Are Truffles an Alternative to Grapes?

North American winegrape growers hope pricey fungi will complement their crops

by Paul Franson
truffle tree Robert Sinskey
Truffle-inoculated hazelnut and live oak saplings were planted last month at Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Carneros; if successful, their truffle production could be more profitable than winegrapes. Photo: Paul Franson

Napa, Calif.—Looking for a complementary alternative crop to winegrapes, some North American grapegrowers are following the lead of their European colleagues and planting trees that they hope will eventually encourage truffles to grow.

Last week, the Napa Truffle Festival, which appears patterned after the Oregon Truffle Festival, came to the heart of wine country to promote the process. The promotion by American Truffle Co. was woven into a celebration of truffle consumption aimed at well-heeled gourmets. The event was hosted at Napa’s Westin Verasa Hotel, home of La Toque restaurant; chef Ken Frank is a famous truffle-phile.

Robert Chang of American Truffle Co. and his colleagues presented seminars on the history and science of truffles, their cultivation and their marketing. Among the attractions was a visit to Robert Sinskey Vineyard’s property in Carneros, where a month-old truffle orchard has been planted using saplings inoculated by Chang’s company. Sinskey now has 560 trees on 1.25 acres.

Another company, New World Truffieres, has already provided saplings for orchards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo counties. One of the oldest is in Templeton, where vintner Larry Turley planted five acres of trees in naturally alkaline limestone soil in 2004.

Mendocino was first
Dr. Charles Lefevre of New World Truffieres, who has a Ph.D. in forest mycology, says that the first U.S. truffle cultivation was an orchard planted in remote Mendocino County in 1982. It produced truffles commercially until abandoned after its owners’ deaths.

Lafevre says that about a dozen truffle orchards in the U.S. are producing commercially, one in the Sierra Foothills near Placerville. He estimates that his customers, many of whom are vintners or grapegrowers, have planted 30 acres of truffle orchards in Sonoma, almost as many in Mendocino County and 10 acres in Napa. Jess Jackson’s Jackson Family Farms is planting the first of what will be 60 acres of orchards in Sonoma County next year.

Two types of trees are used for the truffle cultivation: live oaks and hazelnuts (filberts). The filberts can produce truffles in six or seven years and have a shorter life, while the oaks take 10 years but live a long time.

Turley hasn’t seen any truffles yet but will visit the site with Lefevre, who supplied and planted the trees and a truffle dog, in January to see if any have developed yet.

As with mushrooms, we eat the “fruit” of the fungi, not the plant itself. Three types of truffles are commonly eaten in Europe: the famed black Périgord winter truffle (Tuber melanosporum) and the lesser summer or Burgundy variety (Tuber aestivum) are cultivated in France. Dr. Paul Thomas of American Truffle says 90% of truffles consumed in France are cultivated, not harvested in the wild.

Lefevre says that growers in Spain have harvested 20 to 50 pounds of truffles per acre.

The elusive white or Alba truffle of Italy (Tuber magnatum) has resisted cultivation and is worth 10 times as much as the Périgord truffle, itself exceptionally valuable.

$1,000 per pound

truffles wine
Truffles are an exceptionally valuable crop. Lafevre cites a study he helped conduct that forecast a price of $1,000 per pound wholesale for local truffles (they deteriorate rapidly, making local sources ideal) and average yields of 35 pounds per acre, or $35,000 per acre. The study is available here. Oregon forests harbor native truffles, but they aren’t highly regarded in general.

American Truffle’s Chang says truffles can be 7 to 10 times as profitable as growing grapes on average. He estimates the investment in an acre of Chardonnay grapes at $23,000 (excluding land costs) and of truffles at $30,000, but says it takes 9-10 years to recover the cost of planting the grapes vs. 6-7 years for truffles.

After that, he estimates the profit from truffles in full production at $36,000 per year vs. $3,600-$5,000 for Chardonnay grapes. Over 25 years, that would be $57,000 per acre for the grapes, $650,000 for truffles.

Truffles require an alkaline soil, so most California properties require treatment with lime to get to 7.6-8 pH; that change in acid balance can also discourage undesirable fungi.

It’s very difficult to inoculate existing trees, and both suppliers sell trees inoculated with truffle spores, each using a proprietary process. New World Truffieres charges $20 to $22 per tree and also offers consulting services. Lefevre recommends 200 trees per acre.
truffles wine
Chang recommends 400 trees per acre and charges $20 to $40 per sapling—and a percentage of the eventual revenue. He won’t specify what the royalty is, but others say it is 30%.

After planting, truffle orchards require minimal attention, although the same insect and animal pests that eat grapes and vines like truffles, too. And the conditions desirable for truffles unfortunately discourage good hazelnuts.

Pigs or dogs
As is well known, female pigs can find truffles, because the fungi smell like male pigs, but the swine are big, relatively unmanageable and like to eat the truffles. Dogs can be trained to find the truffles and not eat them, so they’re generally preferred for searching. The Italian Lagotto-Romagnolo is the traditional pup of choice.

Lefevere says that there’s a shortage of truffle dogs, so he will lead training sessions at the upcoming Oregon Truffle Festival. The sixth Oregon Truffle Festival will be held Jan. 28-31 in Eugene.

Production is dropping in France despite continued planting, while worldwide demand for truffles is rising.

The truffle growing business in America is clearly in its infancy. It appears to have enormous potential—but success remains unproven. Time will tell whether today's pioneer truffle growers end up with fists full of fungi worth almost their weight in gold.
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