This is Day 2 of a series for Robert Biale Vineyards commemorating 25 years of their dedication to preserving historic vineyards. It’s not just about growing wine grapes for the Biale team. It about history, people, wine grapes, terroir, and the best use for all of it. Today, I’m headed to the winery to enjoy what they feel is the best of their best: Robert Biale Vineyards’ Vintage Review Tasting. (I’ll also blog about this event in the future.)

Napa Valley’s Early Forefather Aldo Biale

October 29, 1929 ~ December 16, 2009

by Dave Pramuk, Co-Founder of Robert Biale Vineyards with Robert (Bob) Biale

Aldo Benedetto Biale was born to Italian immigrants Pietro and Christina Biale, on Napa Valley’s Mount Veeder. This was on the day that the stock market crashed: October 29th, 1929.

Napa’s booming wineries then basically collapsed during Prohibition. And by 1942, if running a farm in rural Napa during The Great Depression wasn’t hard enough in those days, for the Biales a serious tragedy struck the young family. When Aldo was only 13 years old, he lost his father Pietro in a rock quarry explosion, where Pietro was working a second job.

Deeply saddened, but greatly determined, Aldo and his mother shouldered the burden of the farm. They determinedly continued to grow walnuts, prunes, vegetables, fruit, Zinfandel, and raise hundreds of chickens… all of this while selling eggs as their main income. Christina never remarried, and teenager Aldo, who had learned how to make wine from a relative, began selling the family wine to friends and neighbors to earn extra income. The phone started ringing regularly for re-orders…

Living By the Party Line

The Biale phone was a “party line,” where curious neighbors could listen in on conversations down the road. This offered no privacy; consequently, the phone orders that came for produce and eggs often included a request for a jug of Aldo’s homemade wine, from the barrels in the barn. To keep the clandestine wine operation a secret, Aldo cleverly instituted the use of a code name for his wine-buyers. He didn’t want to divulge the commercial activity that was (and still is) highly regulated by government agencies of various acronyms. He also didn’t want to be penalized if found not conforming to federal, state, and local regulated laws.

The Birth of the Black Chickens

Aldo was raising hundreds of white leghorn chickens. He decided to draw upon his Italian heritage, where the Gallo Nero – or Black Rooster – symbolized the wines of Chianti. He thought that the appropriate moniker for his secret wine should be a Black Chicken. Thus, phone calls started coming with customers requesting; for example, “two dozen eggs, some zucchini, prunes, walnuts, and a black chicken.” A lot of the phone conversing happened in a Napa-style mix of Italian and English. Often the Italian speakers used the term Gallina Nera instead, as the black chicken reference to a jug of wine. As the years progressed, Aldo delivered personally on Fridays in a blue 1940 Studebaker. (This was his first car, which he eventually restored decades later to its original gleaming glory.)

In 1953, Aldo married Clementina Calvi, a young woman he met and courted in Liguria, Italy. The black chicken ordering system was still in full swing. Aldo encouraged Clementina to assimilate to America, by learning two things; how drive and how to speak English. She immersed and learned quickly; but Aldo, avoiding complicating matters, didn’t tell her about what a black chicken really meant. With some trepidation, Clementina would soon start answering the phone while Aldo and his mother were outside the house. And, on the occasional chance where the customer was requesting a black chicken, she would remind them that the Biales “only had white chickens” – and that – “the white ones were better.” Once Aldo received the message from Clementina, the order was discreetly fulfilled, no explanations necessary.

All those ensuing years of raising a family and operating a farm and vineyards, the Biales sold their Zinfandel grapes to St. Helena’s Cooperative Winery. Here, they were processed into wine; and, after blending with similar California old vines vineyards, the Zin grapes filled uncountable bottles of good quality Gallo Hearty Burgundy.