Robert Biale Vineyards was founded in 1991 by four partners including Robert Biale. Today Robert and original partner Dave Pramuk are co-proprietors. The two founding partners included Al Perry (their winemaker for almost 20 years) and Robert’s father Aldo Biale (who died in 2009). The Biale family has a long history of farming in the Napa Valley dating back to the late 1930’s after they originally immigrated from Italy. Early on, they started farming Zinfandel, making wine for themselves but also selling the grapes to a cooperative winery.
Today about 70 years later, Zinfandel is still the primary variety that Robert Biale is known for. This is a rare Napa winery indeed that does not produce a single Cabernet Sauvignon! At the time of our latest visit, they are producing 14 different Zinfandel wines – both from their own vineyards as well as from several vineyards in Napa Valley and neighboring Sonoma County. Two vineyards makeup their estate – Aldo’s Vineyard (23 acres) with the original still head-trained dry-farmed vines dating from 1937 and 8.5 acres surrounding the actual winery in Napa’s Oak Knoll District.
While the Zinfandel’s we tried have the structure and acidity to age, these wines were certainly approachable young. They are balanced wines – and none had the over ripe jammy quality in the style that Zinfandel is often made in these days.
One of Biale’s specialties is working with very old vines and a number of their wines are sourced from unique and rare historical vineyards.
Note the interesting signage when you drive into this fairly new winery facility. The speed limit is 5 and 1/2 MPH (you won’t see that unusual speed limit posted at any other Napa wineries!), and note the sign on the tree that says “Watch for Black Chicken”. There is a very interesting story behind this sign which ties into one of their wines.
When Patriarch of the family Aldo Biale was in his mid teens he made wine, but because of his age could not sell it. Party lines were the norm in those days and he was concerned people would discover that an underage person was selling wine. As a result, he coined the term “Black Chicken” which he told only his customers about and they would mention this on the phone when they wanted to order his Zinfandel. So when someone ordered his typical farm items, usually eggs and prunes and they mentioned wanting some Black Chicken he automatically knew they wanted his wine and it was “safe” to sell it to them. Unfortunately for his customers in later years his wife was never initially privy to the “code words” and she would tell customers she could sell them white chickens but not black ones!
And there is a chicken coop next to the winery parking lot; the only chickens kept in here are either white or black.
Zinfandel is a grape that doesn’t typically ripen evenly. As a result, after veraison the Biale’s have to continuously keep a close eye on the vineyards and will often walk row by row removing green fruit or other grapes what will never reach their maximum maturity. Today Biale Vineyards makes the Black Chicken Zinfandel and it is by far their most produced and popular wine. The 2006 vintage showcases rich fruit, blackberry, raspberry and black cherry. There are good spices present on the palate and even slight notes of vanilla that linger. Structurally this wine is fairly soft on the palate.
One of their Zinfandel’s is the Party Line Zin and it is a lighter somewhat less complex wine than the Black Chicken – made for drinking now, more of an everyday wine. Some of their fruit comes from the oldest Zinfandel vines in the Napa area. In addition to Zinfandel they also produce very small quantities of Petite Sirah, Syrah, Barbera, and Sangiovese. A special note about Barbera; we challenge you to find other Napa Barbera’s – it will not be easy! This wine comes from a small vineyard in Calistoga which contains the oldest Barbera vines in Napa County.
The 2013 Varozza Vineyard Zinfandel shows dusty dark cherry notes – the bouquet is somewhat earthy with some spice (perhaps white pepper and brown sugar notes). On the palate the wine is superbly balanced – earthy and darker fruit with integrated fairly delicate tannins.
Biale even makes an Atlas Peak Stagecoach Vineyard Zinfandel. This vineyard is not known for Zinfandel but Robert Biale was able to convince the owner of Stagecoach, Jan Krupp to plant a very small portion of Zinfandel appropriately known as the “Biale Block”. Biale is the only winery to source Zinfandel form this particular vineyard. The 2014 vintage shows pink-purple in the glass with nice floral aromas including violet and dried rose petal, toasted cedar and raspberry. It is certainly more floral then the Varozza Vineyard Zinfandel. Shows more red fruit then dark fruit on the palate. The slightly dusty tannins are balanced with a nice lingering acidity that shows on the lively finish.
The 2013 Petite Sirah from the Palisades Vineyard in Calistoga features vines up to 75 years in age. Structurally, perhaps this is the closest wine to a Cabernet Sauvignon that Biale produces. It shows sweet baking spices on the bouquet, with a noticeably floral component along with fruit characteristics of blackberry and blueberry. In addition the bouquet is somewhat gamey/meaty in nature along with notes of toasted cedar and dusty rock. On the palate, the richness of fruit + acid can hold up to the firm and powerful grip of the tannins. And earthy or or mineral note lingers on the finish.
Dessert wine lovers take note; Biale produces a port-style wine. Only 60 cases of the 2013 Petite Sirah was made – all made by hand (and foot). Sweet powerful aromatics grip the glass immediately – black fig, darker chocolate, ripe blackberry and a hint of toasted oak. On the palate it is sweet but not overly so – it is a balanced wine. The finish shows sediment like somewhat chalky tannins. This wine features richness and flavor without being heavy on the palate.
Their wine club is even named after the infamous “chicken”. Visitors who join the wine club on site may receive a ceremonial ringing of a cowbell! The tasting room is in the back of the winery and the outside porch is surrounded by the vineyards. The tastings are relaxed, informal, personable and very down to earth. A short walk from the tasting room or porch to the vineyards is part of a visit – which includes some good education about the vines, reasons for differences in trellising and a focus on the nuances of growing Zinfandel in particular. The customer winery relationship is very important to Robert Biale – new customers become new friends.
If you live in the town of Napa, Robert Biale will deliver wine for free. This goes back to their original farming days when they were not delivering wine but rather fruit, walnuts and other agricultural products. Visit: www.biale.com