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Could this year be the year that California’s Wine Country produces its first cultivated black truffle?

That was the burning question on everyone’s mind at the 6th annual Napa Truffle Festival in mid-January, when truffle lovers gathered in the Napa Valley for a long weekend of scientific workshops and culinary adventures hosted by the American Truffle Company (ATC).

“Where are the truffles?,” asked one of the festival-goers gathered at well-known vintner Robert Sinskey’s vineyard in the Carneros region for an orchard tour and truffle dog demonstration.

The anticipation was fueled by an article published in September by Forbes, speculating that the annual festival may soon celebrate the discovery of the first truffle growing underground at Sinskey’s orchard in southern Sonoma.

The 5-year-old orchard at Scintilla Vineyard was the first winery property in California to join the American Truffle Company’s grower-partnership program. Since then, other local vintners and growers have joined the effort, including Peju Province Winery in Rutherford.

This year, Sinskey’s oak and hazelnut orchard has reached the pivotal point of 5 to 7 years, when orchards are expected to start to produce truffles. Dogs trained to sniff out the aromatic truffles had reportedly started to sense activity in the orchard’s underground mycelium, the part of the fungus that consists of branching, thread-like hyphae.

As for that rhetorical question – Where are the truffles? – Sinskey replied optimistically, “Any day now.”

During the orchard tour, the truffle dogs were asked to demonstrate their olfactory prowess by rooting out tiny vials of truffle oil, made from the black, Périgord winter truffles that are generally harvested from late December through March. (The orchard also includes trees inoculated with the Burgundy black summer truffles, which are harvested from September through December.)

So what’s the big deal about these aromatic truffles, famously described by French gourmet Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin as “the diamond of the kitchen?”

The lumpy, fruiting bodies of the subterranean fungi are so costly and extravagant that only the top tier of restaurant chefs in the U.S. can afford to use them, and because they are so rare, demand tends to outpace supply. The black Périgord truffle prices range from $800 to $1,200 a pound, while the Burgundy summer truffles range from 300-$400 a pound.

Truffles have been successfully cultivated in many parts of the world for more than 50 years, including France, Italy, Spain and Australia. The truffles at this year’s festival came from a trusted truffle purveyor from Italy, who also sourced a few Italian chefs.

So why not just continue to import truffles? The reason lies in the connection between freshness and flavor.

“Truffles have a half life of 4 to 5 days.” said Robert Chang of San Mateo, managing director of the ATC. “The aroma starts disintegrating, so after that, you’ve lost a third to a half of the aroma.”

If you’re eating an imported truffle, it’s probably at least four to six days after it’s been harvested, meaning it’s past its prime.

However, once one of the ACT’s grower partners in Wine Country starts to produce - and hope still springs eternal at the Sinskey property - Chang said he has a system in place to get the truffles to La Toque in downtown Napa in 20 minutes, or anywhere in the U.S. within 10 hours. That will preserve their bold but fleeting flavor.

“It’s so alluring for the chefs to have a local source,” Chang said. “And we can harvest almost on demand.”

Chang, who was educated as an electrical engineer, was working as a product manager and marketing executive in Germany when he tasted his first black, Périgord truffle, named after the southwest region of France where they grow so well.

“I got completely hooked,” he said. “It was a simple dish: tagliatelle with butter and shaved truffles on top.”

Chang immediately drew upon his MBA background and started brain-storming ideas for a farm-to-table start-up.

“This stuff is expensive and addictive,” he thought. “I wonder if you can grow it?”

So Chang decided to search the globe for a credible scientist who could help him launch his truffle business.

A flight to London and a couple of beers later, he found a business partner in Paul Thomas, a Scottish scientist who had done his doctoral dissertation on the long-distance signaling pathways within the plant kingdom, which are central to truffle cultivation.

Thomas had been researching European truffles since 2001, a fascination launched by his long-time interest in foraging for wild mushrooms. He agreed to sign on as Chang’s partner and chief scientist of the ATC, which now counts clients in 25 countries around the world.

Thomas and the ATC celebrated a big breakthrough in 2015, with the discovery of three truffles in a 6-year-old truffle orchard, now regarded as the first successful commercial farmed truffle orchard in the United Kingdom.

“I tested the trees and looked at the roots, then I started digging and struck an immature truffle,” he said. “In November, I went back and found three truffles from the same tree.”

After that, ATC also had a successful harvest at a truffle orchard in Macedonia, which was planted seven years ago.

During a Napa Truffle Festival luncheon held at Merryvale Vineyards in St. Helena, Thomas explained why he thinks the Napa-Sonoma region is ideally suited for truffle cultivation.

“We grow truffles all over the world, and they tend to follow wine regions,” he said. “The Mediterranean climate here is perfect, and they need seasonal drops in temperature.”

The process, like most farming, is complicated. First, Thomas tests the soil of a potential site and amends it with limestone to raise the alkalinity, if necessary. In dry climate zones like the North Bay, he also adds irrigation for year-round moisture.

Next, the trees are grown in a lab from seeds that have been inoculated with truffle spores. The seedlings are inoculated several more times during the first nine months. Then, the trees are planted at 12 months.

Production levels vary from orchard to orchard. But ideally, Thomas said, if a 2.5-acre orchard is planted with winter black truffles, it is expected to produce 30 to 50 truffles per acre. The summer truffle orchards are more densely planted, producing two or three times as much as the winter truffle orchards.

The reason why the truffle smells so good is because the fruiting body needs to be found – and hopefully, eaten – in order for the plant to reproduce. “That’s how the spores are dispersed,” Thomas said.

Female pigs are naturally adept at finding truffles, because the truffle has a compound, 5a-androstenol, that is also found in the sex pheromone of wild boars.

However, trained dogs are now preferred over pigs, since they do not insist on eating the pricey prize, and any fingers that may get in the way.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.