The Great California Caviar Rush

Originally posted in The Wall Street Journal on May 7, 2011

In only a decade, the Golden State has become the unlikely epicenter of America’s caviar industry. How does the Sacramento Valley’s harvest match up to the pearls of the Caspian Sea?

Updated May 7, 2011 12:01 a.m. ET

On a breezy April afternoon in the grassy delta flatlands of Galt, Calif., fins and tails were churning the waters inside raised tanks the size of above-ground swimming pools.

The bellies of the 100-pound, six-foot-long sturgeon of the Fishery aquaculture farm were white, their vacuum cleaner-nozzle mouths toothless and slightly be-whiskered. The fish have shark-like skin. Down their wide flanks run reptilian spikes, called “scutes,” ancient prototypes of fish scales. They are brutal in appearance, ugly even, living fossils from a prehistoric evolutionary crossroads.

Sturgeon—Acipenseridae—have outlived whatever killed the dinosaurs. They’ve survived everything in the past 250 million years, only now to fall prey to man’s desire for their clusters of glistening roe. Their eggs sell for as much as $270 per ounce in gourmet shops world-wide, and garnish the $50 entrees of white-tablecloth plates everywhere.

Caviar—the other black gold—sublimely salty, sweet, earthy, an acquired taste, to be sure, and pleasant to the eye, has been a delicacy of khans, tsars, monarchs and aristocracy for millennia. But in the past decade the market for wild sturgeon caviar—the crème de la crème of the delicacy—has been wracked by poachers, smugglers, polluted waters and the threat of extinction for the most prized of the world’s 27 sturgeon species, those producing wild beluga caviar.

Besides protecting endangered sturgeon, import bans on Caspian Sea caviar have another upside. They created an opportunity for a group of entrepreneurial biologists and fish farmers in California’s Central Valley region, where cattle ranches have given way to sturgeon farms. Now domestic roe farmers have birthed a sustainable caviar industry, winning over, however reticently, the collective palate of the haute-cuisine stratosphere. And greenmarket grocery chains such as Whole Foods Market have dropped Caspian Sea caviar mainstays for the sustainable domestic brands.

“Caviar plays an extremely important role in my cuisine,” said Timothy Hollingsworth, the chef de cuisine at Napa Valley’s three-Michelin-star French Laundry. “Russian caviar is, unfortunately, pretty much obsolete. So having an alternative that is local, and sustainable, is simply…great.”

Corey Lee, the James Beard Award-winning chef at San Francisco’s Benu restaurant, has mixed feelings about the California product. “I’ve tried most of them, and there’s some good ones out there, but they can’t be compared to the wild caviar,” he said. “I realized years ago that I have to view farmed caviar as a new ingredient, with its own measures of quality, and not as a substitute for the wild.”

Mr. Lee conceded, however, that farmed caviar will only continue to get better as the industry becomes more competitive and knowledgable. “I do think that the farmed caviar is the future,” he said.

Now even purist caviar stalwart Petrossian, based in Paris and New York, has turned to the West Coast for its product, oft-ladled into blini by its American enthusiasts. “Ten years ago we sold 100% wild,” said Michel Emery, Petrossian’s director of sales. “Now we are 100% sustainable.” The cachet of wild caviar-versus-farmed caviar has become a “nonissue,” according to Mr. Emery.

Five years ago, Petrossian sold wild Beluga caviar for $270 a tin or jar (Ossetra, for $220). Now the figures for their farm-raised caviar are nearly two-thirds lower.

Petrossian represents 30% of the U.S. caviar market, and all of the white sturgeon caviar it sells in the States comes from Sacramento Valley farms. That factor alone is reason enough to hang a highway sign outside the city limits reading: “Welcome to Caviar Country.”

The new caviar country is located six hours north of Los Angeles and an hour and a half east of San Francisco. It’s a 60-mile stretch of lush, grassy, stream-crossed plains spanning from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Sacramento Valley. The region now produces an estimated 85% of all the white sturgeon caviar in the U.S., including the creamy, crystalline dollops served in A-list eateries such as The French Laundry, Per Se and Nobu.

“We are witnessing a historic shift in the caviar world,” said Richard Adams Carey, author of “The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography Of Desire.” His globetrotting 2005 book exposed Caspian caviar cartels and predicted the delicacy’s future home in the States.

“Throughout the history of caviar consumption, the Caspian Sea has been the Champagne region of the industry,” Mr. Carey said. “But the Sacramento Valley is establishing itself as the new center of it all.” There are five “aqua farms” in the region, two actual caviar producers: Sterling Caviar and Tsar Nicoulai. Sterling is the larger of the two, producing 12 tons of caviar per year—its tanks churning with 2.5 million gallons of freshwater. Sterling appears to be winning the game, having nabbed an exclusive partnership with Petrossian.

Caviar “harvest” occurs only once a year, and is rarely witnessed by outsiders. But on a recent morning, Peter Struffenegger, the manager of Sterling, permitted a visitor to watch the process, exhibiting what it takes to make caviar worthy of the finest mother-of-pearl spoons and Champagne pairings.

Inside a metal-and-concrete processing building, 100-pound female sturgeon are hoisted onto a trough, where their ripe bellies are opened with a single deft slice, and their prized eggs are delicately removed and whisked off to a sterile, climate-controlled anteroom—a far cry from the gill nets and haphazard savagery of the Caspian Sea poachers.

Behind plastic curtain-strip doors, workers in hairnets, smocks and surgical masks move with assembly-line efficiency in the 40-degree Fahrenheit room (warm temperature affects the caviar’s taste) separating eggs from ovary, then washing, salting and tinning the caviar.

Quality control is conducted by Lucy Bowman, an animal and food science expert from Lake Charles, La. She tastes each batch with the same plastic spoons you might use for sampling ice cream, grading it on firmness, color and taste. “I eat enough caviar during harvest to carry me through the year,” said Ms. Bowman.

“It all gets regraded by Petrossian in New York,” said Mr. Struffenegger, referring to the gourmet company’s knack for allocating caviar according to the tastes and preferences of chefs and purveyors they supply. “After it’s farmed, that’s when our specialty begins,” said Alexandre Petrossian, the company’s managing director and heir to the caviar house.

Fresh-from-the-belly caviar isn’t fishy, but sea-like in flavor, with a texture of cool tapioca. Caviar must be aged between three months to a year and a half before it develops its full flavor. Comparing fresh caviar to aged, said Sterling’s Mr. Struffenegger, “is like comparing grape juice to wine.”

So why is the Sacramento Valley—the uncelebrated cousin of Napa and Sonoma—ground zero for caviar?

The 65- to 75-degree temperature of the local groundwater creates a perennial summer for farmed sturgeon, allowing them to mature in seven years instead of 14 (in the wild). The nearby Sacramento River provided the original brood-stock for the farms. And luck played a hand in it all.

In 1977, Serge Doroshov, a Soviet scientist and sturgeon expert, defected from the Soviet Union, migrating to the Sacramento area to work in the Animal Science department at University of California, Davis. Sharing his aquaculture experience in Russia—where caviar-making methods were long shrouded in Iron Curtain secrecy—Mr. Doroshov sponsored studies on sturgeon biology that allowed the local caviar industry to be developed within a relatively short time. So brief, in fact, that The Fishery owner Ken Beer, a former grad student of Mr. Doroshov, said “We’ve now got a 10-year head start on everybody.”

“Philosopher Fish” author Richard Adams Carey made a comparison to the wine world. “Just as California wines can now rival and sometimes exceed European wines, the same thing’s happening with caviar.”

David Bouley, the chef and owner of Manhattan’s two-Michelin-starred Bouley, expanded the analogy. “The salty-sweet balance of caviar adds length to the flavor of food the way oak does to wine,” said Mr. Bouley, who shares Mr. Carey’s faith in the Sacramento Valley aquaculture farms. “In the last few years,” he said, “farmed caviar has really evolved in its balance of flavor. In a blind tasting, sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish it from wild caviar.”

Meanwhile, the competition is heating up. Said Dale Sherrow, owner of 1991-founded Seattle Caviar, “In the next four years, the quality level of American caviar makers is going to separate the men from the boys.”