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Dogs Trained To Sniff Out Truffles In Napa Valley

NAPA COUNTY (KPIX 5) – You've seen dogs trained for search and rescue and others for for sniffing out narcotics. Now some Bay Area dogs are learning to dig up what chefs call the "black diamond," better known as truffles.

Robert Sinskey's dogs are learning to hunt for buried culinary treasure. "It's magical, especially with a nice aged pinot noir," Sinskey told KPIX 5.

Sinskey is the first of several Napa Valley winemakers to start a truffle orchard. He had hundreds of oak and filbert trees inoculated with black truffle spores almost five years ago in his Carneros vineyard. They could finally ripen this fall.

He's getting Paolo and Phoenix trained, to sniff out the harvest. "They're not so interested in eating a truffle as getting a reward from finding the truffle," Sinskey said.

Trainer Staci O'Toole works with the Washington-based Truffle Dog Company. She said it can take dogs weeks, even months, to hunt for the elegant, aromatic ingredient.

"Some of the truffles can be 4-6 inches below the ground," O'Toole said.

Paolo and Phoenix are Portuguese water dogs, but apparently, any dog can be trained as truffle dogs. "Any dog that has a drive, a hunt drive or an interest in pleasing," O'Toole told KPIX 5.

Renowned Napa truffle chef Ken Frank has high hopes for the dogs, and the delicacy. He imports the prized fungus from Europe and Australia for about $800 a pound.

The chef would rather sprinkle locally-grown truffles on his artichoke soup with foie gras. "To be able to get truffles the same day fresh the way they do in northern Italy, from Carneros, 10 minutes away, it's really a game changer for us," Frank said.

He believes Napa Valley could become a new truffle capital.

So far, experienced truffle dogs indicate they're picking up the scent of immature truffles, giving Sinskey hope that culinary gold may be right under his dogs' noses.

"My buddies can get out there, and actually earn their keep for once," Sinskey said.

Truffle hunting is a job traditionally left to pigs. While pigs like to eat the truffles as well, it's not an issue with the dogs.

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