According to Dave Pramuk, Robert Biale’s co-founder and marketing strategist, “Robert Biale Vineyards is delighted with this project – the most significant planting of Zinfandel in Napa Valley in our modern era. In the pioneering days of California viticulture, Zinfandel was the grape of choice across the state. In Napa Valley, Zinfandel once comprised over 25 percent of the vineyards in the county. Since the Robert Mondavi era and Napa’s marketing switch to French wine grapes in the 1970s, it’s dwindled to a scant two percent of the valley’s vineyards.”
[Q] What prompted the planting for this project?
[Dave] In 1999, seeing the scarcity of Zinfandel, but an increasing demand for its top quality Zinfandel wines, we approached Stagecoach Vineyards’ managing partner Jan Krupp. Our proposal was to perpetuate the legacy of Napa Valley Zinfandel, by establishing a new Biale vineyard at a prime site. In this case, it was a sloping ridge overlooking the Oakville District of Napa Valley, and just south of prestigious Pritchard Hill.
[Q] In Cab territory, this is truly a rare find.
[Dave] Surrounded by a who’s who of elite Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon producers, this little four acres of America’s iconic grape is something of a renegade, if not an outright rebel. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are priced into the high hundreds of dollars per bottle – collectible trophies that are compared equally to the even more expensive old-world, First Growths of Bordeaux. Zinfandel, an iconoclast, has no such price pedigree and is prized by a cultish clan of devotees, who cherish it for its sheer hedonistic pleasure.
[Q] Being known as a serious, yet fun-loving, cult Napa Valley Zin producer, I’m betting that you’ve probably got the best handle on Zinfandel’s history, including its Croatian beginnings?
[Dave] Zinfandel, now known to be one of the world’s oldest wine varieties, is a flavor-packed grape typically evoking wild blackberries, raspberries, and exotic brown and black spices. It’s the spunky California-raised orphan, whose parentage we now know is linked directly to the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic, due to the recent discovery of nine old vines in Croatia – identical to Zinfandel. There, the variety is called Crljenak Kastelanski (pron. Tsurl-yenik cast-el-anski). Zinfandel, thin-skinned and delicious, arrived on America’s shores as a popular new table grape in the 1830s; and, migrated west with the Gold Rush, to the warm and sunny Golden State in the 1850s. In ensuing decades, Zinfandel would become the most widely planted grape in California’s thriving wine industry.
[Q] The name Stagecoach now seems like a kismet moment…
[Dave] Most definitely.
Our Stagecoach Zin is a re-creation of a Zinfandel from the pioneer era. Planted on classic, old-fashioned St. George rootstock, and grafted with old vine selections from Aldo’s Vineyard and Dr. Crane’s original ranch, Stagecoach is a re-creation of a Zinfandel from the pioneer era. The modern influences are labor-saving, sun-catching wire trellises and a water-stingy drip irrigation system. California’s back-breaking and penurious first farmers would have loved to have afforded the labor-saving luxuries of pruning, canopy shaping, cluster thinning, cluster ripening, and flavor-driving goodness.
[Q] So, this was still quite a gamble.
[Dave] Of course, dedicating prime Napa real estate to such an endeavor was a huge calculated gamble for a small winery such as Biale; but, there were two mitigating factors.
- Biale was working with Jan Krupp, an established expert grower/partner, who was willing (as he does with all vineyard projects) to give this unique Zinfandel mission his best effort.
- Biale was isolating a new vineyard site, which seemed to the experienced winery partners to be ideally suited to a Zinfandel project. “This site had ‘slam dunk’ written all over it,” says Bob Biale, co-founder of Biale and vineyard manager. “It’s a stressed and severe site, but this is what Zinfandel needs in order to control its vigor, to ripen slowly, avoid bunch rot and mildew, and to keep the berry size smaller. We’re not after sheer grape quantity here – we’re after a red wine that’s expressive and compelling,” says Biale.
[Q] For your Stagecoach project, you chose viticultural terroir, above Napa Valley versus Sonoma, where people are more likely to associate Zinfandel being more at home. Can you elaborate?
[Dave] Stagecoach resembles Sonoma Valley’s legendary Monte Rosso Vineyard in so many ways: the sunny 1,200 foot elevation, the sloping pitch of the terrain, the air movement, sunrise to sunset sunlight- hours, red mineral-rich volcanic soil, adequate rainfall – even a spectacular mountaintop westward view – all are eerily similar. And not to be overlooked or avoided: rocks, rocks, rocks, and more rocks. The main difference is that it is above Napa Valley rather than Sonoma.
[Q] What have your harvests delivered?
[Dave] The new Stagecoach Zinfandel vines began producing their first grapes in 2002 and in 2004. The crop was of such quality as to merit a new Biale vineyard designation. The 2004 Stagecoach was different than any other Zinfandel we had in our repertoire. Ideally, we now have a series of Zinfandels that are very different from one another. the 2004 Stagecoach has a black plum / Bing cherry flavor profile, with an underlying power and a sleek structure that was very different from what we expected.
In 2007, a widely recognized great Napa Valley vintage, Stagecoach Zin began to reveal its potential, producing not just a delicious Zinfandel, but also a serious red wine. It evoked a vivid expression of its site: harmonious, seamless, mineral-laced, and complex.
In 2008, spikes of summer heat wreaked havoc among California’s vineyards, but weather moderated in the fall. Steve Hall, Biale’s new winemaker, approached Stagecoach with a new take on the vineyard’s ripening pattern according to its soils profile. The selective picking regimen produced a Zinfandel of brightness, purity, uniform ripeness, and textural loveliness.
In 2009, with its ideal season and moderation, Stagecoach reached another level in its development, producing an uncommon Zinfandel that combines finesse, power, and identity in the same package. For Biale, the ideal wine is the ultimate expression of where it’s from.
[Q] So, you feel that your project is a complete success?
[Dave] It’s total success… Mountain-raised, and making the torturous struggle to slowly ripen grapes, the vines at Stagecoach are producing Zinfandels that would make the Zinfandel forefathers proud, and are now delighting our avid fans of this legacy to America’s viticultural origins.
“If you haven’t had a Biale Zinfandel, yet, you’ve not yet lived,” said she, admiringly…