Common Ground on the Water

A Napa vintner finds thrills wIth long-distance swimming
May 25, 2011

A year ago, when I met Vito Bialla, I didn't know much about him, except that he made Cabernet.

I like Cabernet and he makes a nice one from his vineyard near Atlas Peak in Napa Valley, so we had that in common.

As I headed out to meet him for lunch, Wine Spectator tasting coordinator MaryAnn Worobiec, who was working on a short profile of him, mentioned that he might be one of those health-nut types who work out all the time and don't have an ounce of body fat. That didn't bother me. I like to work out too, so we shared that.

As we sat down for lunch at Don Giovanni, I wondered what he'd order, thinking that he might be a picky eater and order a lettuce-only salad, with no dressing, a side order of raw carrots and string beans.

He didn't. He ordered the pan-roasted chicken breast with French fries. I ordered the same. Then we ordered a bottle of Pinot Noir, which we slowy drained by meal's end.

We talked about hobbies. I like to read. He does too. I like to swim. So does he. I like to fish in the Pacific. Ditto for him. Turns out our favorite salmon fishing hole is the same, Duxbury Reef, a spectacular area off the Marin Coast, west of Bolinas.

Had he read Susan Casey's brilliant book, The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Survival and Obsession Among America's Great White Sharks? Naturally, he had. It's a gripping account of life at the Farallon Islands, 20 miles west of San Francisco. It's an eerie site at times, with its jagged rock outcropping. It's also the mating ground for great white sharks. Killer whales hang out there too. Occasionally the two tangle.

Bialla allowed he was thinking of swimming from the Farallons to the Golden Gate. He trains all the time. He once swam from Spain to Africa. He often trains in Sausalito, the charming waterfront town near the Gate, to Angel Island, a pretty spot in the bay with a great view of San Francisco.

Had he read Lynn Cox's inspiring Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer? Of course.

He invited me to work out with him when he and his buddies swim to Angel Island. I liked the idea and said I'd think about it.

We talked about maybe fishing the Farallons and Duxbury that fall.

A few weeks later, Bialla again invited me to swim with his group and told me he was training to swim, with his team, from the Farallons to San Francisco.

What about the sharks, I wondered. I'm not afraid of them, but I do have a healthy respect for the stealthy way they patrol their terroir.

"They wouldn't bother with a skinny old guy like me," he replied.

Last week, Bialla and his buddies swam from the Gate to the islands, which may be only the second time that's been accomplished. It's a treacherous journey. The water can be icy cold and the seas can be snotty, with a wicked chop. Going from the Gate to the islands means swimming into wind, which is no light breeze coming off the bay.

Bialla sent me a video (now on YouTube) of the sojourn, along with a note. While researching the history of long-distance swimmers in the Bay Area, he came across a few cool footnotes. A couple of people have swum the 18 miles from the islands to Bolinas. But the first time a team had done the island to Gate swim was in 1969, and one of the members involved in a swim club challenge was Bill Harlan, of Harlan Estate fame.

Then one night, "after my third glass of wine, I thought, shit, why don't I try," he laughed. "Why don't we invite Bill?"

As for me, no thanks. I'll watch from the boat.

San Francisco
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