Clif Family Winery operates a beautiful open-to-the-public tasting room in St. Helena. Clif Family Winery produced their first vintage in 2004. Founders of Clif Family Wines, Gary Erickson and his wife Kit Crawford have always enjoyed good wine and were inspired to start a winery during extended bike tour stops at villa estate wineries in northern Italy.
Gary graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California in 1980 with a degree in business administration. In 2017 he was the commencement speaker for Cal Poly’s graduating class. Incidentally, another Napa winery founder, Gary Andrus of Pine Ridge Vineyards began a sporting store in San Luis Obispo in the late 1960s/early 1970s on Higuera Street called Mountain Sports. Gary sold this store in 1975, the new owners changed names then to The Mountain Air and eventually moved the store to a small shopping center on Marsh Street where it continues to operate and is often frequented by Cal Poly students and the local community. And Gary Erickson worked at this store for several years in the late 1970s.
Twelve years after graduating Cal Poly, Gary began commercially producing CLIF Bars in 1992 in Emeryville with his business partner Lisa Thomas. Kit also became involved in the early days of the business. Gary came up with the CLIF Bar recipe in his mother Mary’s kitchen in Berkeley. Prior to founding CLIF Bar Gary began and operated Kali’s Sweets & Savories with Thomas in 1986 – later called Kali’s Bakery. Gary named the business after his grandmother Kalliope.
Gary found inspiration for CLIF Bar in 1990 after chewing/choking down unappetizing energy bars while a planned 125-mile bike ride with a friend turned into 175 miles. He named this energy bar after an eponymous hero in his life, his father, Clifford. CLIF Bar experienced remarkable growth in its early years; numerous bicycle shops were early retail outlet adopters as was Trader Joes. In 1997 the company transitioned names from Kali’s SportNaturals to Clif Bar, Inc. Today the business is known as Clif Bar & Company and until 2022, was privately owned by Gary and Kit.The company has evolved since the early days and has introduced numerous other products since the original CLIF Bar. Today they also produce LUNA, health bars geared towards women, CLIF Pet, a plant-based jerky for dogs and CLIF Kid, health bars for children. The 11,500 square foot LEED Platinum-certified Clif headquarters are located in Emeryville; they also maintain bakeries in Idaho and Indiana.
Those looking to learn more about this amazing success story, including Gary’s decision not to sell the company for 120 million in 2000, can do so by reading, Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business: The Story of Clif Bar Inc., a book Gary wrote in 2004. It is a book of life lessons learned but it’s also a book about trusting one’s gut and making decisions based on what feels right rather than doing what other people tell you.
In mid 2022, Gary and Kit sold Clif Bar for nearly 3 billion dollars to Mondelez International Inc., (owners of Oreo, Ritz & Toblerone among numerous other name brand snacks and foods). Their winery and Napa Valley owned properties were not included in this sale.
Tasting Room, St. Helena
The Clif Family Winery tasting room (originally called Velo Vino, meaning Bicycle Wine in Italian) opened in 2011 and is located on busy Highway 29 in the southern part of St. Helena city limits. St. Helena requires all wine to be poured in tasting rooms within the city limits to be from Napa Valley. As a result, one of Clif’s other brands, The Climber wines are not poured here; their tasting menu contains only Napa Valley grown and produced wines. All their Napa Valley wines are small production, usually only several hundred cases per wine and are available online and directly from the tasting room. These wines are generally not distributed although one may find select Clif Family wines at several wine shops in Napa Valley. Several different tasting options are offered, paired with select food products. Much of the inside of the tasting room is made from recycled materials.
Those looking to start their day or add a burst of energy later can stop by the tasting room and order an espresso. Several sit-down tables are located indoors and a fenced in patio area is located outside to the rear of the building. The tasting room is popular with bicyclists and has become a good place to relax before or at the end of a bike ride. Several bike parking spots are available for cyclists.
A number of employees work in the tasting room – of various ages. During our most recent visit they were extremely welcoming and knowledgeable. Main Street St. Helena can be aggravatingly busy (especially on summer weekends) but fortunately the tasting room has their own parking lot which wraps around the back of the building. Serious wine enthusiasts can call ahead and reserve a private tasting room.
Unlike tasting rooms that sell contracted food products, Clif Bar’s artisan foods focus on their own grown and prepared items. These are all organic and include a variety of nut mixes, chocolates, farm fresh preserves, some very unique pepper hot sauces and their Solar GrownTM honey including the spiciest honey we have ever sampled, the Solar GrownTM Hot Honey with Cobanero Chili. They also produce an olive oil pressed from olives that grow on their farm (samples available in the tasting room). And as one might expect, samples of Clif Bars are also available.
All of the Clif wines are made at a nearby custom crush facility (as they do not own their own physical winery). The grapes used in their wines are sourced from vineyards that are farmed organically. One of their philosophies is that blended wines make great wines and as a result some (but not all) of their wines contain several varieties. They produce a diversity of wines including both white, red and sparkling. These are not cookie cutter style wines; from a number of tastings over the years, we have noticed that each wine has its own distinctive personality and character including the 100% varietal single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons.
The 2019 Clif Family Napa Valley Chardonnay is from the Oak Knoll District. This wine is medium golden color in the glass with both floral and tropical aromas along with a slight aromatic raciness that is sometimes (but not always) shown by Chardonnay. Opens to some honeysuckle and cantaloupe notes as the wine continues to evolve in the glass. The palate offers a rounded texture which is complemented by a noticeable brightness of acidity and some minerality nuances. Offers flavors of mandarin and melon along with some darker desert spices lingering on the finish. This wine was aged in 30% New French oak barrels. In 2021 Clif Family produced their first ever unoaked Chardonnay.
The 2017 Clif Family Le Colline Vineyard Estate Zinfandel Napa Valley is not an overly ripe or jammy style of wine. This wine is more medium ruby than deep ruby in color; offers a bouquet of cherry and raspberry aromatics along with old cedar box, notes of mushroom and as the wine opens further a hint of coffee grinds. The palate shows both red berry and cherry flavors. The tannins are very fine grained and extremely well integrated into a finish which lingers with hints of pepper and some darker baking spices. This wine shows some spiciness but not overly so; it is very well balanced from start to finish.
The 2018 Clif Family Cold Springs Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is dark ruby in color; shows an earthy and meaty bouquet with aromas of mushroom, forest floor, pepper and darker baking spices. On the palate features flavors of dark plum with both wood and grape tannins lingering on the savory finish. Features dark spices and finer grained yet noticeably grippy (and dusty) tannins which continue to linger for some time. A thread that shows throughout this wine is its bright acidity.
The 2018 Clif Family Croquet Farm Cabernet Sauvignon is made from the same clone as in their Cold Springs Cabernet Sauvignon. But this wine could not be more different, perhaps because of differences in site elevation, exposure and soil types. Shows dark ruby in color with a bouquet that shows more fruit than the Cold Springs bottling. The bouquet is elegant focusing more on fruit aromas rather than barrel aging. It offers notes of blackberry and plum. It is mouthwatering across the palate, but especially noticeable on the finish. The dry tannins are still tightly woven and persist for some time with a noticeable grip.
The 2017 Clif Family Vedo Cabernet Sauvignon was the first ever bottling from a special block within the Croquet Vineyard. Single vineyard, single block. Very limited production. This is Clif Family’s most premium Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is dark in the glass with deeply layered aromatics including ripe dark cherry. The palate also shows plenty of darker fruits including plum and blackberry. Well layered. The tannins are broadly distributed and are certainly noticeable but are not course in their textural feel. Lingers with both fruit and darker spice notes. For serious Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon enthusiasts, this difficult to find wine is highly worth seeking out.
Most of their wines are from Napa Valley but several are sourced from vineyards outside of the valley. Some of their wines are produced exclusively for their wine club members. And one of their wines is named in homage to Gary who enjoys playing the trumpet; Clif Family’s “Improv” label is a tribute to his musical prowess.
Some of their earlier Cabernet Sauvignon vintages came from premium vineyards sourced from Oakville and Diamond Mountain; these are regions which because of their unique terroir produce different characteristics in the wines as compared to other Napa Valley sub appellations. The fruit from the valley floor Oakville vineyard produces less intense fruit and a softer mouth feel whereas the hillside Diamond Mountain contributes more tannins and a bigger bolder flavor. However, these complement each other very well when blended together. Today their single vineyard wines are from Howell Mountain.
The following wines are not poured on site, but we tried offsite during a prior visit. The 2006, Clif Family “The Climber” is a delightful blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Viognier and a touch of Chenin Blanc. This very affordable wine is fruit driven, both in the aromas and on the palate. Each variety brings unique components which when blended together make a very pleasurable easy-drinking wine.
The 2004 Clif Family “The Climber” Red Wine contains 5 varieties with Zinfandel and Syrah making up the majority of the blend. The Syrah gives it the very dark color; it is a balanced wine with a very supple mouth feel. Hints of raspberry round out the palate. For a wine of this quality, it’s hard to beat the price.
An intriguing concept for packaging wine is the Clif Climber Pouch or as its referred to by employees, the All Terrain Wine Transport. This unique wine container holds the same volume as two wine bottles, is lighter, more environmentally friendly and certainly won’t break. A small valve serves the wine. The pouch lets in very little oxygen as the wine is served and it will last longer once ‘open’ than an opened bottle of wine.
Along with their respect for the environment and limiting their carbon footprint where possible, Clif Family donates 1% of their total gross profits to an organization called 1% For The Planet; funds from businesses who participate in this are distributed to organizations protecting the environment worldwide.
Clif Family Winery is a member of SME Climate Hub, a global initiative serving small to medium sized business to take action on reducing their impact on the environment. Clif Family has already taken certain steps in this regard including grazing sheep among their vineyards and sourcing packaging for their products closer to home.
And in 2016 Clif Family Winery created Sip and Support, a series of fundraisers to benefit local nonprofits. Since its inception this program has already raised thousands of dollars through events held at their tasting room in conjunction with their food truck.
Clif Family Enoteca
This space opened for tastings on March 14, 2022, and is located at 1334 Vidovich Lane, a short walk from the primary Clif Family tasting room. Clif Family tore down the existing structure but left the foundation and the floor and completely rebuilt the building. It sits right at the edge of Beckstoffer’s historic Dr. Crane Vineyard; visitors have excellent views to the west overlooking these vines and the forested Mayacamas mountains in the distance. Weather permitting, a small outdoor patio area is a great place to enjoy the wines, the food and the company. Or a larger room offers seating indoors.
Unlike the tasting room which accepts walk-in visitors, all visits to the Enoteca are by reservation. Several tastings are offered; all include small bites prepared by their in-house chef, primarily using seasonal vegetables, fruits and other ingredients harvested from their Howell Mountain farm. During a recent visit we enjoyed local artisan cheeses, yogurt with Clif Family farm fresh fruit, buttermilk-cheddar biscuits with Clif Family Solar GrownTM Raw Honey and fresh eggs with caviar.
As of our latest update to this review, the Clif Family Enoteca offers three distinctive experiences: Presto Gusto, offered daily at 10am (we recommend a light breakfast before this experience as the pairings are lighter in size), La Cima Reserva, offered twice daily in the afternoons featuring pairings with single vineyard Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and Pasto e Vino, a 5-course farm to table lunch paired with some of their limited selection wines.
The Clif Bar food truck (the Bruschetteria) is usually parked next to the tasting room on the street and serves up a variety of seasonal Italian inspired foods. Food from this truck can be enjoyed during a tasting of the Clif Family wines. And on Wednesday the food truck often focuses on specific types of food (we have seen Thai, Ukraine and Vietnamese cuisine as several examples). Some proceeds from this ‘sip and support’ are donated to local charities or other nonprofit organizations. The food truck is popular with both visitors and also with locals and especially those working in the wine and hospitality trade.
Clif Family Farm is located high on the eastern slopes of Howell Mountain on the narrow, windy and steep Old Ink Grade Road. This was the first property that Gary and Kit purchased in Napa Valley. The farm provides a portion of the fresh and seasonal ingredients used in the dishes prepared in their Bruschetteria, sold in their tasting room and paired with their wines. Everything grown here is certified organic (CCOF). Ever heard of wine salt? In partnership with a salt company in Oregon, Clif Family produces several interesting salts including one that is processed with their Zinfandel wine (naturally the salt is purple in color).
And contiguous to the farm but slightly higher elevation is their Croquet Vineyard named in honor of the professional sized croquet court on the property. For top club members and or buyers, the 7-room Croquet Estate Guest House is selectively available for overnight stays.
Cold Springs Estate Vineyard. Like their farm, this property is closed to the public but a number of years ago we were able to visit and enjoy a highly personalized and in-depth vineyard experience high on the slopes of Howell Mountain. We also tasted through a variety of freshly prepared specialty foods from the Clif Family Kitchen (a product line featuring a diversity of tasty treats). A visit here was certainly a slower change of pace compared to what is often a busy tasting environment at the tasting room in St. Helena.
Prior to Clif Family’s ownership, this property used to be home of Marc Cohen’s Howell at the Moon wine brand.
Clif Family also owns 80 acres in the Oak Knoll District, planted to a number of different varieties. They farm a total of 90 vineyard acres in Napa Valley along with 5 acres of vegetables and fruit trees.
Gary and Kit support a variety of worthwhile causes through Clif Bar including Save the Waves Coalition (protecting coastal ecosystems around the world). And in 2006, Gary and Kit founded Clif Family Foundation, which focuses on providing grants to select small organizations centered around food, community health, and the environment and natural resources.
In 2000, Kit was instrumental in creating LunaFest (still in existence), a traveling film festival highlighting films created by women. Its name comes from the Luna Bar, first produced by CLIF Bar in 1999, and was the first energy/nutrition bar created for and marketed to women. CLIF Bar continues to be a sponsor of LunaFest.
An electric vehicle charging station is located on site. Total annual production of Clif Family wines is around 8,000 cases. Clif Family wines are among the most affordable wines in Napa Valley (both their Napa and non-Napa wines). One can sometimes find some of their wines locally at Backroom Wines in Napa, Oakville Grocery in Oakville and Sunshine Market in St. Helena. For more information about their wines and diversity of products, visit: www.cliffamily.com
Clif Family Office, St. Helena
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