Jackson Family Wines — owner of Kendall-Jackson, La Crema, Freemark Abbey and other wineries — just announced it harvested 17 of the prized fungi in the hazelnut and white oak orchard it planted and inoculated with Tuber melanosporum (Périgord truffle) spores in 2011 outside Santa Rosa, beating out similar efforts in Napa Valley. The harvest took place several weeks ago, and though the pioneering truffles themselves have disappeared in a cloud of risotto and Pinot Noir, it was the first successful harvest among several orchards betting on Wine Country as the world's next great truffle-growing region.
"We're getting ready. We're going to hit it big," said Fran Angerer of Alexander Valley Truffle Co., whose family has a truffle dog named Tuber and a truffle orchard in Geyserville that could be ready for a harvest next winter. "It's going to hit, and when it hits, it's going to change the truffle world. We are a big market here in the Bay Area, because we have so many restaurants."
"For the amount of orchards we have right here, we won't have to go any farther than Monterey to get rid of 'em," he said. "Bay Area restaurants are gonna love having truffles that were in the ground this morning and on the plate this evening."
While truffle orchards in Napa Valley, such as one Robert Sinskey Vineyards planted in 2010, have yet to report any tuber discoveries, that doesn't necessarily mean Sonoma is better suited to truffle growing than Napa, said Charles Lefevre of New World Truffieres in Eugene, Ore. Lefevre sold the inoculated seedlings to Jackson Family Wines and dozens of others in Wine Country, and as many as 100 orchards in the state, most of which are new and have yet to produce a harvest.
"We've been working on the orchard quite a few years now," said Brian Malone, orchard and vineyard manager at Jackson Family Wines, who thinks the rainy winter could have something to do with the truffles' debut. "I was just really excited to find one, let alone 17."
It typically takes five to eight years for truffles to grow, and truffle cultivation is still new to North America. There are a few successful farms in Tennessee, as well as British Columbia, Idaho and Oregon, and there have been scattered harvests in other parts of California. Wine Country's climatic similarities with truffles' native homes, such as France's Périgord region, could make it a prime destination.
"Napa and Sonoma have good climates for cultivation of European truffles," said Lefevre, pointing out that the cooler Sonoma Coast is better suited for Burgundy truffles (Tuber uncinatum) and the inland better for the black Périgord truffles grown so far in Wine Country orchards. In addition to Angerer's orchard, there is another near Jackson Family Wines' orchard that Lefevre expects to be successful soon, while many others that have been planted and then abandoned over the years would need work to produce anything.
"I think the reason Jackson Valley Wines succeeded where others have not is because they took it very seriously from the very beginning," said Lefevre, who said that a truffle orchard needs to be maintained with careful pest management, irrigation and weed control. "Jackson Family Wines approached it as an agricultural enterprise from the beginning. To produce in six years is right on schedule."
The winery worked with Umami Truffle Dogs, another Oregon outfit, to locate the truffles, whose inimitable earthy flavors accentuate gourmet cooking.
"You're walking around the orchard and you're trying to find the truffles. The dog points to it. And you stick your face down and you can actually smell the truffle coming up through the ground," said Malone. Then he used his hands to gently feel around in the loamy soil to find and carefully excavate each truffle.
"It reminded me of being a little kid playing in the mud," he said.
Angerer, who plans to organize Sonoma and Napa truffle growers into an association, said the industry has grown rapidly. A few years ago, there weren't any truffle dogs on the West Coast, for example. On Friday, truffle experts from Barcelona visited his Geyserville orchard to take soil samples and test them for their level of Tuber melanosporum spores, a sign of imminent production.
But because truffle harvest typically falls between December and February, Angerer and other truffieres will have to wait many months for further activity.
"Waiting for truffles is like watching — well, they're slower than grass," Angerer said.
Tara Duggan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @taraduggan
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