Robert Biale Vineyards
Perfecting the old California classics, Robert Biale Vineyards has become a revered standard of heritage vineyard Zinfandel and Petite Syrah in Napa Valley. From the wineries’ inception, the Biale Founders have cherished the tradition of historic old vines (some dating to the 1880s!) and prize the small quantity of concentrated and intense fruit that they produce. Diligent farming, expressive terroir, and superb elegance are the winery’s hallmarks. Among the winery’s portfolio of 20 wines that Winemaker Tres Goetting crafts, Black Chicken Zinfandel is the flagship–and has become a benchmark for the varietal.
It all started in the 1940s when 14-year-old Aldo Biale helped his mother make ends meet by selling to insider Napans–along with eggs and produce–some of the family’s homemade Zinfandel. Over the old “party line” phone system, the code words “a Black Chicken” signified a jug of bootleg wine… and kept nosy neighbours and the authorities from finding out about Aldo’s underground Zinfandel operation!
“This is a new age for Zinfandel. We know now that Zinfandel is an ancient grape whose origin was along the Adriatic coast and goes back centuries in Central Europe. Old vines and historic sites in California that have been overlooked and under-appreciated are enjoying new respect among wine students and wine lovers. We and our peer group of devout Zinfandel winemakers are taking this old California classic to new heights. We all know that Zinfandel, when treated expertly on proven historic sites, produces red wines that are loaded with character that hold their own among the world’s more famous European varieties. And let’s just say it: Zinfandel provides more smiles per bottle than any other red wine! Period.” – Dave Pramuk
Napa’s booming wineries had basically collapsed during Prohibition, decimating the demand for wine grapes. And yet, in 1937, only 4 years after the repeal of Prohibition at the tail end of the Great Depression, Pietro Biale had the grit and the foresight to plant Zinfandel vines among all his other produce on his new ranch on the valley floor. Pietro and his family could not eke out a living from their ranch alone, so Pietro worked a second job at the local rock quarry. Tragedy struck in 1942 when an explosion at the quarry took Pietro’s life, leaving behind a tenacious widow, Cristina, and their 13-year-old son, Aldo. Deeply saddened, but ferociously determined, Aldo and his mother shouldered the burden of the farm where they continued to grow walnuts, prunes, Zinfandel, and other fruits and vegetables, as well as a hundred chickens at a time. Cristina never remarried, so teenaged Aldo needed to supplement the ranch income, just like his father had done. That’s when Aldo learned to make wine from his Uncle Angelo. He sold his jugs of Zin to friends and neighbors on the “down low”, and the phone started ringing regularly for re-orders…The Biale’s phone was a party line, so nosy neighbors could listen in on conversations, including orders for produce, eggs, and a jug of Aldo’s homemade wine from barrels he hid in the barn. Then, as now, any commercial activity involving alcohol was highly regulated by government agencies of various acronyms, and any violation of federal, state, or local regulations was severely penalized. So Aldo needed a way to keep the orders coming over the party line without divulging his clandestine wine operation. He needed a code name…
Aldo’s ranch was known for its legions of white leghorn chickens for laying eggs and serving for supper. Perhaps it was not much of a stretch for the 14-year-old Aldo to look to them for the code name for his secret wine. So that there would be no confusion, he changed the color and dubbed a jug of his inky dark Zinfandel Gallina Nera–Black Chicken. Soon phone calls started coming over the party line with customers requesting, for example, “2 dozen eggs, some zucchini, prunes, walnuts and a Gallo Nero.” In the decades to come, Aldo delivered these produce and “black chicken” orders personally on Fridays in a blue 1940 Studebaker (his first car, which he eventually restored decades later to its original gleaming glory).
Not all of Aldo’s grapes were made into his Black Chicken Zin. Most of the grapes were sold to St. Helena’s Cooperative Winery, where they were processed into wine along with similar California old vine vineyards, filling countless bottles of good quality Gallo Hearty Burgundy. How poetic.
The Oak Knoll District’s ideal soils, seasons, and conditions allows for farming Zinfandel using old world techniques. The first Zinfandel vines in Napa Valley were planted in what is now called the Oak Knoll District, which lies within the much cooler, breezier southern half of Napa Valley–nearby San Pablo Bay (the northern section of San Francisco Bay). The historic, head-trained vines that we specialize in require intensive vine by vine hand work to ensure a balanced crop and uniformly ripened bunches. Annual soil amendments with cover crops of beans and grasses, and organic compost are used regularly each growing season to promote vine health and grape skin thickness.
In a valley-wide effort to protect the Napa River ecosystem and its native fish populations, Robert Biale Vineyards employs farming practices that are designed to conserve soil and river water levels. We have joined other Napa Valley grape-growers and farmers in completing the new Napa Green Certification and Fish Friendly Farming initiative. We feel strongly that abiding by sustainable practices in both our farming and winemaking is the responsible thing to do and is beneficial to our environment, our community, our employees, our business…and our wines! As Bob Biale puts it, “It took us three years of refining our farming and winery practices to finally achieve our official certifications, but in the end, it was all worth it!” For more information on Napa Green, visit: https://napagreen.org/
With 24 unique wines in the repertoire, Robert Biale Vineyards has built and cherished the relationships with growers throughout Napa and Sonoma Counties to help preserve these historic Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vineyards. Each of them have their own story and unique history. We hope you enjoy learning more about them and reference the maps below for their location.