For the past four years, between the months of December and March, Seth Angerer has walked through his family's orchard in Geyserville, Calif., hoping for a miracle. With his dogs Leo and Vito in tow, he walks the 8 acres, slowly making his way up and down the rows of hazelnut trees. It can take up to three hours to cover the entire farm.
With their tight curly coats and button noses, Leo and Vito look like big stuffed animals. But they're lagotto romagnolos, the only dogs bred specifically to do one thing: Hunt for truffles.
While Angerer walks, the dogs sniff the ground. Sometimes they pull him toward a fence where cats congregate, or toward a rabbit or some stray foliage. Many times the dogs paw the ground as though they've discovered the holy grail, only to have it turn out to be a gopher hole or something equally inconsequential. But on the Monday after Thanksgiving, about an hour before sunset, Leo caught the scent of something in the wind — and it wasn't a gopher.
The dog tugged Angerer about 100 feet, past seven rows of trees. He stopped and eagerly sniffed a patch of dirt surrounded by dried fallen leaves and brush at the base of one of the trees. Instead of aggressively digging into the ground, Leo pawed at the damp soil, a sign he'd found something promising. Angerer pulled Leo away and then knelt down to smell the dirt. He carefully dug his fingers into the ground and found the treasure he had been dreaming about for more than a decade.
Angerer, 38, had unearthed a black truffle (the Tuber melanosporum variety, also known as the Périgord truffle, named after a region in France where they grow), and he believes it's the first of its kind to be found in the small Sonoma County town of Geyserville. Weighing 5.2 ounces, the jet-black, misshapen blob, etched with intricate grooves, looked otherworldly. But the Périgord truffle is very much of this Earth, one of the most prized varieties that frequently sells at prices that range from $800 to more than $1,000 a pound.
"I didn't know who to call first," Angerer said. "I still had the dog in my hands and I was shaking and trying to dial with my dirty fingers."
Angerer decided to call his brother Nathan Angerer, 42, who was elsewhere on the property.
"The adrenaline was just … ," Nathan said. It had been more than a week since the discovery and the excitement in his voice was still palpable. "We've been waiting for such a long time."
It was Nathan and his father, Fran Angerer, who started dreaming about truffles more than a decade ago. They work in electrical engineering; Seth is in the entertainment industry. Nathan and Fran, 74, both happened to read the same article in a weekly publication about a Northern Californian who'd successfully grown black truffles, and the family decided to try their hand at cultivating them. The Angerers kept their day jobs but they bought an orchard, planted 1,500 trees inoculated with Tuber melanosporum truffle spores, and formed the Alexander Valley Truffle Company.
Truffles are a type of subterranean fungus typically found among the roots of specific varieties of trees, including oak, hazelnut, beech, fir, pine and poplar. Their genus, or principal taxonomic category, is Tuber. Some historians believe the prized fungi date back to the Neo-Sumerians and the Babylonians of antiquity. They were a fixture on the tables of Greek and Roman rulers.
Today, despite an ongoing pandemic and a struggling restaurant industry, truffles are still a valuable commodity. Prized for their musky, potent, singular flavor and aroma, a couple of shavings on a bowl of pasta or a plate of scrambled eggs can envelop the dish in an earthy embrace of pure luxury. Chefs can charge upward of $50 to dust a single plate with fresh truffles.
According to a report from the market research firm Tech Navio, the U.S. truffle market is expected to increase by $235.23 million from 2020 to 2025 — but truffle farming is rife with uncertainty. There's an initial investment in the land and trees, and the upkeep of an orchard is time-consuming and can be costly. What's more, truffles don't typically surface, if they surface at all, until five or more years after the trees are planted, and their shelf life is typically short (five to seven days).
For years, the worldwide truffle market has been limited primarily to southern Europe, specifically France, Italy and Spain. But 30-plus years ago California joined their ranks. The first known truffle cultivated in North America was harvested at a truffle farm in Mendocino County in 1987, proving that truffles could indeed be grown outside of Europe.
Recently countries such as Australia, China, Chile, New Zealand and South Africa have started trying to produce their own. And there's a growing number of farms in the United States producing truffles, many of them located in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and North Carolina.
In 2019, three farms in Sonoma County produced a total of around 35 pounds of truffles, nowhere near the amount needed to satiate worldwide demand. But that has not diminished the Angerers' enthusiasm.
After conducting their own extensive research and committing to the project, the Angerers knew they were going to need some professional help. They contacted truffle consultant Charles Lefevre of New World Truffieres, an Oregon company that specializes in truffle cultivation.
Lefevre said truffle orchards tend to cost around $15,000 per acre of land to set up and the price can rise steeply depending on soil amendments, irrigation system, labor, etc. With a PhD in forest mycology from Oregon State University, Lefevre helped the Angerers consult with a soil scientist and offered guidance on the properties considered for the site of a potential orchard.
He also provided the Angerers with the hazelnut trees that grow on their farm. Starting with the seedlings, he inoculated the trees with Tuber melanosporum spores.
The Angerers planted the trees and bought a lagotto romagnolo named Tuber in 2014. In the next few years, they took trips abroad to learn about truffle cultivation in Europe. In the meantime, Tuber was bred with a lagotto romagnolo named Rico and produced a litter of seven puppies. The Angerers kept three of them, Vito, Bella and Luke.
Fran trained the dogs using "proprietary methods" that included drilling holes in wine corks, filling them with truffle oil and burying the corks in the dirt. Seth began walking the orchards with Leo and Vito several times a week.
Seven years into the operation, Nathan said, they started to lose hope. Nevertheless, in 2019, they planted another truffle orchard, this time in Healdsburg, Calif., with 200 English oak and 200 stone pine trees inoculated with Tuber borchii (, a variety that sells for around $1,500 and higher per pound.
This year, after countless walks and false alarms, all that waiting paid off.
The Angerers are hopeful that the orchard will continue to produce truffles. Finding one is an indication of the soil conditions being just right.
"The Angerers took it seriously from the beginning. They got the tools, got the site for the purpose of growing truffles, and they've done everything right from day one," Lefevre said.
Fran said he'd like to call that first truffle — the Périgord— a "Sonoma Winter Black" truffle.
"Ours are better because they are from California," he said. "I will refer to my product as 'grown in the U.S.A.'"