Aldo Biale comes from the old school of Napa Valley grape growing. His family started growing Zinfandel in the mid 1930s—and still does. “I never dreamed it would be like it is today,” he says. “When I was a boy, I’d tell people I was from Napa, and they’d say, ‘Oh, by the crazy hospital [the state hospital]!’ Now, they say, ‘Oh, where the wine is!’”
In the 1940s, he lived on his mother’s small, Napa Valley farm, where they grew Zinfandel grapes, prunes and walnuts, and raised white leghorn chickens. Most of the grapes were sold to Gallo’s co-op winery in St. Helena (as were most grapes in the valley at the time). But Aldo, being his industrious self, decided he could probably make a little more selling his own wine.
Aldo’s little “side project” fast became popular among valley residents. Thus, a degree of discretion was required. So when people called the house, which had a “party line” telephone (where others could listen in), they ordered the wine by its code name: “Black Chicken.”
The same name is used for one of Robert Biale Vineyards’ most popular Zinfandels today, and the fruit comes from a vineyard behind Aldo’s current home, only 50 yards away from the family farm.
“It’s become our bread and butter wine,” says co-proprietor Dave Pramuk, who’s a lifelong friend of Robert “Bob” Biale, and helped start Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991 along with Aldo and winemaker Al Perry. The first release was a little more than 400 cases of Zinfandel, appropriately named Aldo’s Vineyard. Another of their many Zins is called, wait for it…Party Line.
“The timing was good [in 1991],” says Perry. “People were looking for something different.”
Aldo adds, “People would hear ‘Zin’ and think we were making white!”
Um, no. Not even close. One sip of Biale’s wines will assure you of that.
Lucky for them, Aldo’s dedication to growing Zinfandel has worked to their advantage. “In the ’70s, Gallo wanted us to pull the Zinfandel because it was ‘too heavy.’ Almost everyone at the cop-op did it,” he says. “But I said, ‘No way. It’ll come back one of these days.’” Aldo only planted Zinfandel. “I saw the others were making more money. It was hard. But I liked [my wine], so I kept making it.”
Persistence pays. Pramuk and Perry agree that 1995 was the winery’s “break out” year. “Aldo’s Vineyard was in place, and we were sourcing from Monte Rosso, Old Crane Ranch [planted in the 1800s] and the Salvestrins [who were also part of the co-op years ago]. People were really starting to notice our wine,” says Pramuk.
As an aside, Pramuk says, “If you’re a Zin lover, you have to go to Monte Rosso. It’s your duty.”
Bob adds, “It’s a 200-acre vineyard that was planted 120 years ago. Louis Martini owned it; then Gallo. About 14 or 15 different wineries have made Zins from there. It’s highly coveted fruit, and we’re lucky to get any part of it.” Monte Rosso wines exhibit cherry, wild berry, stone fruit, volcanic rock, iron rich soil and mineral characteristics.
So get your boots on and head over.
The folks at Robert Biale Vineyards custom crushed their wine until two years ago, when they built their own facility in Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll district. For the 2006 vintage, 24 different wines will be released. “They’re tiny lots,” says Bob. “They come and go. There are about 200 to 300 cases per lot.” The 2005 Aldo’s Vineyard (berry, spicy nose, dark cherry flavors) will be released this fall, as will the 2005 Monte Rosso (earthy nose, brown sugar, dark fruit).
When asked what makes a great Zinfandel, their answers vary:
“A great year,” says Bob.
“Luck. Site. Every year I have my favorites,” says Perry.
“The weather, soil, and how the vineyards are taken care of,” says Aldo.
“The growers have a lot to do with it at this level,” adds Bob. “The farming is way different than it was 40 or 50 years ago. The same is true in the cellar. Everyone has to be on the same path.”
“You farm to the level of quality the wine is being made to,” he continues. “Some of the older guys are the hardest to convince. But once they see and taste it in the bottle, they come around.”
Robert Biale Vineyards bottles Zinfandel and Petite Sirah under its traditional label, namely because they’re both “old school” varietals. Its Syrah comes under the label “Hill Climber” (largely because its fruit is grown on mountainsides. “It’s the new kid on the block,” says Pramuk. But one meaty sip of the “Jack and Jill” Syrah, and I wanted a steak. Not just any steak—a rare, juicy, perfect steak that would match this glass of wine.
“Syrah grows well everywhere,” says Perry. “It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. Winemakers love it. It’s great for blending because of its softness and tannins. But what’s Syrah ‘supposed’ to taste like?” This particular one hit me with dark berries and chocolate along with its meatier elements.
And for something completely different, Perry says his Zinfandel/Syrah/Petit Sirah blend, called “Zappa,” is his chance to play. “I always felt there was a synergy in those varieties,” he says. “It’s made up of 75 percent Zinfandel [from Aldo’s Vineyard, Monte Rosso and Black Chicken] and then a balance of the others.” The result is silky, sexy and round. It will be released with the 2006 vintage. Don’t even think about missing it.
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