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From best-selling chardonnay to top truffle: Kendall-Jackson dives into production of the culinary complement

What August through October is to the wine industry, December to March is to the truffle harvest.

Hot commodities among leading chefs in San Francisco and throughout the area, truffles can be on patrons' dishes within a day of being picked or discovered by truffle dogs at a secret location in Sonoma County.

“Truffle farming is a young business for all of us,” Tucker Taylor, Kendall-Jackson's master culinary gardener, said. “We're part of a new world of truffleurs who are just at the beginning stages of what will become a new industry. It took about six years after our tree saplings were planted to see results, and then only a swath of trees through the property showed initial yields. We took samples around productive trees to see if conditions there could be replicated. While this research continues, we are starting to harvest more truffles from among our more than 3,000 oak and hazelnut trees in our orchard.”

Taylor, who oversees Kendall Jackson's 4-acre culinary garden and wine estate at 5007 Fulton Road, plus its secret truffle orchard, grew up near Jacksonville, Florida, helping his father tend their garden each summer. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration with a focus on finance from the University of Florida. While there, he worked as a prep cook at a campus restaurant called Café Gardens, where he convinced the owners to give him a small stipend to purchase some plants and help clean up the landscape. This led to the restaurant receiving the prized City Beautification Award.

After graduating, Taylor worked at a bank, but realized he would rather be outside gardening. He returned to the university and earned a second degree in agriculture with a focus on environmental horticulture, combining art a science. He moved to Portland where he designed and managed his first organic farm.

His next career move was to Athens, Georgia, where he managed the production of specialty produce on another organic farm before moving back to the West Coast to take a job as a grower for Thomas Keller's The French Laundry in Napa Valley. He spent five years there redesigning the gardens as an extension of the restaurant. All of these experiences helped to shape Taylor's understanding of how to grow domestic and exotic vegetables that now includes truffle farming.

In 2013, he seized the opportunity to join Kendall-Jackson and redesign its culinary gardens. He also manages the company's black truffle program in Sonoma County at a secret location where a 10-acre orchard was planted with oak and hazelnut trees by visionary Jess Jackson in 2011.

SECRET LOCATION

Truffles from this orchard were harvested for the first time in 2017, making Kendall-Jackson the first to grow truffles in Sonoma County. Today the company is the largest producer of the black truffle, also called tuber melanosporum ­- a species of truffle originally named for the Périgord region in France.

Taylor said soil has to be specially treated with lime to provide higher acidity (pH), and tile drains were placed underground so water could run off. In 2017-2018, 17 small truffles were harvested about the size of a walnut or golf ball – as well as one that weighed 13 ounces and big as a softball. Some 30 pounds were harvested in 2019 and 35 pounds so far in 2020, with only a few weeks left in the season. If it rains, this year's harvest is expected to increase.

The market price for black truffles is approximately $800 per pound, a figure that can vary based on quality, the time of year and the quantities of truffles arriving in the U.S. from overseas.

Treated saplings to plant Kendall-Jackson's truffle orchard were obtained from Dr. Charles Lefevre, president and founder of New World Truffleres Inc. (www.truffletree.com), a company specializing in truffle cultivation and the controlled inoculation of oak and hazelnut seedlings with a range of culinary truffle species.

We're growing truffles without using compost that could introduce undesirable fungus spores. Tucker Taylor, Kendall-Jackson's master culinary gardener

To produce truffles, English white oak and hazelnut tree seedlings are grown in inert soil and pulled up by the roots and washed. Roots are bathed in a solution of hydrogen peroxide to kill bacteria and other types of fungi, and then dipped in a mixture of sugar and black truffle spores before being replanted. Trees are spaced six feet apart and multiple trucks are thinned to six so truffle dogs and people can get close to roots. The orchard is irrigated about every 15 days and no pesticides are used. These trees enjoy sunlight in the morning and shade in the afternoon.

Over a six-year waiting period, spores multiple on the roots and form an underground network of fungal filaments (called mycelium as part of a mycorrhizal network) that also produces a tell-tale 6-foot-diameter brown circle on the surface around a tree referred to as a brulee. This circle tells gardeners that conditions are right and black truffles should be present.

“We're growing truffles without using compost that could introduce undesirable fungus spores,” Taylor said. “We're also in the process of sourcing a couple of Logato Romagnolo truffle dogs to own and train. For now, we work with friends and outfitters who have these special canines who point to, sniff and start to dig truffles growing up to eight inches under a brulee. We know they found one when we see them get excited and start pawing the ground.”

He said these dogs take their name from a region of Italy where they were used as duck hunting waterfowl retrievers in a swampy area. When the swamps were drained to provide more farmland, dogs had to be retrained for truffle hunts by giving them a treat each time they find one. Truffle oil is also placed on a female dog so pups can get used to the taste while nursing.

FAMOUS CHEFS

I meet regularly with several chefs I grow produce for who say the buzz these days is all about being able to obtain locally grown black truffles that don't have to be shipped here from faraway places such as Europe. Tucker Taylor

Truffles from Kendall-Jackson's orchard are grown for several Michelin-star chefs - at Saison, Birdsong and Che Fico in San Francisco, and one in Healdsburg - as well as for other chefs at more than two dozen restaurants.

Truffles are being farmed in Western states such as Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California (Nevada City and Placerville). In the North Bay, the list includes San Rafael, St. Helena, Windsor and surrounding areas.

In addition to truffles, more than 30 salad mix ingredients, including mini-lettuce and other greens with leaves less than half an inch wide, are grown in the culinary garden's greenhouse, along with miniature dime-size radishes and other produce that is cleaned, packed in bags or jars ready for delivery. The salad mix sells for $25 per jar and radishes for 25 cents each in 100 lot quantities.

“I meet regularly with several chefs I grow produce for who say the buzz these days is all about being able to obtain locally grown black truffles that don't have to be shipped here from faraway places such as Europe. If we harvest on Wednesday, we drive our truffles and a variety of micro- and mini-vegetables to these restaurants on Thursday morning.”

Kendall-Jackson's culinary team, led by executive chef Justin Wangler and chef du cuisine Tracey Shepos Cenami, uses many of the black truffles for various wine events and estate dinners, allowing guests to celebrate their unique flavor profiles with the company's wine and food pairing experiences.

In December 2019, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens was named as one of the “Top 100 Restaurants in America,” by Open Table, and its chefs are often participants and winners on many of the Food Network's cooking competitions, such as Guy's Grocery Games and Holiday Wars. Last year, its truffles were featured in the “Season Cookbook."

Tucker Taylor is also a consultant to chefs and is considered to be a brand ambassador for Jackson Family Wines and Kendall-Jackson's culinary gardens. “I'm thankful that the Jackson family provides me with the space to do what I love to do and to share the results with others.”

Looking ahead, he said he has been talking with his team about conducting “super-high-end” truffle orchard tours to take adults on what he called “a grownup-style Easter egg hunt” accompanied by truffle dogs and perhaps followed by a dinner to sample them.

There are approximately 200 truffle plantations in the U.S., according to the North American Truffle Growers Association (trufflegrowers.com), ranging in size from a few trees to over 12,000 in one orchard. The nonprofit trade group will hold its annual fall conference in Santa Rosa at the Flamingo Hotel, Oct. 4-7.

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