The Black Chicken Story

Napa’s booming wineries had basically collapsed during Prohibition, decimating the demand for wine grapes. And yet, in 1937, only 4 years after the repeal of Prohibition at the tail end of the Great Depression, Pietro Biale had the grit and the foresight to plant zinfandel vines among all his other produce on his new ranch on the valley floor. Pietro and his family could not eke out a living from their ranch alone, so Pietro worked a second job at the local rock quarry. Tragedy struck in 1942 when an explosion at the quarry took Pietro’s life, leaving behind a tenacious widow, Cristina, and their 13 year-old son, Aldo. Deeply saddened but ferociously determined, Aldo and his mother shouldered the burden of the farm where they continued to grow walnuts, prunes, zinfandel and other fruits and vegetables, as well as a hundred chickens at a time. Cristina never remarried, so teenaged Aldo needed to supplement the ranch income, just like his father had done. That’s when Aldo learned to make wine from his Uncle Angelo. He sold his jugs of Zin to friends and neighbors on the “down low”, and the phone started ringing regularly for re-orders…The Biale’s phone was a party line, so nosy neighbors could listen in on conversations, including orders for produce, eggs and a jug of Aldo’s homemade wine from barrels he hid in the barn. Then, as now, any commercial activity involving alcohol was highly regulated by government agencies of various acronyms, and any violation of federal, state, or local regulations was severely penalized. So Aldo needed a way to keep the orders coming over the party line without divulging his clandestine wine operation. He needed a code name…

Aldo knew that in Italy the folkloric symbol for the wines from Chianti is the Gallo Nero — Black Rooster. That seemed an appropriate moniker for his secret wine, and a code name was born. Soon phone calls started coming over the party line with customers requesting, for example, “2 dozen eggs, some zucchini, prunes, walnuts and a Gallo Nero.” Aldo’s ranch was known for its legions of leghorn chickens so the code name quickly evolved from Gallo Nero (Black Rooster) to Gallina Nera — Black Chicken. In the decades to come Aldo delivered these produce & “black chicken” orders personally on Fridays in a blue 1940 Studebaker (his first car, which he eventually restored decades later to its original gleaming glory).

Not all of Aldo’s grapes were made into his Black Chicken Zin. Most of the grapes were sold to St. Helena’s Cooperative Winery, where they were processed into wine along with similar California old vine vineyards, filling countless bottles of good quality Gallo Hearty Burgundy. How poetic.