgin olive oil competition is held annually in Los Angeles. Burt contacted the people running the Los Angeles International Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition and found out that they expected 600 entries for the 2011 judging. "Given the number of competitors, I was hesitant to enter, but finally decided I would proceed, but not tell anyone other than my wife since I did not want to be embarrassed if we did not get a medal," he said.
Burt and Raleigh had been out to dinner one night and when they got home, their telephone message light was blinking. When Burt checked the voicemail, he had received numerous telephone congratulations from people in the olive oil industry for a win at the competition. Since he had not told anyone about entering the competition, he was a little surprised. "I went online to the competition website and was stunned to find that we were the top winner. We won "Best in Class" for our type of olive oil, "Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil—Domestic Medium" and then in the comparison competition with all the other winners of other classes, we won "Best of Show."
"Since I had never been in a competition, after seeing our name on the website, I called the woman in charge of the competition and asked her to please explain what we won. Her response: "Mr. Fohrman, you won everything!" On June 26, 2011, the Fohrmans attended the competition and received three gold medals.
Living a "Retired" Life
Quattro olive oil is not the only thing that keeps Burt busy these days. Except for his years working abroad, Burt and his wife have always owned and ridden horses and had a number of small home ranches. Following retirement, Burt immediately purchased horses and has been participating in three equestrian groups. Each group is different, but all of them involve trail riding either on ranches or in the High Sierras.
Burt's other passion is the practice of law, and he still practices today. Approximately two years after retiring, he joined Perry Johnson, a small law firm in Santa Rosa (the nearest city to his ranch), and shortly after, Raleigh and their son Jeremy Olsan also joined and created a "family trio" at the firm. Many of Burt's clients are owners of famous wineries or vineyards. In addition to representing them, these clients are willing to share expertise in marketing, branding and other activities that pertain both to the production and sale of wine and olive oil.
Burt has proven that when you retire, you can certainly enjoy more of what you love. His winning formula is family, law, his olive oil business and blazing across some good old country trails.