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While it seems like everyone on Instagram (myself included) flocks to the nearest apple orchard the minute the leaves change colors, there's another dreamy autumnal treat worthy of our attention. When it comes to this other kind of orchard—the truffle kind—it’s what’s underneath them that matters most, and Sonoma County, California, is home to a lot of them.
Arguably the most sought-after fungus in the world, Périgord black truffles make a brief appearance in late fall to early winter, and are otherwise pretty hard to come by, driving the price per pound well into the hundreds—sometimes in the $800 to $900 range.
Native to Southern Europe, the tubers have only recently taken root in the U.S., and are grown in farms in Oregon, North Carolina, Washington, and California. In Sonoma County, the mild climate and rich soil that's ideal for grapes is also great for truffles.
Back in February, a lifetime ago, I took what turned out to be my last flight for the foreseeable future, flying from New York to Sonoma to meet Leo and Tuber, the specially-trained Lagotto Romagnolo hunting dogs who would be doing most of the dirty work, searching for ripe truffles at winemaker Kendall-Jackson’s ten-acre orchard. (In the months since I visited, wildfires have devastated much of the surrounding area. For more information on how to help Sonoma County, here are some resources for donating and volunteering.)
Founded by the late Jess Jackson in 1982, Kendall-Jackson is a family-owned winery based in Sonoma. While they may be most well-known for making a popular Chardonnay, the winery also boasts extensive culinary gardens, cultivated by Tucker Taylor.
The idea of truffle hunting might conjure up images of sniffing pigs, it's actually much more practical to use dogs, specifically the Italian Lagotto Romagnolo breed, known for its excellent nose. They’re easier to train and, therefore, less likely to devour the delicacy they’ve just found.
Jackson’s dream of creating a thriving truffle orchard on the family’s property became a reality in 2017, making the winery a pioneer in successfully growing and harvesting truffles in Sonoma County. Last year, they totaled over 30 pounds of Périgords, significant both in its market value and usefulness to nearby Bay Area restaurants. Truffles begin to decay the moment they’re pulled from the ground, so freshness and proximity are incredibly important.
Truffles sourced stateside present significant advantages over those flown in from Italy or France. European truffles might be a week old by the time they reach restaurants, while in California, your truffle may have been dug up just a few hours ago.
A portion of the winery's truffle harvest goes to the on-site culinary team, led by chef Justin Wangler, where the truffles' pungent, musky aroma and flavor is celebrated at the property’s various wine events and estate dinners.
As I write this from my apartment during what feels like the one thousandth month of the pandemic, cutting a few sprigs of basil from my windowsill for pasta, I'll dream of foraging with Leo and Tuber.