In a valley dominated by cabernet sauvignon vines, Robert Biale Vineyards is committed to zinfandel. Zinfandel has been a way of life for this Napa Valley native. Robert Biale’s grandparents Pietro and Christina moved to California from Northern Italy in the 1920’s and acquired property in Napa in 1937. They planted zinfandel because it was popular at the time and being practical immigrants, appreciated the grape’s generous and consistent yields of 4-5 tons/acre. They, and their son Aldo and wife Clementina, were farmers who grew vegetables, grapes, prunes and walnuts and raised 500 chickens.
They also made their own wine of course but it was illegal to sell it commercially even though it was more lucrative to sell wine than grapes. And so, in the 1940’s, in the days of open phone lines, Aldo’s customers would call in their orders for fruit, eggs and “gallina nera” – black chicken – which was the code word for a jug of zinfandel wine. Growing up, there was always zinfandel wine at Robert Biale’s home – at the table, in his mother’s rabbit polenta stew, or boiled down for medicine.
In the 1960’s to 1980’s, Aldo was encouraged to replant his zinfandel vineyards to the more lucrative cabernet sauvignon, or even sell the land for urban development in the northern outskirts of the city of Napa, but he ignored everyone’s advice. In fact he was so committed to his beloved zinfandel that in 1991, Aldo, son Robert and Robert’s friend since 4th grade Dave Pramuk, formed a partnership dedicated to making fine zinfandel wine from their old vines and called the wine Aldo’s Vineyard.
Since then, they have expanded their portfolio to include zinfandel from a wide range of terroir from the high elevation vineyards at Stagecoach in Atlas Peak, to the warm gravelly soils of the Old Crane (1880’s) and Old Kraft (1890’s) Vineyards in the western foothills of St. Helena, to the red volcanic soils of Monte Rosso Vineyard (1885) in Sonoma Valley and the latest Moore Vineyard (1905) in Napa. Most of the vineyards are 80 to well over a century years old, dry-farmed and head-pruned, leading to low zinfandel yields of 2-2 1/2 tons/acre.
According to winemaker Steve Hall, zinfandel – with its deep root structure, thin skins and large clusters – has the greatest ability to show differential according to site, vine age and cultivation practices. It is the best way, he says, “to taste California terroir.” Warmer Saint Helena old vines always yield fine-grained tannins whereas the wines from the cooler clay soils of Napa are more robust. The Old Crane vineyard in Saint Helena has a “hoisin” earthiness whereas Stagecoach, according to Robert, has notes of dried herbs.
For Robert Biale, zinfandel has always been a big part of his family and culture. He appreciates the accessibility of the wine in taste as well as value for a single varietal Napa Valley wine, saying that a good zinfandel will cost about $30 whereas old vine zinfandel from iconic vineyards such as the 2008 Robert Biale Monte Rosso Vineyard is $50.
When one meets Robert Biale, Dave Pramuk and Steve Hall, one gets the sense that they are just like the wines – fun, unpretentious and easy-going, but with character.
Robert Biale is participating in the Zinfandel Advocates and Producers 20th anniversay zinfandel festival coming up next weekend at Fort Mason in San Francisco, January 27-29, 2011. Check out the website for details on the three days of events, prices and membership. Over 250 wineries will be pouring at the Grand Zinfandel Tasting on Saturday the 29th from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm for members, from 2:00 pm for non-members.
Robert Biale Vineyards is located at 4038 Big Ranch Road, Napa, California, convenient to Downtown Napa. They are open for tasting by appointment, call (707) 257-7555. Robert Biale Vineyards is part of the Napa Zinfandel Trail consisting of seven Napa Valley producers who really love zinfandel. Check out the www.napazintrail.com website for locations and contact information.