Truffle Hunt / Photo by William Pruyn / Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Garden
Walking through tightly planted rows of holly oaks just down the hill from his family’s Caelesta Vineyard, located just south of downtown Paso Robles, Brian Farrell, Jr. points to a piece of tape dangling from one of the trees. It’s the last sign that the first winter black truffles ever grown on California’s Central Coast were recently harvested from the dirt below.
“I honestly never thought it was going to work,” says Farrell, Jr., echoing the same doubts shared by most outside of the Old World who pursue this unique agricultural challenge. “So many people have tried and failed.”
Things are starting to change. Though Caelesta is the first truffière to harvest south of the Bay Area, there are promising signs that this coveted truffle species—Tuber melanosporum, known as Burgundy’s Périgord truffle—is finding a reliable home in the wine countries of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. The hope is to emulate Australia, where a roughly $40 million domestic truffle industry has become the world’s fourth largest after traditional truffle lands of France, Italy and Spain.
“I honestly never thought it was going to work. So many people have tried and failed.” —Brian Farrell, Jr., winemaker, Caelesta Vineyard
Though there are more than a dozen species of culinary truffles worldwide, from Pacific Northwest natives to the exalted white truffle from Piedmont, the winter black truffle best aligns commercial cultivation potential with high value, fetching as much as $1,000 a pound. They are tremendously expensive and challenging to grow, requiring the right climate, highly acidic soils, perfect moisture conditions, carefully inoculated oak or nut trees and constant monitoring. This, in addition to six to 10 years of patience from planting to inaugural discovery, which requires specially trained dogs.
And yet, small harvests are now being reported annually in California’s Sonoma and El Dorado counties, and there’s an ongoing attempt to resurrect America’s first black truffle farm in Mendocino County, where the fungus was unearthed in 1987. The state’s largest truffière was recently planted in Lake County, and there’s been steady progress in Oregon’s Willamette Valley since the first farmed truffle was found in 2013. There’s even an attempt underway in Walla Walla Valley, where growers hope to tap a new market by harvesting truffles earlier than anywhere else.
“California has been able to develop a wine industry with a high reputation throughout the world, including in France,” says truffle expert Pierre Sourzat, who was raised on a truffle farm in France and founded the Cahors-Le Montat truffle research and experimentation center more than 30 years ago. “I think it is also possible for truffles, as it has become the case in Australia.”
California’s commercial pioneer of winter black truffles is Jackson Family Wines, whose founder, Jess Jackson, planted about 10 acres of inoculated hazelnut and oak trees in 2011. He didn’t live long enough to see the first truffles harvested six years later, but they’ve become another rung in his legacy.
“The beautiful part of being a family-owned and -operated business is they’re constantly looking far ahead into the future,” says Tucker Taylor, who’s been farming the Jackson Family Wines culinary garden since 2013 and took over the truffle operation two years ago. The 2019 harvest brought 30 pounds, 2020 clocked in at 65 pounds, though difficult conditions lead to weaker yields in 2021.
Even harvesting the delicate fungi is a laborious and meticulous process that can run from November to March. Taylor is excited to do more of that himself this winter with the help of his six-month-old puppy, Tito—a Lagotto Romagnolo, the traditional truffle hunting breed from Italy. “It’s pretty amazing to watch the dogs work,” says Taylor. “I’ve watched a dog stop in its tracks, stick its head up in the air, walk three rows over, and find a truffle.”
Taylor is connected to a steadily expanding network of truffle growers and growers-to-be, and recently hosted members of the North American Truffle Growers Association conference, which brought together farmers from Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and beyond.
“This is relatively new, so the truffle growers that I’ve talked with have all agreed that there’s no one recipe,” says Taylor. “We have the basics from Italy and France and Spain and Australia, but it’s still somewhat mysterious.”
Taylor’s truffles go to some of the 30 Michelin-starred restaurants around San Francisco that also buy his farm’s other crops. Caelesta’s miniscule haul of four pounds was immediately delivered to wine country restaurants, including the nearby Six Test Kitchen and Bell’s in Los Alamos, both Michelin-starred establishments.
“California has been able to develop a wine industry with a high reputation throughout the world, including in France. I think it is also possible for truffles, as it has become the case in Australia.” —Pierre Sourzat, founder, Cahors-Le Montat Truffle Research Centre
Bell’s chef and co-owner Daisy Ryan was instantly enthused to learn of Central Coast truffles. “They’re super unique, hard to get and their season is fleeting—you gotta get some of that,” says Ryan, who prefers to incorporate the truffles into dishes like risotto and egg en croute rather than use shavings as a supplement. “When we first got them, just the aroma alone was really, really impressive.”
Most aspiring truffle farmers employ a consultant such as Pierre Sourzat, who’s helped Caelesta through their process. He was also a major reason that Australia succeeded in the 2000s, and today works with growers in Washington, North Carolina and Virginia. Even after dialing in the climate, soil and watering, he warns that the challenges don’t cease.
“You have to understand that the truffle is not just a fungus, which is symbiotic,” says Sourzat. “If one wants to obtain fruiting from the fungus, one must accept the idea that from a certain stage, the fungus becomes stronger than the tree. It partly becomes a parasite for its root system. It is this new balance that is difficult to find.”
The challenge is especially unique in the Walla Walla Valley of northern Oregon, where Travis Trumbull planted three acres of inoculated oaks in 2018. Based on the advice of an Australian consultant, he’s hoping that his truffière, located just north of The Rocks of Milton-Freewater appellation, will sprout truffles before Thanksgiving, which would allow them to hit the market months earlier than other growers.
“We’re trying to accelerate the symbiotic relationship of the soil,” says Trumbull of the “extremely tight” spacing of his trees. He’s been excited to already see the first hint of success, the formation between the trees of what’s called a brûlé. “You get this mat that appears to be a dead zone, but it’s where your soil is swingin’ from microbial dominant soil to fungal dominant soil,” says Trumbull. “It appears the brûlé is really starting to take off. We’re excited about that.”
Back at Caelesta, vineyard (and, now, truffière) consultant Kevin Wilkinson was even more amazed than the Farrell family that the project worked.
“I thought they were absolutely crazy,” he says, noting how difficult farming the 10-acre orchard is even compared to challenging vineyards. “It’s a big investment. I could see why people get to the 50-yard-line and just drop the ball and not do it. You really need to farm these things intensely. It’s just constant management.”
While points north get most attention, there’s likely a brighter truffle future for the Central Coast as well. There are rumors of plantings in the Santa Ynez Valley, and Michael Michaud, a pioneer of the Chalone appellation in Monterey County, is also planting a truffière this year. Another orchard was planted recently just a couple miles down the road from Caelesta.
The upside for those already harvesting truffles is that production is supposed to grow exponentially. From last season’s four pounds across all 10 acres, Caelesta may find as much as four pounds per acre this winter. “As long as we stay with it,” says Wilkinson, “the pound per truffière starts going up really aggressively.”
In the meantime, Farrell, Jr. is partnering with chefs to make truffle oil and butter from the nibs he can’t sell, creating wine club promotions to sell some of next winter’s harvest directly, and developing truffle hunting tours to further enhance the excitement and economics around this new crop.
“We’re right on track with the best-case scenario,” says Farrell, Jr. “I’m glad it’s ramping up at a pace where I can learn as I go.”