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Tim Talk: Growing truffles in Livermore

Black truffles. (Stock photo)

While reporting for my recent cover story on the Livermore Valley wine industry, I came across a notable new use for wine country land.

Mark and Maria Triska have owned a 14-acre vineyard and home on Crane Ridge that the Wente family developed in the 1990s. As my story reported, Triska’s vineyards, like many others planted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are nearing the end of their productive life. In 2016, Triska said that they no longer had a contract with a winery to purchase their merlot crop.

Maria was doing some research on alternatives and growing truffles came to the fore. The American Truffle Co., based in Napa, was looking for partners to plant additional orchards to grow truffles. The company takes 30% in its partnership and provides the trees, inoculated with truffle spores in their roots.

The Triskas decided to move ahead on a 4-acre parcel that is separated from the rest of their vineyard by a seasonal creek. They planted 600 hazel nut trees and 300 oak trees 5 ½ years ago. The truffle orchard, which looks just like a fruit orchard with trees in rows with weed block between them. They’re farmed organically with no pesticides or herbicides. Space between the rows is mowed and trees, irrigated by micro-sprinklers, are hand-weeded.

Last winter, they brought in specialized truffle dogs to check for the fungus that grows under-ground. There was nothing to harvest, something that they hope will be different when they check again this winter.

Because of the truffle orchard, the only one in the East Bay, they will have a major shift in their family. They’ve been cat people Mark said, but they will be getting a Lagotto Romagnolo, the special breed of dog that are trained to sniff for the underground fungi.

Winter truffles sell for between $1,000-2,000 per pound so they’re hoping they will have a productive patch.

Editor's note: "Tim Talk" is a blog written by Tim Hunt, a native of Alameda County. Hunt spent 39 years in the daily newspaper business and wrote a column for more than 25 years in addition to writing editorials for more than 15 years. 

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