July 31 2011 issue

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SPECIAL REPORT Napa Valley Zinfandel Randy Caparoso

When industry pundits talk varieties, they usually cite brand leaders—the names that build categories through either sheer popularity or benchmark quality. That’s the way Beaulieu Vineyard, Heitz Cellar, Robert Mondavi Winery, Caymus Vineyards, and later Jordan and Silver Oak Cellars drove sales of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and producers like Sonoma-Cutrer, Kendall-Jackson, Far Niente, and Rombauer Vineyards commercialized California Chardonnay.

Although Ravenswood, Ridge Vineyards, and Rosenblum Cellars have become known as the “Three Rs” of California’s red Zinfandel category, industry historians point to the inaugural vintages of two Napa Valley wineries, Robert Biale Vineyards in 1991 and Turley Wine Cellars in 1993, to mark the arrival of Zinfandel among prestige varieties in the contemporary marketplace. The true significance of Robert Biale and Turley is not so much that they made Zinfandel respectable—coveted by collectors and prized by restaurateurs—but that they saved Napa-grown Zinfandel from what could have been a quick, ignominious extinction.

The founders of these two wineries, Bob Biale and Larry Turley, today can sell everything they make at frontline retail prices, between $35 and $65 a bottle. But as Biale vividly recalls, “In the early ’80s, we could barely give our Zinfandel away.” Ignoring the dwindling sales that led wineries like Mondavi to either drop the variety or turn it all into blush wine, free spirits like the Biales, Jay Heminway of Green & Red Vineyard, and Jerry Seps of Storybook Mountain Vineyards kept planting new, if modest, Zinfandel acreage on historic properties.

Ehren Jordan, who succeeded Helen Turley as the Turley winemaker in 1995 (and now runs his own Failla as well), believes that “20 years from now, the only Zinfandel in Napa Valley that will survive will be owned by people who make them.” Standing in Turley’s 6-acre, head-trained Zinfandel estate vineyard, planted alongside its St. Helena winery as recently as 2006, Jordan says, “We’re an anomaly in Napa Valley, surrounded by Cabernet Sauvignon. This is high-priced dirt—we have neighbors producing big-time, multi-hundred-dollar bottles.”

In recent years, both Turley and Robert Biale have been rewarding old growers by paying Cabernet-like prices (more than $4,000 per ton) while systematically buying up land, locking in leases, or aggressively replanting old Zinfandel sites. Despite their efforts, though, Cabernet Sauvignon now accounts for more than 42% of Napa Valley’s 45,000 planted acres. As Biale says, “It’s hard to imagine that Zinfandel was once the dominant grape in the valley, when you consider that it’s barely 2.5% of what is planted today.” As these producers have expanded, Robert Biale has had to obtain grapes from Sonoma County, and Turley from Sonoma, Paso Robles, Mendocino Ridge, Contra Costa County, Lodi, and Amador County.

THE BIALE LEGACY

Aldo Biale, Bob’s father, died at age 80 in December 2009. Aldo’s parents, Pietro and Christina Biale, had met and married in San Francisco after immigrating from Italy. In the 1920s, Pietro took a job as caretaker of a vineyard up on Mount Veeder. In 1932, he moved the family to Oak Knoll, planted his first Zinfandel on a spot that is now part of Aldo’s Vineyard, and took a day job in a quarry. Tragically, he was killed five years later in an industrial accident, at age 42. The 13-year-old Aldo suddenly found himself responsible for carrying on the family business. Along with vines, there were row crops, prune trees, and lots of chickens—more than 500 at a time. “In those days,” Bob Biale notes, “grapes were sold for about $25 a ton, but Aldo figured out that by making wine out of some of those grapes and selling it on the side for $1 a gallon, he could actually earn closer to $60 a ton.”

Aldo called his wine Black Chicken—a code name for the moonshine Zinfandel tapped from barrels in the barn. Orders for “three dozen eggs and a Black Chicken” would come in over the party line, which was the only telephone service available in those days. “I used to hear stories about agents coming and opening tanks,” Biale says, “flushing the wine down the hill while my grandparents watched and cried.” Aldo put food on his family’s table by working for the Napa Water Department for 31 years. Without the Gallo co-op in St. Helena buying as much as half of Napa Valley’s grapes, even into the 1970s, the Biales would never have survived as growers. But by the late ’60s, Biale recalls, “Napa Valley had already begun to gravitate to a Bordeaux way of thinking. Aldo began to feel real pressure to tear out the Zinfandel and replant with Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. He resisted, saying, ‘This is what I grow—if you don’t like it, I’ll find someone who does.’ That’s what the old-time growers have in common: for them, it’s never about money.”

The first Robert Biale Zinfandel was a 1991 Aldo’s Vineyard, with just 415 cases produced by a partnership of father and son, along with Biale’s lifelong friend, Dave Pramuk, and winemaker Al Perry (who departed after the 2007 vintage). Biale supplemented his income by working night shifts at Beringer until 1999, but when production grew to 7,000 cases, family and friends were able to purchase a nearby property in Oak Knoll and T-bud its existing plantings to Zinfandel and a little Petite Sirah. In 2006, the Biales completed a winery facility that can comfortably produce as many as 12,000 cases a year.

There are now 13 different single-vineyard Robert Biale bottlings, all sourced from dry-farmed sites dating back as far as the late 1800s. Old Crane, Old Kraft, and Varozza form a trio of vineyards clustered around St. Helena, growing in gravelly alluvial soil and the valley’s warmest climate and yielding the red-fruit qualities typical of earlier-ripening Zinfandel. Farther south, in the vicinity of the Oak Knoll District American Viticultural Area (AVA), are the original Aldo’s, Black Chicken (younger vines planted in a block behind the old Biale home), Grande, and R.W. Moore vineyards. Says Steve Hall, Biale’s winemaker since 2008, “Oak Knoll is a cooler region, where grapes retain more acidity and are almost Pinot-like. Thicker skins also accentuate varietal fruitiness, which go from black cherry into blackberry qualities.”

Walking through the 74-year-old Aldo’s Vineyard, Biale points out its “wonderful diversity, planted with at least nine other varieties besides Zinfandel, including Peloursin, Mondeuse, Tempranillo, Early Burgundy, and Petite Sirah.” R.W. Moore, originally planted in the 1860s, also contains a field blend, dominated by about 90% Zinfandel. When phylloxera necessitated replanting in 1904, records show that it was done according to the prevailing fashion: first by planting the phylloxera-resistant, American Vitis rupestris St. George rootstock and then grafting over to Zinfandel and other Vitis vinifera . Head-trained low to the ground, with spurs scarcely topping 2 feet in height, the vines have traditionally yielded less than 1.5 tons per acre. This Zinfandel has evolved into such a unique, dark, tiny-berried clone that it’s been singled out for Phase III of the University of California-Davis’s ongoing Zinfandel Heritage Project.

Bill Moore says that when he bought the R.W. Moore site in 1983, “many of the vines were dying off.” Turley Wine Cellars began purchasing the fruit for its celebrated Earthquake bottlings in 1993, and Moore credits Larry Turley for helping to rehabilitate the vineyard by building more organic matter into the soil. After Turley declined to renew its contract in 2009, Biale began taking two-thirds of the vineyard production, the rest going to Moore’s niece, who bottles under the Mike & Molly Hendry label.

The Biale approach to winemaking, initiated by Perry and continued by Hall, has always focused on vineyard distinctions, based on the premise that Zinfandel is a fairly thin-skinned, sensitive grape that requires gentle handling—not unlike Pinot Noir. Biale calls it a “Burgundian” style, relying on small-batch fermentation in wide, open-topped tanks; hand-punching; and aging in Burgundian barriques, never more than about 15% new. According to Hall, “We look for a ‘truth’ in a vineyard, the farmer, the grapes, the site.” Grapes are picked for pH and overall balance as much as optimal flavor, eschewing raisined as well as unripened fruit—an incredible challenge with the notoriously uneven-ripening Zinfandel. Pramuk says of his partner, “I don’t know anyone who is as conscious of what makes it to the sorter than Bob. It’s normal for him to make four or five passes through a vineyard. His crew has grown accustomed to picking only what will pass Bob’s scrutiny.”

THE TURLEY SIMPLIFICATION

After dissolving his partnership with Frog’s Leap in 1992, Turley’s objective was to “simplify,” which he thought he could do by specializing in the grape he loved best: Zinfandel. Says Turley, “We started with three spectacular Napa Valley vineyards—Hayne, R.W. Moore, and Aida—and as fate would have it, we ended up growing anyhow. Today, we make about 23 different Zinfandels, which we can justify because each one is very different from the other. Even at about 18,000 cases a year, we’re still keeping it simple, focusing mainly on Zinfandel.”

If there’s been an evolution in the Turley approach, it’s centered around the vineyard. As Turley puts it, “We’re pretty lazy when it comes to winemaking. We never crush; we press whole berries. We never use anything but wild yeast, we never filter or fine, we rack occasionally, and we’ve stuck with our long fermentations, taking 30 or 40 days, sometimes four to five months, to finish in barrel. All of our time and energy is put into vineyards.”

The issue, according to Jordan, is that “by the time Turley was launched, many of the great old Zinfandel vineyards had already begun to disappear, and along with that, a lot of the knowledge and passion of the old growers. We’ve often had to fight to get vineyards to where we want them to be, and more than a few times, our relationships with growers ended up not working out.”

Of Turley’s three original Napa Valley Zinfandel vineyards, only Hayne—a 6-acre plot in St. Helena, not far from Biale’s Old Crane and Old Kraft—remains in the portfolio. For Turley, “Hayne was a right-time, right-place story. Louis Martini had been taking the fruit, but they gave up on it. The owner’s daughter happened to be working for us at Frog’s Leap at the time, and she pointed us in the right direction. We converted it to organic and have loved working with Otty Hayne ever since.”

The Hayne Vineyard did not require as much rehabilitation as R.W. Moore because it had been meticulously managed by the same family since the turn of the 20th century. Like R.W. Moore, it contains small, almost bonsai-like plants, with spurs as low as 6 inches off the ground. Vines are head-trained, spaced 12 by 8 feet on St. George rootstock, dry-farmed, and perfectly adapted to their environment. But Hayne is not a classic field blend—it’s 100% Zinfandel. The family planted Petite Sirah in a separate vineyard, a half-mile away. “They clearly understood that this site is perfect for Zinfandel,” says Jordan, “because the wine holds its acidity well, unlike parts of Sonoma, where Zinfandel vineyards are typically interplanted with grapes like Carignane to balance out the acidity. Hayne is always a stunningly pure, complete wine—it’s never needed Carignane or Petite Sirah to fill it out.”

In the last decade or so, Turley and his crew have begun to apply their experience in more involved projects such as Mead Ranch, overlooking San Francisco Bay from 1,200 feet up Atlas Peak. Driving through the chapparral, manzanilla, and coyote bush along the narrow, winding road to Mead, Turley’s hard-charging vineyard manager, Tegan Passalacqua, describes the process: “When we started working with Mead in 2000, the farming was, to be honest, really bad. It’s planted on St. George rootstock, which is resistant to phylloxera, but susceptible to nematodes. Nematodes were out of control because the vineyard was being heavily irrigated, since the vines were virused and diseased. We were getting ripeness more from dessication than actual ripening. The situation reached a breaking point in 2005, when we finally secured a lease that allowed us to take full control of our 16 acres” (of the ranch’s 60 planted acres).

“Through composting and weaning the vines off water, we beat back the nematodes,” Passalacqua continues, “and leaf-roll virus is no longer a factor until late in the season. We also began to reduce the number of spurs on each plant, shortening the heads from about 5 to 3 feet. Reducing buds to two per spur alleviated bunch crowding and disease pressure. Because winds and moisture early in the season always created flowering issues, the combination of fewer, looser clusters started to give us fruit with more brambly richness, a black-and-white peppery spice, good acid-tannin synergy—the things we now associate with Mead. Varietal expression has become purer, terroir more delineated, pH has come down, and so have the alcohols”—in recent vintages, to the mid-15% range—“because fruit can become fully ripened at slightly lower sugars. Mead is proof that dry farming, as well as organic farming, work.” Turley now harvests more than 300 acres of California Certified Organic Farmers-designated vineyards throughout the state.

Hayne Vineyard, in the warmer St. Helena AVA, ripens weeks ahead of Mead every year; in between is Calistoga’s Tofanelli Vineyard, where the oldest blocks were planted in the ’20s and ’30s by the grandfather of current farmer Vince Tofanelli. Vines are head-trained higher off the ground and pruned later in the spring to avoid having to resort to frost protection and non-organic sprays. Brisk breezes coming down from the Chalk Hill Gap to the northwest help air out the site, making Tofanelli Zinfandel more acid-driven and lower in alcohol than Mead, less opulent yet similar in viscosity to Hayne.

Turley Zinfandels may be known for their high-octane intensity, but Jordan emphasizes that he never picks excessively late, when grapes are raisined and high sugars require “a boatload of water just to get the wine back down below 16% alcohol.” Adds Turley, “Over the years, we’ve learned to never listen to what other people say. We don’t pick grapes to get high alcohol; we pick them when they’re the most balanced and intense. If we can get a Hayne to taste exactly like a Hayne, a Tofanelli exactly like a Tofanelli, I say it’s working, and we’re doing just fine by that.”