Truffle Growers Cultivate Patience While Waiting to Strike Black Gold

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: March 7, 2022

Karen and Jim Passafaro planted their truffle orchard in 2014 on family property in northeast Santa Rosa. For eight years, they’ve diligently limed the ground, planted, pruned, irrigated and weeded while fending off menacing gophers.

They are still waiting for their first truffle. Welcome to Truffledom.

But like others on this magnificent quest, the Passafaros are captivated by the allure and mystery of growing the famously flavorful fungi, perhaps best described as an underground mushroom. Many consider truffles a taste of heaven when a few slivers are shaved onto pasta, an omelet or anything else on a dinner plate.

The Passafaros, retired engineers who worked in the Silicon Valley’s medical technology industry, are optimistic the day will come – hopefully soon – when their truffle hunting dog Alba discovers one of the precious black winter truffles on the roots of the oak and hazelnut trees in their carefully tended orchard. Fingers are crossed that 2022 will be the Year of the Truffle for the Passafaros and their sons, David, 29, and Vinny, 27, who are poised to carry on as truffle farmers.

The truffle season runs from November through March so the Passafaros have a few weeks left to strike black gold on land that has been in Karen’s family since the 1930’s.

“Patience,” Karen said when asked what it takes to be a truffle grower. Karen has become fully emersed in the world of truffles and is president of the North American Truffle Growers Association, which has members throughout the United States and Canada. The Association, which held a Truffle Congress last fall in Sonoma County, shares information on all things truffle while promoting truffles as an exciting and emerging new farming industry.

Fran Angerer, who has truffle orchards in Geyserville and Healdsburg, found his first truffle last November – nine years and eight months after planting his orchard and investing thousands of dollars while waiting, wondering and worrying for nearly a decade. The discovery came after Angerer’s son Seth made a routine walk through the family’s Geyserville hazelnut orchards with Leo the truffle dog, one of the Lagotto Romagnolo dogs the Angerer family has trained to find truffles. The Passafaros’ dog Alba also is a Lagatto Romagnolo, an ancient breed that has been sniffing out truffles for centuries in Italy.

Seth and Leo’s discovery of the 5.03-ounce black melanosporum, or Perigord truffle that can command $95 an ounce was cause for a grand celebration and, perhaps, an affirmation that Angerer was not completely crazy when, in planning his retirement years, he set his sights on becoming a truffle farmer in Sonoma County.

Still, said Angerer, who is an eyes-wide-open realist, truffle growing is not a farming venture for the weak of heart or those without plenty of mental and financial fortitude. Anxieties can run high after planting the trees inoculated with the truffle spores and then waiting eight to 10 years, maybe more – or never – for a truffle to emerge underground. It’s estimated that it costs $15,000 to $20,000 – or more – an acre, not counting the price of the land, to establish a truffle orchard.

“Truffle growing is not a get-rich-quick venture and, in fact, there are no guarantees that you will ever get rich or ever get a truffle,” said Angerer, 74, owner of Angerer Family Farm and Alexander Valley Truffle Co.  He retired from a career in marketing and now oversees the truffle orchards with his sons, Seth and Nathan. Truffle cultivation is definitely a generational farming enterprise.

The discovery of the truffle provided Angerer and his family with what he calls the “truffle experience,” the joy and jubilation of finding one of the mysterious underground mushrooms after years of waiting.

The Passafaro and Angerer families, members of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, are among the dozen or more truffle growers in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties. Kendall-Jackson Winery, based in Santa Rosa and also a longtime member and supporter of Farm Bureau, was the first to plant and harvest truffles in the region and is now believed to be producing more black truffles than anyone else in California. The estate truffles are used in the culinary dishes created by Kendall-Jackson chefs and sold to other top end restaurants.

Kendall-Jackson’s 10-acre truffle orchard, planted on one of wine company’s vineyard properties in Santa Rosa, harvested its first truffle in 2017. The truffle orchard is under the care and watchful eye of Tucker Taylor, Kendall-Jackson’s master culinary gardener who oversees the spectacular vegetable gardens at the KJ Wine Center near Fulton.

North Coast truffle growers nurture some 15,000 trees with most of the trees, primarily hazelnut and oak, sourced from Dr. Charles Lefevre, who has a PhD in forest mycology from Oregon State University and is the founder of New World Truffieres, an Oregon company that specializes in truffle tree inoculation.

Ttruffle growing is not just a Wine Country venture. Countries such as Australia, China, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa are attempting to grow truffles too, with some countries like Australia more successful at it than others.  Outside of the North Coast, there are thriving truffle farms in Central and Southern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland, Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia.

But, Angerer for one, believes Sonoma County should and will become the epicenter for truffle growing given its reputation as a premier wine and food region and its storied truffle history tracing back to Henry Trione, the late financier and philanthropist who was a truffle aficionado.

It was in the 1970’s when Trione, a man who enjoyed both power and adventure, sparked a truffle revolution in Sonoma County – and beyond – when he staged the first ever California Truffle Congress in Santa Rosa, garnering international media attention. Trione, the son of Italian immigrants who had savored truffles shipped to the family by relatives in Italy, wondered if truffles similar to those found in Europe might also be growing in some form beneath the native oaks in Northern California where he had many holdings.

Trione’s magnificent obsession launched a well-publicized search, complete with Italian truffle hunting dogs, to determine if the North Coast could have its own tasty version of the truffles the courtly power-broker loved. But, alas, while truffles do, in fact, hide in the hills of Sonoma County they are not of high-quality, barely edible inferior cousins of the aristocratic European truffles that have been treasured by epicureans for centuries. Trione’s search quashed hopes for a truffle culture like that of Italy, France and Spain but sparked an interest in cultivated truffle farming here for growers like the Passafaros, Angerer, the Jackson Family and others.

Karen Passafaro said the Trione truffle tale was the reason the North American Truffle Growers Association held its annual meeting in Santa Rosa last fall. Growers wanted to hear the story of the 1970’s mycological adventure by the Santa Rosa financial titan who opened windows into the truffle world and sparked an interest in cultivating them. Fran Angerer was among them.

Following a long-held dream, Angerer planted his first hazelnut orchard inoculated with the Tuber melanosporum, the black winter truffle, on land in Geyserville in the Alexander Valley. Even before he found his first truffle on that property, Angerer later bought the Healdsburg ranch that once belonged to the late Dr. Charles Campbell, a Healdsburg veterinarian, and his wife Ruth. The Campbells had three children, Susie, Linda and Bruce, the well-known “Campbell Kids,” who in the 60’s and 70’s raised prized sheep and other blue-ribbon livestock for fairs throughout the West Coast.

Angerer tore out some of the vineyards that Bruce Campbell had developed on the family sheep ranch and planted his second truffle orchard using English oak and stone pine trees inoculated with Tuber borchii, the fungus that creates the Bianchetto, a white truffle.

The Passafaros and Angerer hope to see more Sonoma County landowners plant truffle orchards so that a thriving truffle culture, much like the wine industry, can further enhance the county’s reputation as a Food and Wine Eden on par with Provence and Tuscany. It also would write the next chapter in the agricultural history of Sonoma County where a parade of crops, from hops to prunes, milk to eggs, have kept land in agriculture and farmers on the land.

Angerer’s vision is that wineries and grape growers will plant hazelnut trees inoculated with truffle spores along driveways and vineyard perimeters, producing both truffles and hazelnuts, another cash crop. He said the hazelnut trees could replace the olive trees that are now commonly planted but often problematic because of pests and the high cost of pressing the olives into oil.

Truffle growers don’t seem worried that more and more producers will drive down prices for the cultivated truffles. Their attitude is the more the merrier because it will make truffles more mainstream and available to average consumers.

“When it comes to truffles, the sky is the limit. There just aren’t enough truffles being produced to meet the huge demand,” said Jim Passafaro, as he and Karen patiently await their first truffle payday.

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