Napa Diary Day 3: The Unusual Zinfandels of Robert Biale

Situated in the middle of the valley just north of Napa, the Biale Winery is surrounded by vineyards of what is now an unusual variety in Napa Valley: Zinfandel. Sitting on the terrace that is the tasting room in the summer, I asked Bob Biale,  Why did you focus on Zinfandel in this location? “Because my dad loved the grape and kept it in the ground. It’s only recently–since the 1970s–that Cabernet has been the grape. The valley was full of Zin and Petite Syrah before the Judgment of Paris (tasting in 1976). We make about 15 Zinfandels, mostly from Napa Valley. As it turns out, Oak Knoll (the AVA just north of the town of Napa) is perfect for Zinfandel.” Biale is probably the preeminent winery specializing in Zinfandel in Napa.

The tasting room is a terrace in the middle of the vineyard

Zinfandel comes from wide-ranging sources here, with about ten single-vineyard cuvées, some a little unusual. There are about 300 cases of each single-vineyard wine. Most of the cuvées contain some other varieties (often from old field blends): only Limerick Lane and Stagecoach are 100% Zinfandel.

Grapes are sourced 20% from estate vineyards and 80% from long-term contracts with growers where the vineyards are farmed to Biale’s specifications. About 65% of the Zinfandel grapes come from Napa, mostly around Oak Knoll. There are also vineyards in Coombsville (south of Napa) and in Carneros (on the Sonoma side).  “If things are really warming up, Zinfandel may not be viable up Napa Valley. The profile for the (Zinfandel from Coombsville and Carneros) is cool-climate: brighter but surprisingly rich. If we need to, we may plant more there.”

Zinfandel is famous for uneven ripening of the bunches, often producing contrasting notes of jammy fruits and piquancy. Biale avoids this. “We remove 100% of the ‘wings’ from the bunches. The problem is that when you wait for the wings to ripen, the rest becomes over-ripe. The wings are dramatically under-ripe, even with them removed, the main cluster does not ripen as evenly as a Bordeaux variety, but we get more evenness this way. ” Alcohol usually ends up over 14%.

“We use open-top fermenters to let some alcohol blow off, punch-down for gentler extraction, and use all Burgundy barrels. We treat our Zin somewhat like Pinot, the Zins all have about the same new oak, only about 25%. Petite Syrah is bigger so it gets more new oak, 30-35%.”

‘Elegance’ is not a word that often appears in my tasting notes about Zinfandel, but the house style at Biale shows a purity of fruits, and, yes, elegance. The reference wine for the winery is Black Chicken, which comes from estate fruit, mostly around the winery and elsewhere in Oak Knoll. Quite a bit comes from old plantings of field blends, including a fair bit of Abouriou, a low acid variety that takes off the edge. “I give the original growers credit for this,” Bob says. “This is our flagship wine, it’s strikingly Oak Knoll in its nature.”

First Grade is the exception to the general house style of drinkability on release. Made since 2016, it’s based on a selection of barrels from estate vineyards around the  winery plus Aldo’s Vineyard and Stagecoach, and sees 50% new oak for 16 months. It’s about 78% Zinfandel and 15% Petite Syrah, with the rest from various varieties in the field blend. A much bigger wine, it’s intended to be ready after five years. Only about 120 cases are produced from just 4 barrels.

Cuvées from the famous Stagecoach Vineyard in Napa’s Atlas Peak (where Zinfandel is a tiny part of the vineyard, which is otherwise devoted to Bordeaux varieties) and Monte Rosso in Sonoma (where the vines are some of the oldest in California) are perhaps the most elegant. You might say that Stagecoach and Monte Rosso epitomize the difference between Napa and Sonoma, with a touch of  austerity for Stagecoach playing against a rounder impression for Monte Rosso. They convey that sense of top-flight wines of any variety that they will only deepen and intensify as they age.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

2018 Zinfandel Tasting at Robert Biale

Black Chicken, Napa Valley
Faintly piquant impression, dry and fresh on palate, with surprisingly good acidity, although a faint burn from alcohol at the end. The acidity is all natural, we don’t acidify back,” Bob says. Faintly nutty on the palate, quite a bright style for Zinfandel, generally trending towards elegance rather than power. 14.8%    89 Drink -2025

Aldo’s Vineyard, Oak Knoll
This comes from a field blend planted in 1937. Some spicy notes to the nose, good flavor variety showing on palate. “This will go 10 years, easy,” Bob says. Palate is smooth and velvety, tannins scarcely evident, good freshness. The velvety texture–they call it pillow-soft at the winery–is typical of the vineyard. 14.8%    90 Drink -2030

First Grade,  Napa Valley

Faintly spicy but quite restrained on the nose, tight and relatively closed on the palate, and there’s actually a some sense of bitterness from the tannins on the finish. Although the tannins are not gripping or dry, they need to resolve to let the fruits come out. This should mature to quite an elegant style but it’s going to take time. 14.8%    92 Drink 2025-2035

Valsecchi, Carneros
“This is the southernmost of our Zins,” Bob says, “from less than 1 acre on the Sonoma side of Carneros, making only 1-3 barrels.” Slightly spicy nose. You can see the relatively cool climate character in the crispness of the refreshingly tart palate. Flavor variety is just beginning to develop. The winery describes the fairly tight style as ‘more Burgundian.’ 14.5%   89 Drink -2026

Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa Valley
Nose inclines more to red fruits than black with some red cherries. Quite elegant, almost translucent impression to palate. Light tannins give structural support in the background. There’s a very faint touch of heat at the end.    93 Drink -2030

Monte Rosso, Moon Mountain District

More reserved on the nose than Stagecoah but a rounder, slightly more viscous impression on palate. Great sense of purity of fruits comes through, with structure more in the background than Stagecoach.The texture is very fine and conveys a taut sense of precision. 14.8%  93 Drink -2032

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