By Nancy Hawks Miller | Napa Valley Register | Napavalleyregister.com | June 30, 2011
When Vito Bialla is asked why he spends so much time and effort fundraising for the Wounded Warrior project, the Navy SEALs Foundation and the Semper Fi Fund for Marine veterans, his response is matter-of-fact: â€œThere are 25 million vets in the U.S. and 18 suicides a day.â€
Bialla, owner of Bialla Vineyards, on Atlas Peak, describes his friend, Spanky Gibson, a decorated Marine who lost his leg during his first tour of duty and yet went back, eventually completing three tours of duty in Iraq.
Biallaâ€™s fundraising efforts are usually carried out by Night Train Swimmers, a group of open-water swimmers who raise $250,000 to $500,000 a year for various charities through long-distance swimming events.
The fundraising is personal for Bialla, not only because of his friendship with a number of Navy SEALs who swim with him as Night Train Swimmers. Bialla, himself, is a Vietnam veteran. When he was 19, he volunteered and served as a tank commander for 11 months. During that time, they lost five tanks. He was wounded, but made it safely home.
â€œMany of my fellow soldiers did not and many came home maimed and wounded,â€ he said. He tells a story about his first Army boss, who borrowed his watch, lost his arm with it on, and â€œapologized right after he got hit.â€
There are more patriotic connections at Bialla Vineyards, which sits high atop Atlas Peak and produces approximately 500 cases of cabernet sauvignon a year.
Among his small team at Bialla Vineyards his assistant winemaker, Will Pulido, was in the 101st Airborne Army Division in Iraq for, as he said, â€œone year and five days.â€
Delaine Wallingford, who manages administration and hospitality, is the mother of an Air Force veteran who completed his service as a satellite image analyst in 2008. Heâ€™s working for a high-tech company in the defense industry in Iraq.
Pulido, who also has his own label, Zyre Cellars, named his â€œ541 Red Wine Blendâ€ for his unit in Iraq. He says his time there, attached to the 541st Transportation Unit â€œwas a lot like Groundhog Day,â€ spent as Front Gate Guard, 50-caliber gunner for the rear guard, roaming base guard and searching abandoned Iraqi bases.
â€œEvery day was the same: Get up, have breakfast, get your mission brief, get shot at and come back home and do the same thing over the next day.â€ He explained that they were vulnerable to IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) because they had to use the same route every day when they went for fuel pickup. He came home unharmed. When asked if he would do it again, without hesitating he replied â€œIn a heartbeat. You make a lot of good friends. I still stay in touch with them.â€
Like many of the small, family-owned wineries, Bialla says the work is â€œlabor of love. Weâ€™re very fortunate that the winery doesnâ€™t need to make money. We wanted to do something really good, to do whatever we can do to make (our wine) better.â€
When Osama bin Laden was captured and killed in Pakistan, Bialla wanted to respond with a salute to the Navy SEALs so he made a special offering of Bialla Vineyards wine: â€œPurchase three bottles of our remaining 2008 cab sauvignon and we will make a tax-deductible donation on your behalf for $125 (the equivalent of one bottle) to the Navy SEAL Foundation and send you a copy of the check.
He explained, â€œWe thought it would be a unique way to raise money â€¦ to reward those who wanted to make a donation with the equivalent of a bottle of wine.
â€œWe want to salute the Navy SEALS. We want to thank them and we want to thank those who want to participate in the celebration of their success.
â€œWeâ€™re all trying to cope. Thatâ€™s what veterans do, whether itâ€™s Will or whether itâ€™s Delaine with a son in Iraq or whether itâ€™s (I) who lived in a long-forgotten war.â€