Robert Biale Vineyards Perfecting Zinfandel
By W Peter Hoyne
I have covered stories about Zinfandel since the mid-1980’s. My first introduction in wine country was to Lytton Springs Winery in the Dry Creek region of Northern California where Zinfandel had reigned supreme. Little did I realize that after nearly four decades, I knew very little about the true identity and flavor profile of this remarkable grape. A number of years ago, I met with winemaker Robert Biale at his winery in the Oak Knoll appellation of Napa Valley. I was reacquainted with Bob and his wines once again during a recent virtual interview. During this time, I was reeducated about Zinfandel and how truly captivating this varietal can express itself across a variety of soils and locations given the right winemaking techniques. I also reflected on why Zinfandel has lost some of its luster among consumers through the years. Perhaps it was the fact that many people were tasting high alcohol Zins which were over the top and densely concentrated. These Zinfandels never seemed to reveal their real personality. More importantly, people should have been exploring the wines of Robert Biale to understand the authentic personality of this grape.
Bob Biale has quite a storied history when it comes to producing Zinfandel. Bob’s grandparents immigrated from Northern Italy in the 1920’s establishing their residence atop Mount Veeder in Napa Valley where his father Aldo was born. His grandparents began by farming Zinfandel at Gier Ranch and selling grapes, while also making their own wine during Prohibition. At one point, federal agents raided the winery destroying the valves of the wine barrels, as wine flowed down the sides of the mountain. This did not deter his family from continuing to grow Zinfandel and make their own wine.
By the early 1930’s his grandparents decided to purchase a 5-acre parcel in the Oak Knoll region of southern Napa Valley. At that time Napa Valley was a blank canvas since there was little interest in farming. They secured more acreage over time and continued raising chickens and growing walnuts, plums, and other produce. Their passion for growing Zinfandel continued as they sold grapes to local cooperatives while holding some back to make their own wine. At that time, Bob’s grandfather needed to supplement his farming income by working at a local quarry, where he subsequently died at an early age. This left his mother Christina alone in raising her children and maintaining the ranch. Aldo, age 13 at the time, helped his mother in running the farm and managing the vineyards. To make some extra money, Christina would take phone orders on a shared party line at the house. Friends and neighbors would request eggs, fruit, and produce along with a “black chicken.” This was the password for a jug of Aldo’s homemade Zinfandel. Biale Vineyards would later produce a Black Chicken Zinfandel offering membership in the Black Chicken Society.
After a visit to Italy in 1953, Aldo met his bride to be, Clementina. They would travel back to the US and have four children. Bob Biale was their oldest. Bob helped on the ranch but decided to pursue other interests.
As with most winemakers, Bob took a serendipitous path before reaching his destiny. He studied engineering for three years then enrolled in the Navy Reserves. His strong Catholic faith guided him to pursue missionary work in New Guinea. Afterwards, he would receive a degree in religious studies and marry his wife, Wendy.
Bob felt compelled to return home and help on the ranch. As Bob recalls “I reconnected with my Dad’s dream and his love. His dream became my dream. I have never seen anyone love a grape more than my Dad loved Zinfandel. He was a farmer way more than he was a winemaker. His first love was farming Zinfandel. That finally erupted in me as well and I couldn’t hold it back.”
“My father was a great man and mentor. He was a great role model on how to raise a family and get things done. How to start a project and do it right.”
After years of selling grapes to others, Bob and his father Aldo along with two business partners decided to form Biale Vineyards in 1991. The winery was completed in 2005. Their focus was producing small lots of single vineyard, old vine Zinfandel from heritage sites. Their inaugural release was called “Aldo’s Vineyard”, a modest 400 case production from dry farmed, low-yielding vineyards.
According to Bob, the Biale style has evolved through the years. “In the 90’s the style was a little bigger. It was popular at the time. After awhile we noticed the wine wasn’t aging as we hoped. We progressed to gradually dialing it back. We wanted the site to emerge. Today, the wines are fairly elegant, but at the peak of flavor.”
Bob believes, “Zinfandel is more like a Pinot Noir because they are both thin skinned and tight clusters. Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are delicate. As winemakers we can push it into a category where it is unnatural, overripe, and jammy. Left to its own, it wants to be an elegant wine.” Biale uses gentle winemaking techniques and ages his Zinfandel in 100% Burgundy barrels, but not all new. He uses gentle pressing and avoids extracting any bitterness. “We get as much structure as we think is necessary and then we back off.”
“I am surprised how well they age. Four years ago, we opened a 1993 Calistoga single vineyard Zinfandel that tasted like a glorious Burgundy. Outstanding in aroma, color and body.”
Just before Aldo’s passing in 2009, Bob recreated his father’s early recipe for Zinfandel, without destemming the grapes. They called it “Bravo Aldo” and bottled it in magnums. Bob professes “there is always a site that I want to know what Zinfandel tastes like. I am like a junkie like that. If I think that it’s a good-looking site or a great looking vineyard, I am really drawn to it. I want to do something with it.”
“Like my Dad, we just love this grape and this category a lot. We think there is room to herald it in in Napa county; lift its prominence in Napa. I would love to see that. We know that it has been so successful in the past up and down this valley. We want to continue that. We also want to elevate its prestige and presence.”
Biale Vineyards produces over 15 single vineyard Zinfandels and several Petite Sirahs. Winemaking has been under the guidance of “Tres” Goetting since 2012. The Biale style defines Zinfandel in its original context, as it was meant to be, a compelling wine that is pleasurable to drink and is true to its heritage.