A story from the vineyard: Leafing at El Centro

When my sister and I were kids, my parents used to pray with us at the end of every night. My dad, Bob Biale, used to always emphasize the importance of praying for good decisions. I never really appreciated this at the time, but as I’ve grown older, as I’ve made some mistakes, and as the world has kicked my teeth in a few times, I’m beginning to see the value in this little prayer.

When you’re working with a vine like those in the El Centro blocks in downtown Napa, you need to treat every vine with care. Sure, you can have a plan or a methodology for how you’re going to approach the block, but every vine is different and requires a slightly different approach.

Biale El Centro Vineyard
Biale El Centro Vineyard

Let’s take “leafing” for example. For those of you who don’t know, leaves are removed from the area around the fruit cluster to improve air circulation around the cluster and allow light penetration to the fruit. I remember this being one of the most crucial and consequential jobs in the vineyard. Take off too many leaves and the fruit gets burned by the sun. Keep too many leaves on and the fruit rots with the first morning dew or rain. It’s a fine balance and requires you to approach every vine carefully.

While this didn’t happen every morning, more often than not, my dad would drop me off in the vineyard with the crew around 5:30 or 6 in the morning and we’d all get to work on the day’s job. I remember there being a particularly high amount of tension in the air on leafing days because we all knew that Bob would be walking through the vineyard later that day to carefully check our work.

When I was a bit older and able to drive myself to the vineyard, I was able to keep up with the pace of Raul, Leo, and the rest of the guys. But in those early years, they would complete two or three rows for every one of mine. Everyone was encouraging and nice enough, but I’m sure I was a pain in the ass for how slow I was. When Bob would come around and see how few rows I had completed compared to everyone else, I could tell he was disappointed and frustrated.

On the one hand, I thought that maybe I should be rushing through the vines to try to keep up (or at least not lag so far behind). But on the other hand, I kept thinking about that little prayer. So even though I was scared of Bob’s reaction to how far behind I was, I took a bet that it was a good decision to do quality work. And all these years later, those vines are still there, standing strong and healthy on El Centro.

So maybe it was a good decision after all.