The Element of Fungi

Sometime after midnight at my ex-girlfriend’s apartment last year, I was about one third of the way through my friend’s copy of Paul Stamets Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms can Save the World.  Stamets described an experiment where he and his team inoculated diesel-contaminated soil with oyster mushroom mycelium and witnessed the soil’s health turn around with striking speed.

I sent my friend an exuberant text message about this powerful tool to eliminate pollution.

“Mycopesticides,” he responded, alluding to an upcoming chapter in the book where Stamets inoculated wood in his house with a cordyceps.  Carpenter ants consumed the wood and became infected, at which point they climbed out of the wood and sacrificed themselves as the cordyceps fruited.

Days later, we were at an undisclosed location hunting for oyster mushrooms.  They always turn up at fallen dead trees.  “It’s like nature’s band-aid,” he said.  “The mushrooms are trying to repair the things that break.”

As I began working for Whole Foods on the Wine Team, these concepts kept turning in my brain.  Could mycelium have any correlation with the earth-like flavors we encounter in certain wines such as Burgundies, Barolos, and Oregon Pinot Noir (all locations marginally known for their available truffles)?  How could mycelium become useful as a fertilizer or natural pesticide in viticulture?

At the beginning of this year, I finished reading Katherine Cole’s book Voodoo Vintners: Oregon’s Astonishing Biodynamic Winegrowers, and the question re-emerged upon reading a statement from Montinore Vineyards proprietor Rudy Marchesi: “we are now through biodynamics introducing beneficial mycorrhizal fungi that are crowding out the pathogenic fungi.  They are making the soil more aerobic.  Pathenogenic fungi like soils that are anaerobic.”

I contacted Stamets’ company, Fungi Perfecti, for answers to my questions, and received the following response:

Hi Adam, thanks for your question.  Mycorhizal fungi can be added to the row of grapes to increase specific microorganisms that attach to the roots of the grape plant.  These can be helpful in soils of various conditions, depending on how they are treated.  They can help improve disease resistance and nutrient uptake for the soil.  It will also increase water uptake.  Here is a link to an article on grapes.


It has been awhile since my last oyster mushroom hunt, and my girlfriend and I have kept busy with an oyster-mushroom growing kit from Back to the Roots.  They have the same mineral-driven raw flavor that becomes nicely rich when sautéed, as I did this morning with the most recent flush.  Their bounty and beauty, however, is unmatched in comparison to their wild brethren.  It is this strange enigma that fuels my incessant curiosity for every possible benefit mycelium can offer us, and how the protection they offer wine grapes translates into what we taste in our stemware.

Our homegrown oyster mushrooms

I ran into my old friend David Anthony Temple at yesterday’s Chefs for Farmers event, and he had prepared morels stuffed with goat cheese and jalapeño over Mexican-style elote, a celebration of the ending morel season.  As I prepare for relocation to the Pacific Northwest, a land known for all kinds of wild mushrooms, I am filled with a longing desire to throw a morel-stuffing party when the season begins next spring.  I am imagining a bounty of Washington and Oregon wines and mushrooms stuffed with game and locally foraged greens, a moment of rejoicing over the flavor of all elements coming together.

Chef DAT’s Goat Cheese and Jalapeño Stuffed Morel over Mexican Elote at Chefs for Farmers