Clif Family Velo Vino
790 Main St.
St. Helena, CA 94574
Hours: Open daily 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Tasting fees: $20-$50 per person, depending on experience chosen
Wines offered: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Rosé of Grenache, Sparkling Brut, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Grenache, The Climber red blend and Bici “GSM” red blend
Reservations: Required for some tasting options and for groups of six or more
Pets: Dogs welcome on the patio
Did you know: Clif Bar has an award-winning company band, The Grove Valve Orchestra, that’s gained a cult following. It performs annually at Velo Vino’s Summer Solstice wine club gathering and at events and competitions nationally.
Gary Erikson and Kit Crawford relocated to Napa County in 1997 after finding business success with Clif Bar & Company. In 2006, they started Clif Family Winery (a sister business to Clif Bar) with a few nationally distributed wines; they’ve since scaled back to focus on smaller, more boutique bottlings of many different varietals.
Opened in 2011, the Velo Vino Tasting Room brings what’s best from the farm and the family to a convenient, friendly destination in town. The warm wooden walls are adorned with photographs of professional bike races (many from Tour de France over the years and some signed by the athletes), as well as cycling-related memorabilia. Shelves are stocked with Clif Family Kitchen products—sauces, preserves, spices, nuts, candies, olive oils and vinegars—most of which are sourced from the 300-acre, certified organic Clif Family Farm on Howell Mountain.
The back patio is a lively gathering spot for the local community, hosting private and public events as well as live music and entertainment on occasion. In addition to wine tasting, Velo Vino offers coffees and teas, including sport teas, as well as the Clif Bar line of products (of course). This comes in handy for those who want to use the spot as the start and end for a Napa Valley bike ride. The staff works with The Calistoga Bikeshop, so you can pick up a rental bike (or bring your own) and enjoy an espresso and Clif Bar before heading out. Use one of the prepared route maps (or they can customize a route for you) and, when you’re done, enjoy a wine tasting experience at your leisure.
In 2013, the family added the Bruschetteria food truck so patrons could add food to their tastings. Helmed by Executive Chef John McConnell, the truck is stationed outside Velo Vino most days and has become a favorite lunch spot for locals in addition to providing fare for the winery’s onsite food pairings. All ingredients bolded on the menu are sourced from Clif Family Farm. Based on Erickson and Crawford’s cycling adventures throughout Northern Italy, McConnell has crafted a short but potent menu that enhances the wines but that can also stand alone. Offerings change with the seasons.
After a quick tour that included a glass of NV brut, the winery’s first foray in sparkling wine, we settled in to try the bruschetta and wine tasting trio (other tasting options are also available; check the website for details). The three small bites were quickly prepared and served on a single board, beautifully simple and inviting.
The 2014 Chardonnay, sourced from organic growers in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley, is well balanced and food friendly. It has a light fruit and floral nose that opens to a hint of spice and a bright finish. It was paired with a porchetta bruschetta (Long & Bailey Farms pork loin, pork belly, red onion, garlic, tarragon, parmesean, fennel pollen and garlic aioli, served on a custom bread from Model Bakery). “I think the fresh herbs mingle with the flavors of the wine and draw out its finish,” says winemaker Laura Barrett, who joined the family in 2014.
The 2011 Gary’s Improv Zinfandel was sourced from Howell Mountain and embodies the depth and structure of mountain fruit. Spicy with a long, lingering finish, it was matched with a funghi bruschetta (with ricotta and fontina cheeses, sherry vinegar and a variety of mushrooms) that was an earthy, melty bite.
Finally, the 2012 Climber Limited Release red blend is a “big red with a not-so-big price,” says Barrett. A mix of primarily Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (with some Petit Verdot and Malbec), it has notes of dark cherry, dried fig and cocoa powder with a peppery finish and bold tannins that are balanced by a cheesy and light seasonal arrancini (arborio rice balls with garlic, chili flake and three cheeses, rolled in breadcrumbs and gently fried, served with fresh tomato sauce).
In addition to the formal tasting, Barrett treated us to a few samples from the first vintage she’s overseen for the family from beginning to end. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc had a floral nose and light, bright citrus notes, and the 2015 Rosé of Grenache was like a liquid watermelon candy, sweet and tangy but with midpalate structure. Both live up to the Clif Family goal of accessible, food-friendly winemaking.
We also sampled the family’s three Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon offerings, sourced from estate fruit (two are single vineyard and one, Kit’s Killer Cab, is a blend). Each was distinct and delicious, with enough structure to age well (but also definitely drinkable now).
From the truck, McConnell shared a few popular dishes as well. The fresh ground, red flint corn polenta is made from corn grown at the farm and served with fontina cheese, perigord truffle and Clif Family olive oil. It’s creamy, rich and perfect for a rainy day lunch. The Italian “ramen” is a loaded soup: arancini, a pork meatball and a poached egg floating in a dense, herbed broth with farm-grown veggies and beans—amazing. For my sweet tooth, the TCHO chocolate budino was an absolute winner.
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