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Boys From the Hood

Interview and Tasting with Robert Biale
and Dave Pramuk of Robert Biale Vineyards

(April 3, 2001) Can this really be the way to the vineyard?

     I'm threading my way through Napa city, but it feels like I'm traveling back in time. The streets around me look like the suburbs where I grew up. Sidewalks, front porches, neatly tended gardens, dogs barking out back Beaver and Wally would feel right at home here.

     Then, just as I'm ready to turn around, what do you know...

     Right smack in the middle of everything, here's a small vineyard. And look, there's an older man out there, riding a tractor. Kind of like your own dad might have mowed the lawn around his home, except a little different. But not too different.

     So we go up to the front door of the home beside it and knock. A charming woman with an Italian accent appears and directs us to the garage, where her son and his partner have their offices.

    This is a real garage winery. It's run by Robert Biale and Dave Pramuk, two kids from the neighborhood who have been buddies since the fourth grade. (A third partner, winemaker Al Perry, isn't present today.) And the man on the tractor really is Bob's 71-year-old dad, Aldo, who's doubtless been tending his vines in much the same way for more than half a century.

Robert Biale

Zinfandel Vine

Black Chicken Vineyard
What are two great Zinfandel vineyards doing in a quiet suburban neighborhood? Click here to see the photos!

     So how did one of Napa Valley's greatest Zinfandel vineyards pop up on this quiet residential street? It didn't the neighborhood sort of grew up around them.

     "My grandfather first planted vines here back in 1937," Bob explains. "Back then, the entire area was devoted prunes, walnuts and chickens.

    "But my grandfather reserved a few hundred yards for grapes. He was an Italian immigrant, he wanted to make wine for his family and friends, and he also knew he could make a little cash from selling the grapes. Want to walk through the vineyards?"

     You bet we do.

     There are actually two vineyards connected to the Biale family home. To get to Aldo's Vineyard, you have to walk out back, passing an enclosure where a neighbor's dog resides.

     Woof, woof! "We thought about calling this the Barking Dog Vineyard," says Dave. "He lets everybody in the neighborhood know whenever we come by at night to sample the grapes."

     The gnarly, head-pruned vines are planted in the traditional old Napa Valley spacing, 8' x8'. The rootstock is St. George, so phylloxera never threatened, and with cool, misty breezes from nearby Carneros, the grapes can enjoy a long growing season.

     Nearer the house is the other plot, the Black Chicken Vineyard. "How did it get a name like that?"

    "Old family story," Dave grins. "Back in 40s and 50s, people used to phone Aldo with their egg orders. And sometimes they'd want a bottle of wine too, from his private stock."

     "But our phone was a party line," Bob continues. "So we had a code. If you wanted wine, you'd say "Send me two dozen eggs and a Black Chicken. We named the vineyard to keep that tradition alive."

    "Any other traditions I should know about?"

     "Free Delivery. The family used to advertise Free Delivery to our customers. So the winery still delivers free to our mailing list customers in Napa County."

     In another well-established tradition, they also blend a little Petite Sirah into their Zinfandels. In fact, while others rip out their PS, the Biales are actually planting more Petite Sirah in the Black Chicken Vineyard.

     "The Black Chicken Zinfandel is new to your portfolio," I note. "Where did the grapes go before then?"

     "They just came out of contract. For years, most of our grapes were sold to the co-op. They got turned into Gallo bulk wines." Maybe that's why Hearty Burgundy tasted so good when I was in college.

     The wines are made in leased space at nearby Moss Creek winery. Production is as tiny as the vineyards just 800 cases in 1999 for the Black Chicken and considerably less for others. Eventually, as they add more vineyards to the portfolio, they hope to produce about 8,000 cases.

     Bob then leads us up to his family's back porch. Looking out over the Black Chicken Vineyard, we start tasting current releases:

First up is the ***1999 Old Crane Ranch Zinfandel. With beautifully focused red cherry flavors and great depth of fruit, it reminds me of what I love in Turley's 1996 Aida. There's tannin, but it's sweet and supple. With 14.9% alcohol, there's no heat on the fruity finish. A very distinctive wine that can compete with Cabernet Sauvignon on its own terms.

     This wine also has special interest because the vineyard was planted by Dr. George Belden Crane, who is said to have planted Napa Valley's first vinifera grapes on this very same site. The current vines were planted in 1890 and have been cared for since 1932 by the Salvestrin family. (And when I drove out to the vineyard later, guess what it's right across the street from Hayne Vineyard!)

Next we pour the ***1999 Black Chicken Zinfandel. Ooh, what a pleasure! Very sweet and juicy. The flavors here tend more to raspberries, with some cherries here and there. Made from vines that are 10 to 30 years old, this wine is more forward than the Crane and equally balanced on the finish. The grapes were picked at 26 degrees Brix, but the alcohol is a relatively moderate (for blockbuster Zin) 15.3%.

     "We don't want our alcohol levels to get much higher than that," says Bob. "We like them between 14.5% and 15.5%."

     "How do you manage to pick ripe and still keep them down?"

     "Open-top fermenters help. They can blow off a lot of alcohol."

     He also mentions that they favor 100% French oak barrels, to avoid the dill flavors you get from using American oak. "We use Burgundy barrels. We want it to age like Pinot Noir. We use about 35%-40% new oak for Old Crane and Aldo's, but it's different for each vineyard."

Finally it's time for ***+1999 Aldo's Vineyard Zinfandel. It's hard to imagine this vineyard can be right next to the Black Chicken. The flavors couldn't be more different -- lots of strawberries here. The texture is the most supple of all the Zins tasted today and the finish is terrific.

     I ask how they keep the fruit flavors so pure. "Well, for one thing, we do no extended macerations," says Dave. "But the biggest difference comes from how you farm and pick the grapes. You want them perfectly ripe and evenly ripe. Uneven ripeness can be a big problem with Zinfandel. That's also why we sort very carefully, starting in the vineyard."

     You can't argue with the results. The family story and setting may take you back in time, but these wines are on the cutting edge of California Zinfandel.

Robert Biale wines are available at selected retail stores and through their mailing list. For more information, write the winery at 2040 Brown Street, Napa, CA 94559. Telephone: 707-257-7555. Fax: 707-257-0105. Please bear in mind that production is limited.

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