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.
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.
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.