The Clif Family tasting room is no secret among avid cyclists who double as fans of Napa Valley wine. A reservation at the sweet hut in St. Helena can start with an espresso, a Clif Bar, and a bicycle rental to cruise the backroads of the picturesque wine town before you actually get down to tasting any wine.
A sharp-spelling subset of the above group will have long ago spotted the single “f” shared by the two names and deduced that the founders and owners of the Clif Bar company and the vintners behind Clif Family wines are one and the same. For Gary Erickson and his wife, Kit Crawford, a passion for cycling (with a decent snack to tote along) and good food and wine at the end of the day have long been the mashup of their lifestyle. And their path has included not only launching the winery in 2004, but also adding a wildly popular Bruschetteria food truck behind the tasting room, other house-produced food products to the Clif Bar line, and their extensive Home Farm up on Howell Mountain to supply organic ingredients for all of the above.
But on the wine front, what began as an array of broadly sourced, large blends has evolved into a new vision. A recent tasting with winemaker Laura Barrett, whose first full vintage was 2015, made it clear that the focus now is on smaller productions (about half from estate fruit), with some of the most exciting bottles coming off two postage-stamp vineyards on Howell Mountain—Cold Springs Vineyard and Croquet Vineyard.
Tasted side by side, wines from the two spots are a rather astonishing study in contrast within what’s really a very small AVA. We tend to speak broadly of Napa’s “mountain wines.” And yet, as Barrett describes it to me, the Croquet Vineyard, on Howell Mountain’s northeast side, is warm and sunny—the climate that yields great food crops from the plots and orchards of the Home Farm. On the mountain’s south side, Cold Creek is cooler—a full 10 degrees cooler most days, in fact, speaking in wine terms—with the dark-souled fruit there hanging sometimes three weeks longer than the clusters across the hill.
Barrett revels in the differences. She has her favorite profile, of course. But the range—some wines blended across vineyards, some showcasing the character of a singular source, and some made from a few precious rows Barrett isolates for Clif’s exclusive “vineyard block” wines—offers a new taste of Napa Valley. A different slice. It takes a hard-core cyclist to pedal up Deer Park Road to Howell Mountain; these wines are how the rest of us can access this exclusive part of Howell Mountain.
2015 Clif Family Winery Vineyard Block Erta Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
A beautifully dense mid-palate of black raspberry and plum fruit is layered with toasted baking spice, violet, and dark loam aromas, all wrapped in velvety soft tannins ($150).
2015 Clif Family Winery Cold Springs Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
A savory layer of crushed herbs adds complex interest to a briary berry character, dark spices, and gravelly earth, with the soft tannins of the site creating a lovely finish ($125).
2015 Clif Family Winery Croquet Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
This Cab is a bigger, chewier, and more rustic wine than its Cold Springs cohort, but it shares a common thread: a degree of restraint—no over-extraction—which appears as a theme at Clif Family now. Here, robust black plum and mocha aren’t overblown, and they’re layered with gravel and spice ($125).
2015 Clif Family Winery Kit’s Killer Cab Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
Pretty cassis, cherry, plum, and earthy forest notes come together with a great balance of fresh acidity ($75).
2017 Clif Family Winery Ryan’s Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley
One of a growing number of site-specific Sauvignon Blancs in Napa, this one strikes a balance between freshness (fermentation started in tank) and rich mouthfeel (time in barrel and lots of lees stirring). Hints of tropical fruit flavors join stone fruit and creamy citrus.