"I thought, "Who would want to taste oil and vinegar?" he said. "Then I did, and I was totally hooked."
What he'd stumbled upon: a family store whose owners deal directly with farmers in Spain, Greece, Italy, Argentina and Australia. This weekend, Johnson and Steven Ketchersid are opening their own tasting room in Eureka Springs: Fresh Harvest, featuring olive oil straight from the source.
"Olive oil is the juice of the olive, a fruit," Johnson said. "You want fresh juice."
On tap: 30 varieties of olive oil, including oil fused with orange, lemon and lime, and 20 kinds of balsamic vinegar. Called condimento in Italy, balsamics are made from grape pressings that are boiled down to a thick syrup and aged in casks like wine.
Fresh Harvest carries traditional-style balsamic with natural flavors -- no thickeners, no artificial flavoring -- ranging from dark chocolate and espresso to cinnamon-pear. Olive oil comes in three categories: fused with citrus, meaning the orange, lemon or lime is crushed with the olives; infused with herbs, and regional varieties: Hojiblanca from Australia, Coratina Frantoio from Chile, Cerasuloa from Sicily. Nothing is pre-packaged.
"We bottle it fresh when you come in the store," Johnson said.
Stainless-steel testers allow customers to try different varieties. A pairings bar runs along one wall allows you to sit and sample blends. Oil and balsamics are not just for salad dressing.
Johnson likes to glaze barbecued chicken or pork with Persian-lime olive oil and blackberry-ginger balsamic. Blood-orange infused olive oil and espresso balsamic complement fruit. Wild mushroom/sage olive oil and lemon balsamic are perfection on fish. They also make a sauce for pasta and a dip for bread.
Johnson likes to use a variety of olive oil called butter, although there is no butter in it, to cook corn on the cob, and blends it with maple balsamic to make a breakfast spread.
"It's amazing on cornbread," he said.
Johnson, who grew up in Willard, near Springfield, Mo., and in Tulsa, said his family came to Eureka Springs, a middle ground between the two, for years. He and Ketchersid, who were both formerly in banking, bought a house off East Van Buren six years ago.
When they moved here permanently in June, Johnson brought a case of olive oil with him. Knowing they would have to commute to Rogers for work or start their own business, they looked around for an idea and thought of the Berkeley store. After discovering the family distributes their products, Johnson and Ketchersid found a location for their new enterprise in Pine Mountain Village and started transforming it into the tasting room.
"It all happened that fast," Johnson said.
Balsamics are low in calories -- 10 to 15 per tablespoon -- and low in sugar. The olive oils, which are kosher, are high in anti-oxidants. Each container is labeled with the country of origin, the date of the crush and the levels of polyphenols and oleic acids -- the fresher the oil, the higher the anti-oxidants. Standard olive oil has a polyphenol level of around 80, Ketchersid said. One type of oil they carry, Coratina Frantoio, has 562 -- when you taste it, you feel every cell in your body sit up, he says.
"That's health in a glass," Johnson said. "It has anti-oxidants through the roof."
The walls of the tasting room will serve as a gallery with local artists' work rotating through. The first artist is Wendi LaFay, who has been their muse, Johnson said. Fresh Harvest will also sell speciality oils: black truffle, walnut, almond and sesame. The owners see the tasting room, which opens Friday, Oct. 5, as adding a new dimension to the town's attractions, culinary and cultural.
"Eureka Springs is all about unique things to do," Johnson said.
The store, at 512 Village Circle in Pine Mountain Village, will be open Tuesday through Sunday.