Wine and Cycling – Two Passions Celebrated at Clif Family Winery in Napa Valley
It was during a grueling 175 mile bike ride, and after eating too many unappetizing energy bars, that Gary Erickson had an epiphany – cyclists needed a better tasting energy snack. So, with the help of his grandmother, he spent the next 6 months making the Clif Bar in his mother’s kitchen. He named it after his father, Clifford. However, it wasn’t until a few years later while on a bike ride in Italy with his wife, Kit Crawford, that he fell in love with wine. This led to buying a house in Napa Valley in the late 1990s and founding Clif Family Winery in 2004.
“Cycling is an important part of the Clif Family Winery culture,” said Linzi Gay, president of the 15,000-case winery, located in the small town of Napa Valley, St. Helena. “Our owners, Gary and Kit, developed their love of wine while cycling in the Italian Dolomites. During or after their bike tours, they met in a “Rifugio” where they were served wine, food and great hospitality. They wanted to bring that experience to Napa Valley.
Today, Clif Family Winery attracts biking and hiking enthusiasts to the laid-back winery in a small house off Highway 29. They are drawn to wines called “Bici Red and The Climber,” priced at $42. $ a bottle, as well as simple wines. Howell Mountain vineyard cabernet sauvignons made from organic grapes and priced at $125 and up.
“I remember we opened the tasting room on a rainy spring day,” Gay reported, “and our very first customers were two cyclists who had cycled from Napa. We offered them an espresso to warm up.
Clif Family Winery always offers espresso, as well as over 20 different wines, ranging from Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier to Rose, Grenache, Zinfandel and more. The addition of a food truck serving Italian food with organic ingredients, an outdoor patio, a sensory wine garden, and plenty of places to park a bike, make it even more popular.
“We’re partnering with Calistoga Bike Shop to connect customers with bike rentals,” Gay said. “And we host groups of riders from Backroads and Trek for lunch or wine tasting when they visit Napa Valley. We also have what I think is the only wine and cycling club in the world. Every year they are invited for a bike ride and lunch with Gary and Kit.
Long-time Clif Family Wine Club member and avid hiker/biker Janeen Olsen said, “I was one of the first people to join the Wine Club because I was drawn to the winery cycling culture. I also enjoy their organic gardens and have invited friends to attend some of their wine club events.
A focus on sustainable winemaking at Clif Family Winery
Laura Barrett, winemaker at Clif Family, is passionate about the possibility of creating sustainable wines, with an emphasis on pure expression of the grape and the land. “Clif Family owns 100 acres of certified vineyards and farmland,” she said. “I have access to these vineyards from our Howell Mountain and Oak Knoll properties, and we source grapes from other certified sustainable vineyards in Napa Valley.”
Barrett produces superb, multi-layered Cabernet Sauvignons, with dark fruit, velvety tannins and well-integrated toasty oak. However, in the elaboration of white wines, she prefers not to use oak. “All whites and pinks are fermented and aged in stainless steel,” Barrett commented. “I like to highlight the purity of the fruit.
She did it well, as the wines seem to have a sense of energy and grace, with a hint of minerality dancing beneath the pure fruit aromas. The rose is so popular that it sells out every year.
Other aspects of Clif Family’s sustainable practices focus on community and reward. They host a Sip & Support event every spring to raise money for the Napa Bike Coalition and the Napa Valley Vine Trail. They also organize a rest area for Bike to Work Day and encourage their team members to cycle to work and participate in the Tour de Cure bike ride.
Clif Family Winery was one of the first wineries to achieve Napa Green Certification and is currently applying for B Corp status.
Organic Food and Wine Pairing at Clif Family Winery
“For our wine tastings,” Barrett commented, “we always offer some type of food — usually made with ingredients from our 5-acre organic garden.” She described the organic salted nut mixes, chocolates, preserves, hot sauces and honey produced by the winery and sold in the tasting room.
The basic wine tasting includes nuts and chocolate. Visitors can also choose to buy items from the food truck and have a picnic on the winery. Popular dishes include bruschetta, farm-fresh salads and roast chicken, prepared by Executive Chef John McConnell. “The food truck has become so popular,” Barrett reported, “that many Napa Valley locals eat there too.”
For a more upscale experience, Clif Family recently opened its private Enoteca Tasting Lounge. Here, you can relax in a private space overlooking the vineyards and choose from 3 gourmet food and wine pairing options, using fresh seasonal ingredients. One is called “Presto Gusto” and includes 5 small plates with 6 different wines. A second option is “Pasto e Vino”, which is a 4-course lunch paired with 6 wines. A very special tasting experience is called “La Cima Reserva” with 7 small plates and 7 wines. A recent menu is shown below:
- Grenache Rose with Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho
- Chardonnay with Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam and Meyer Organic Lemon Marmalade
- Zinfandel from the Domaine with Gougère Savory with Ricotta-Duxelle
- Malbec with Sonoma Lamb Kibbe with Yogurt – Tahini
- Howell Mt. Cabernet Sauvignon Cold Springs Vineyard with La Quercia Prosciutto and Organic Almond-Pistachio Crostini
- Howell Mt. Cabernet Sauvignon Croquet Vineyard with Cowgirl Creamery Red Hawk Cheese and Organic Pluots
- Petite Sirah Dessert Wine with Chocolate Bundino