Nalle Winery by James Knight

for the North Bay Bohemian

Winery dog investigates the aromatic qualities of a glass of wine offered by his person
North Bay Bohemian

If the label looks familiar, it might be because nearly every time a glossy magazine publishes a story about Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, a bottle of Nalle lurks amid the lineup of usual suspects. The winery, although camouflaged under a thick mat of rosemary bushes, is hard to miss, rising above the vineyards like some kind of New Age bunker. It would be easy to imagine that this is some kind of slick, green-tech hospitality center.

At the end of a dusty driveway, the greeter is a black-and-white dog named Pella. The hostess, Lila, presents visitors with a complimentary soggy tennis ball. Inside the cool cellar are some dozens of barrels, a basketball hoop, a folding table. On the table are bottles of wine. You may buy the wine on any Saturday afternoon—no waiting list. Like many of the valley’s best-known names—as seen in glossy magazines—this is just a little family-run winery, after all.

Not that there haven’t been changes at Nalle, founded in 1985 by Doug Nalle. A new winemaker has been brought in, for instance, one whose skill set is perfectly tuned to the house style: Doug’s son, Andrew. Wearing a Nalle baseball cap, Andrew is a self-described sports enthusiast and university philosophy graduate who says that for his wine education he studied at “the university of Doug.”

When a wine taster asks a question, the younger Nalle talks at length about the relationship between tannin and alcohol, prompting the visitor to say, “I wish I had that on tape!” Nalle admits that he can easily get into the wine-wonky zone: “That’s just how we talk.” Next, a couple of recently-weds drop by, because they had shared a bottle of Nalle while on their honeymoon—in Copenhagen. Not a bad reach for a winery of just 1,200 cases.

The 2008 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($42) has a butterscotch aroma, candied pear flavors, but crisp acidity that enlivens each sip. The 2009 Henderlong Nalle Zinfandel ($42) is a field blend from the family’s old vines directly outside the door. The 2009 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($36) is fresh and focused, with silky, cherry-berry fruit, and is labeled just 13.6 percent alcohol; a fresh barrel sample of 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon clocks in at an unheard-of 12.5. But Nalle doesn’t tout the low alcohol. Instead, he talks about the physicality of the wine, the crispness of the tannins, how it speaks to him. “I’ll have to bring this into the lab,” he decides after pulling a suspect barrel sample. To subject it to chemical tests? No, he says—having grown up with this wine, his nose is going to tell him everything he needs to know.

—James Knight