Robert Biale Vineyards was founded in 1991 by four partners including Robert Biale. Today Robert and original partner and long time friend Dave Pramuk are co-proprietors. Robert oversees their vineyard management and is responsible for their vineyard sources while Dave oversees their sales & marketing and pubic relations. The other two founding partners included Al Perry (their winemaker for almost 20 years) and Robert’s father Aldo Biale (who died in 2009). The winery was completed in 2005 – prior to its completion the wines were being made at Hendry Ranch.
The Biale family has a long history of farming in the Napa Valley dating back to the 1920’s after they originally immigrated from Italy. Robert’s grandparents made wine beginning in 1921 at what was known was the Gier Ranch (today the property owned by Yates Family Winery). Incidentally Gier is a name also associated with early winemaking heritage at what is now the Hess Collection Winery and also at Hall Winery in St. Helena. Early on, the family began 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 15+ 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. Aldo’s Vineyard (with original vines dating back to the 1930s) is the oldest Zinfandel vineyard in the Oak Knoll District (which incidentally is the part of the Napa Valley where Zinfandel was first planted in 1850 by Captain Joseph W. Osborne – who was the first one to call this part of the Napa Valley Oak Knoll).
Aldo’s Vineyard has some very unique red varieties including Peloursin (one of the two varieties crossed to make Petite Sirah), Refosco, Grand Noire, Valdigue (in the old days called Napa Gamay) and Abouriou (the first time we have come across this variety in the Napa Valley).
While the Biale 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 extremely rare historical vineyards. As a result of their efforts, refreshingly, some of these old vineyards are still in the ground – rather then having been pulled out long ago in favor of higher yields, virus free newer plantings.
Note the interesting signage upon driving onto the property. The speed limit is 5 and 1/2 MPH (one 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”. A very interesting story is related to this ‘chicken’ and one of their wines is crafted in its honor.
The story begins with Robert’s grandfather Pietro (an Italian immigrant) who was suddenly killed in an explosion working in a rock quarry in American Canyon (small city south of the city of Napa). Robert’s father Aldo was immediately thrown in charge of the family ranch at the age of 13 and together with his mother Cristina kept the ranch operational by selling eggs, vegetables and homemade Zinfandel (illegally) – after-all he was only in his early teens and was not licensed to sell wine.
Party lines were a normal method of communication in those days – in which neighbors could listen in on the conversation of any other neighbor if they were connected to their ‘party line’. Young Aldo was concerned people would discover an underage person was selling wine. During his time interacting with clients and making deliveries he would mention his home-made Zinfandel. In order to covertly take orders for the wine over the party line, he needed to come up with secret code. He coined the term “Black Rooster” or Gallo Nero in Italian which evolved into Black Chicken (Gallina Nera) – only telling his trusted customers. When a client ordered produce or eggs, they might also mention needing a Black Chicken; Aldo then knew they wanted his wine and it was “safe” to sell it to them. Unfortunately for his customers in later years his wife Clementina was never initially privy to the “code words” and she would tell customers she could sell them white chickens but not black ones.
The Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC in their exhibit, Food: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000 contains the original wooden punch-down tool Aldo fashioned from a tree branch to push grapes into his crusher as well as for punching down his fermenting Zinfandel grapes. This tool dates from 1950. A metal punch-down tool is also on display along with one of Aldo’s picking boxes and a photograph of he Robert working in the winery. See the photo above from our visit specifically to Washington DC to see this exhibit (and photos of the full exhibit at the bottom of this review).
And there is a first-rate chicken coop next to the winery parking lot; the only chickens kept in here are either white or black.
Historic Vineyard Society
From a personal interest, this is absolutely one of the most intriguing organizations in all of the Napa Valley. Bob Biale is actively involved along with other old vine men including founding members Morgan Twain-Peterson and Tegan Passalacqua, among others.
Their focus is singularly stalwart; preserve these old vineyards – while simultaneously educating, researching and promoting their historical value along with hosting related events. Over the years they have compiled a list of California’s oldest vineyard sites; to be included, a vineyard must be at least 50 years old and 1/3 of the vines must be original plantings. For reference the two oldest commercially producing vineyards in the Napa Valley are Canard in Calistoga and The Crane Assembly in St. Helena.
And since Cabernet Sauvignon is currently the dominant variety in the Napa Valley here are the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon producing vineyards: a limited number of vines dating from 1945 at Scarecrow in Rutherford, a part of the Monastery Block in Robert Mondavi’s To Kalon Vineyard (mid 1940s?), a section within the MacDonald Vineyard in Oakville (1954), a block at Spring Mountain Vineyards also dating from 1954 and a small block at Grgich Hills (1959).
A newer offering for Robert Biale is a very unique for Napa Valley variety, Greco di Tufo (a white variety) that is most well known for being cultivated in Southern Italy in the Greco di Tufo DOCG region of Campania. Robert Biale grows this in a small block on the vineyard that surrounds the winery. 2017 was their first vintage. The 2018 Robert Biale Vineyards Greco di Tufo is named Clementina and bottled as a white table wine in honor of Robert’s mother Clementina. Straw yellow color in the glass, the bouquet offers both a sweet and sour aromatic profile – smells like springtime with the flowers blooming and freshly cut grass. Citrus blossom, orange peel zest, kumquat, pear and gravenstein apple. The palate is minerally, crisp and clean. Excellent acidity but not austere – finishes lively on the palate with flavors of lemon zest, lemongrass and a green apple tartness.
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 Robert Biale Vineyards Black Chicken showcases rich fruit, blackberry, raspberry and black cherry. Pretty aromas of various spices are present on the palate with even a slight note of vanilla that lingers. 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 the grapes for this wine comes from some of the oldest Zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley. 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 Barbera from other Napa producers – it will not be easy. This wine comes from a small vineyard in Calistoga which contains the oldest Barbera vines in the Napa Valley.
The 2013 Robert Biale Vineyards Varozza Vineyard (historical vineyard & ghost winery in St. Helena) 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, nor is it a particular old vineyard, but Robert Biale was able to convince the owner of Stagecoach at the time, Jan Krupp to plant a very small portion of Zinfandel appropriately known as the “Biale Block” using cuttings obtained from Aldo and the Crane vineyards. Biale is the only winery to source Zinfandel form this particular vineyard.
The 2014 Robert Biale Vineyards Atlas Peak Stagecoach Vineyard Zinfandel 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 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah from the Palisades Vineyard (formerly the Carver-Sutro 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 fortified wine. Only 60 cases of the 2013 Robert Biale Vineyards Petite Sirah was made – crafted 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 primary tasting room is located in the back of the winery; an outside porch is surrounded by the vineyards. The tastings are relaxed, informal, personable and very down to earth. A private room appropriately called The Zinner Sanctum is located around the hall from the tasting room and is available for private tastings of rarer and older vintages. This room also functions as a cellar with a number of bottles stored in racks.
Part of a visit is a short walk from the tasting room or porch to the vineyards – which includes some informative details 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.
Robert Biale still delivers their wines (free of charge) to those who live in the city of Napa. This dates back to their original farming days when they were not delivering wine but rather fruit, walnuts and other agricultural products. Total annual production is usually between 12,000 and 13,000 cases. For more information, to join their wine club or to schedule a visit online, view: www.biale.com
Estate + Winery