(This article was originally published in GEV Magazine Issue #7 March 2013)
I arrive at Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena at 11:45 on a sunny Sunday morning, excited about the prospect of sampling a series of dishes created with the diamonds of the kitchen: truffles. I am here for the third annual Napa Truffle Festival, which brings together leading truffle experts and scientists, celebrated chefs, and truffle enthusiasts from around the world for a weekend of workshops, winery tours, wild mushroom foraging, truffle tastings and gourmet feasts at various venues around Napa Valley.
Considered the most expensive food in the world, black truffles can sell for up to $1,700 a pound, while white truffles command up to $4,500 a pound. French black truffles and Italian white truffles are the most coveted, with Macau mogul Stanley Ho shelling out a whopping $330,000 for 2.87 pounds of rare Italian White Alba Truffle at an auction in 2010. Just a few shavings of this exquisite ingredient can set you back a few bills. Gourmet burgers topped with black truffles go for $60 to $600 in New York and Las Vegas restaurants. Needless to say, quality truffles are a rare treat for most of us.
I cross the immaculately groomed grounds to the historic Hudson House, where I am promptly greeted with a glass of crisp Sauvignon Blanc, and strike a conversation with Jerry Comfort, who happens to be in charge of Wine Education at Beringer, and Maria Finn, author of five books and contributor to Wine Spectator, Sunset and Saveur Magazines, just to name a few. Taking a sip of the refreshing white, my belly rumbles. Probably not a good idea to start drinking on an empty stomach.
Soon, our hostess shepherds us into the main ballroom, where Jerry welcomes the guests and introduces Robert Chang, Managing Director of American Truffle Company and this festival’s producer. I manage to snag a seat at the front row, with full view of the kitchen. The afternoon’s festivities include a cooking demo with Michelin Star Chef Nico Chessa, followed by a tour of the Beringer grounds, and finally… a four-course lunch featuring the fabulous fungi.
Nico Chessa, currently the Executive Chef at Valentino Restaurant in Santa Monica, is an ebullient man with a large personality and a thick Italian accent. Originally from Sardinia, Chef Nico traveled extensively throughout Italy in his early career, mastering traditional techniques and ingredients used in various regions, including a stint at The Il Ginepro Restaurant on the coast of Sardinia. He is assisted today by Maurine Sarjeant, Beringer’s Executive Chef, who is responsible for pairing each dish with a Beringer reserve wine. She cautions, “Wines with earthy scents will conflict with truffle, so we need to add salt or acid to the dish to make sure the pairing works.”
Today’s cooking demo involves black Perigord truffles. As Chef Nico proceeds with preparations, he proclaims “I think onions make love to the garlic and give birth to shallots!” I strain to understand his cooking instructions, resigning myself to taking detailed pictures instead. He continues, “Truffle is mostly water. The best marriage is with cream, butter, eggs or polenta.” The aroma of the black truffle is intoxicating, causing my mouth to salivate and stomach to complain. One more hour to lunch!
Next up, the winery tour. Along the way, I chat with Robert, a former Silicon Valley engineer with Stanford pedigree, and ask why he decided to get into the truffle business. “I’m a huge foodie, and I love mushrooms. The business just made sense.” He introduces me to his chief scientist, Dr. Paul Thomas, who looks more rocker than researcher. I take a few snapshots of the duo, and catch up with the rest of the guests for a peek inside the wine-aging tunnels.
Hand-hewn by Chinese immigrant workers into the hillside of Spring Mountain in the late 1870s, the tunnels provide the ideal conditions for storing wine, remaining steady at 58-60 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity of 75-80% year-round. Near the entrance rests a replica of “Maxiumus,” the world’s largest bottle of wine. In 2004, the original bottle — filled with the equivalent of 173 standard bottles or 1,200 glasses of Beringer 2001 Private Reserve Cabernet — was certified by the Guinness Book of World Records and sold at auction for $56,000.
As we approach the Rhine House, Jerry announces, “You need three things to make good wine: hot days, cold nights and bad dirt.” He proceeds to explain that Napa Valley’s unique combination of climate, topography, and diverse soil type make it an ideal wine growing region. We take a quick main level tour of the massive 17-room Victorian mansion that Frederick Beringer called home in 1884. I am awed by the color and complexity of the innumerable stained glass windows, and it is no surprise to learn they accounted for one-fourth of the total construction costs.
Soon, we are headed back to the Hudson House for the truffle lunch, and I finally get to sample the delicious dishes Chef Nico demonstrated earlier. I am seated with Stacey Chessa, wife of Chef Nico, Maria Finn, David Mahaffey of Olivia Brion Winery, along with Bill and Lynelle, parents of the famous truffle hunting dog, Rico. First up, Citrus Marinated Arctic Char with Black Truffle & Colatura Di Alici Pesto (a type of fermented fish sauce made with anchovies). The salmon-like char is drizzled with the berry-sweet juice of cara cara oranges and topped with healthy shavings of black truffle, and served with a beautifully balanced 2011 Beringer Private Reserve Chardonnay.
David regales us with the story of Miss Olivia Brion, his winery’s namesake, descendant of a great French wine family, and love interest of many historical figures, including Warren Harding, Charlie Chaplin, Paul Gauguin, and even Isadora Duncan. My eyebrow betrays my incredulity at the description of this femme fatale, and David chuckles, “In the words of Mark Twain: the truth should never get in the way of a good story.”
Our second course is a sumptuous Chick Pea Crespella with Forest Mushrooms and Black Truffle, served with the 2009 Beringer Private Reserve Cab, created with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet from seven different vineyards. The plat de resistance is the mouth-watering Kurobuta Pork Sausage with Truffle and Polenta, crowned with a Poached Egg. It is paired with a luscious 2005 Beringer “Bancroft Vineyard” Cabernet, with deep aromas of currant, earth and chocolate. The flavors and aromas are truly intense. Earthy musk. Blackberry jam. Well-worn leather. The forest after it rains. Heaven.
Finally, dessert arrives. A sampling of Almond & Truffle Chocolate Tortino with Elder Flower Ice Cream and Fresh Berries. Jerry announces the wine pairing – a 2007 Beringer Napa Valley “Nightingale.” It is a Sauterne style wine, a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc innoculated with laboratory created mold-spores simulating noble-rot. The perfect end to a perfect meal.
As we bid adieu to our hosts, Kathleen Iudice of American Truffle Company hands me a packet. I quickly peruse the pages and am delighted to discover there is a movement happening to make truffles more accessible to food lovers everywhere. Robert states, “Soon, chefs in North America will be able to get incredibly fresh black truffles from farm to kitchen in a matter of hours, instead of days.” With the help of Dr. Thomas, truffles will go from being foraged in forests to being farmed in orchards. You and I can then feast on this fabulous fungi without breaking the bank.