BY MARK GUDGEL | PHOTOS COURTESY OF BIALE FAMILY VINEYARDS
“Buongiorno. This is Antonio. I need four dozen eggs and a gallina nera.”
“Gallina nera? But sir, we only have leghorns—white chickens.”
“Just tell Aldo I need a black one.”
For years after Prohibition nearly administered a coup de gras to the American wine industry, Napa Valley struggled on with immense difficulty. A few pioneering winemakers had remained in business by producing sacramental wines, but most had either folded or replanted their fertile vineyards to fruit orchards. Dotted with ghost wineries, nobody could foresee that the sleepy valley would one day be the most important wine-producing region in the world.
When Aldo Biale was only thirteen, his father died in an accident at the Basalt quarry. Suddenly the man of the family, it fell to Aldo to make money. They had some chickens, and he could scrape by for a while selling eggs, but he knew he needed a steadier income stream. So, lacking the resources or the resolve to get a proper license, Aldo began bootlegging homemade Zinfandel in 1942. Given that the “party line” phone system meant anyone could hear what you were saying, Biale’s code for his jugs of Zinfandel, which he sold for a buck apiece, was a “gallina nera”—a black chicken. Oh, and don’t forget to order eggs.
At twenty-four, Aldo returned to his parent’s homeland of Piedmont and married Clementina. One day, when a customer called to order his black chicken, Clementina took the call. “We only have leghorns—white chickens,” she told the man, confused. “Just tell Aldo I need a black one,” said the stranger, and he hung up. That night at dinner, when Clementina recounted the odd exchange, Aldo began laughing uncontrollably. In the end, and despite the odds, Aldo and Clementina Biale made enough to save the family ranch. “We still have it in the family today,” smiled Robert Biale, their son, adding, “These family stories are simple, but they’re meaningful.”
Robert Biale had been in the wine industry nearly from birth, and in 1991 he transitioned from grower to producer. At that time—and still today—conventional wisdom suggested ripping out Zinfandel and most other varietals and replacing them with high-priced, high-yield Cabernet Sauvignon. Biale rejected the idea. “My dad loved Zinfandel,” he said, “and that life transferred to me very easily.” Today, Napa’s own Robert Biale Vineyards is all but laser-focused on Zinfandel, producing numerous expressions of the varietal that each tells a story and are as approachable as they are elegant and well-made. The flagship? Black Chicken Zinfandel, of course.
In 2009, Biale honored his father’s legacy in the industry by creating a wine he called “Bravo Aldo,” a Zinfandel for the ages. The harvest occurred in October of that year, and two months later, Aldo Biale passed away. However, his legacy remains in the form of his son’s eponymous winery. As one staff member recalled after being hired: “They took me to Aldo’s Vineyard, and there was Bob, walking around with pruning shears in his hand.” Bob Biale smiled at their shared recollection. “He’s got the vineyard in his heart, and he’s always tending it.”