The first thing I notice about Nalle Winery in Healdsburg is the row of gnarled, thick stumped Zinfandel vines lining the pathway up to the large red barn where the Nalle family makes their wine. The vines look much older than many of the other grapevines I’ve seen planted in wineries nearby, and indeed they are. These vines, planted in 1927 by Andrew Nalle’s great grandfather attest to the long lineage, hard work and love for the earth that characterizes the wines of Nalle Winery. At age 29, Andrew Nalle is working closely with his father Doug to keep the tradition alive.
KW: Tell me a little about the history of Nalle Winery.
AN: Nalle Winery was founded in 1984 by my mom and dad. We used to have the winery just up the road, but we moved here in 1990. This is my grandmother’s land. My great great grandparents came here from Ohio to raise sheep and grow fruit; they were farmers. They bought this land in 1927. That’s when those Zinfandel grapes were planted.
KW: So I take it you grew up with wine.
AN: Absolutely. All I remember is wine. When I was a baby, my mom would give me a little Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) on my finger. As I got older, my parents would always let me try the wine that was on the table, but watered down a little.
KW: Were you always interested in continuing the family tradition of winemaking?
AN: Not really. I went to school to study art and philosophy. I studied for a while in Australia, and that really made me change the way I think about things. I really respect the way Australians live for their family, their friends, and the moment. I was in Australia when the September 11th attacks happened and that made me realize how important family is, and the amazing history in my family. The transition into winemaking was very natural for me; it never feels forced. I always want to express myself through art, and winemaking is a perfect fit because like art, it’s a creative process and I get to use my hands.
KW: What’s your favorite grape?
AN: Well I don’t really have a straight answer for you. I love pinot noir, especially from Burgundy. But I also really enjoy zinfandel. We’ve had zinfandel for so long, it’s more personal to me.
KW: What do you like to do when you’re not making wine?
AN: In addition to drawing and painting, I like to do a lot of physical activities. I lift weights, practice Aikido, and play with my dog, Henry. I also enjoy cooking. I was thinking of going to culinary school at one point.
KW: What do you like to cook?
AN: I like going to the market and looking for whatever looks the freshest. When I was younger I worked at a lot of restaurants during the summer months, and I learned everything I needed to know about cooking there—keep it simple, keep it fresh. I love grilling, too, and making marinades. Making marinades can be a really creative endeavor like winemaking, experimenting with different seasonings to see which flavor tastes best.
KW: When I recently visited the winery for a tasting, you said that you believe not everyone can be a winemaker? Why not? What does it take?
AN: I know this sounds kind of fatalistic, but I really believe that some people are just born with an ability. It’s like some guys can throw 90 miles per hour, and some can’t throw at all. I can draw really well, but I can’t play music—my brother is a great musician but can’t draw like me. A lot of people think they can make wine, and the system of point scores helps them. They make wine that conforms to a score. But really, how can one use point scores to judge what’s considered a good wine? It’s like the question in philosophy, what is truth? You just live your life and do your art/your craft/your passion/what you’re good at. At Nalle we’re not really aiming for high point scores. For example, our zinfandel is a lot different than many of the zinfandels produced in this area. It’s considered a table wine because it has below 14% alcohol with a lower pH and higher acid. We use 100% French oak, as opposed to American, and only 20% of which is new. I think that the winemakers who survive do it for more than just point scores. It’s the people with a connection to the land and the history of the tradition. I’m here making my art and my wine with my dad and my family and I hope that people will use it to accompany their food and their family. People may be taught to think the same; but sometimes true pleasure comes from the unique thing that you create.
Listening to Andrew’s thoughtful introspection, one can’t help but sit back and ponder the wonders of life. Drinking his wines is a similar experience, one best enjoyed over a long meal with family, friends, and a good conversation. Nalle Winery is only open to the public on Saturdays (and by appointment all other days), but if you’re lucky, you may be able to catch Andrew and hear some of his philosophies at 2383 Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg.