Pursue Your Passion; Clif Family Winery

Dracaena WinesWhat is the definition of being successful? Is it making more money than you know what to do with? Is it having letters after your name that people aren’t even sure what they mean? Or is it simply being happy? When Mike and I decided to enter the wine business, we knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road. We were realistic. We understood that we would neither be an overnight sensation, nor ever be as recognized as Robert Mondavi. That’s not why we entered the business. We entered the wine industry because we love wine and it was our dream to own a winery. We chose to not just wish or dream about it, we made a conscious decision to make it happen. We chose to Pursue Our Passion.

It’s a scary thing chasing down your dreams, but if you don’t enter the race you are never going to win. One of my favorite sayings about Pursuing Your Passion was made by “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. He very eloquently stated, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” He knows you need to take risks. You need to leave the safety net that tethers you to your comfort zone so that you can experience what happens next.

In this, what has become a monthly tradition, a guest blogger will tell you their story of how they pursued their passion in the wine industry. These people understood what Van Gogh meant by “I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”

Are you familiar with Clif Bars? I don’t really remember when I tasted my first one, but I can tell you that since then, they are a mainstay in my diet. I am a creature of habit when it comes to food. As much of an adventurous person I am in life, I am extremely unadventurous in food.  I stick to the basics and Clif bars fit into my food personality perfectly. I have a Builder bar every morning, rotating between Mint Chocolate and Chocolate Peanut Butter, and a Clif Energy bar for lunch. My lunch varies between Sierra Trail Mix, Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Crunch and my favorite Nuts and Seed. 

One day, I was at Markham Vineyards in Napa.  After a very delightful tasting, I was speaking with the tasting room manager. We were discussing other wineries to visit.  She asked me if I like Clif bars. I laughed, opened my backpack and pulled out an energy bar.  She handed me a card for Clif Family Winery. I was in shock. I hadn’t known there was a winery. It was like my two favorite worlds were colliding. 

I reached out to them to ask if they would be interested in sharing their story. I am so happy to be able to share the story. Not only do they love adventure, and concerned about the environment, they have been ranked as one of the top places to work in America -heck their turnover rate is at about 3%! That is incredible! But the icing on the cake is that EVERY DAY IS BRING YOUR DOG TO WORK DAY! SoI had to learn more, and I wanted to share their story. So why don’t you grab yourself a Clif Bar, pour yourself a glass of wine, cuddle up to your furbaby and read on?!

~Sláinte! 

Let’s start off with Clif Bars, since that’s where the story begins.  I’m a maniac for them! I buy them by the case since I pretty much live on them. (A Builder bar for breakfast and an energy bar for lunch.) Tell us a bit how your passion for food and adventure led to the creation of Clif Bars?

In 1990, during a 175 mile bike ride (known now as the Epiphany Ride), the idea for a better tasting energy bar was born.  Gary worked for 6 months in his mom’s kitchen to create the perfect Clif Bar recipe.  He named the bar after his father, Clifford, who introduced him to wilderness adventures and encouraged him to follows his passions in life. 

Five years after the creation of Clif Bars, you moved your family to Napa.

courtesy of Clif Family Winery

With so many wine regions and beautiful countrysides, what about Napa made you decide that’s where you wanted to be?

Gary and Kit’s love of the outdoors, cycling and farming drew them to the Napa Valley.  They purchased a property located next to one of the best cycling climbs in the Napa Valley and started the Clif Family Farm.

Your farm is “Food Alliance- and CCOF-certified.”  What does that actually mean? Sustainability seems to be immensely important to the Clif Family.  Why is contributing to a “more vibrant and healthy food community” so important to you?

Clif Bar and Clif Family Winery operate with a different kind of “bottom line”.  Sustaining our business, brands, communities, planet and people is a better return on investment than just one bottom line. 

At Clif Family Winery, our goal is to create unique regional wines and foods using practices that care for the earth and to support growers who use sustainable and organic farming methods.  We also aim to contribute to a more vibrant  and healthy food community. 

In September 2011, we became Food Alliance certified on the Home Farm.  Food Alliance provides comprehensive 3rd party certification for social and environmental responsibility in agriculture and the food industry. 

In 2010, Clif Family Farm became certified organic by CCOF.  Our commitment to organic farming goes hand in hand with our goal to grow food in ways that nurture the land, protect wildlife, and benefit communities and people’s health.

Clif Family is so much more than energy bars and wine! You produce olive oil, chutneys, jams, fruit preserves, and you raise free range chickens. You are providing your customers with an all-inclusive food and wine experience. How do you see them all tying together? What’s your philosophy on wine and food.

We aim to create authentic experiences for our guests and customers whether in the Tasting Room, through our wine clubs or through other outlets for connecting with our customers.  Wine and food are integral to that experience.  We are able to create a “farm to truck” experience at the Clif Family Bruschetteria and Tasting Room, delivering unique food and wine pairing experiences to our guests that connect back to our organic farm.   

Sticking with food, before moving onto wine. The owners, Gary & Kit’s love for cycling took them to Italy and those trips ultimately led to the creation of the food truck. From cycling to Bruschetta! YUM! Tell us about the Bruschetteria food truck. How did it come to fruition? It is typically on the back patio but also travels around Napa. Is there a set schedule where people can find it?

Gary & Kit’s Food Truck Story

Many of our cycling trips have begun and ended in a small town called Bassano Del Grappa in Northern Italy.  It was here that we first met our friends Paolo and Nene, owners of a bar and restaurant called Samsara.  Over the past 30 years, Paolo and Nene have developed a delicious menu of fresh and seasonal bruschetta that they serve at Samsara.

The memory of these bruschetta traveled back to the Napa Valley with us as we looked to find a way to recreate the taste and experience of Paolo and Nene’s cooking using ingredients from the Clif Family Farm and friendly local purveyors.  Since we are always on the move, a food truck seemed to be the perfect way to share these mouthwatering bruschetta with the local community.  And so the Clif Family Bruschetteria was born. 

The Clif Family Bruschetteria Food Truck can be found at the Tasting Room on Tuesday – Sunday from 11:30am to 4pm.  On Wednesdays, we are open late until 7:30pm to serve dinner.  We also feature a weekly “Street Food Napa Valley” menu on Wednesday nights highlighting street food cuisines from around the world. 

How long was Clif Family in Napa before the winemaking bug hit? What was the first wine they produced? What was the original case production? Where are they presently at? Is there a “sweet spot” for your production?

Gary and Kit started Clif Family Winery in 2003 with Kit’s Killer Cab Cabernet Sauvignon and Gary’s Improv.  The first production of these 2 wines was about 500 cases.  We now produce about 8,000 cases of wine annually, 100% of which is sold through Direct to Consumer channels. 

You have three estate vineyards; Clif Family Estate Home Vineyard, Cold Springs Estate Vineyard, and Croquet Estate Vineyard. Tell us, why you chose these sites? What’s special about each one that made you decide these are the ones you had to have.

Cold Springs Vineyard and Croquet Vineyard are our two Cabernet Sauvignon sites.  They were chosen for their Howell Mountain location, which is a prime growing region for this varietal.  The soils are all volcanic, with elevations around 1700ft and cooler weather conditions than the Napa Valley floor.  All of these factors create vines that are well balanced and produce concentrated mountain fruit. 

So…. there is a professional sized croquet court on your appropriately named Croquet Estate Vineyard. I must admit, I didn’t know there was professional croquet. Do you hold tournaments? How do you become a professional croquet player? Was the court there prior to you purchasing the site?

The prior owner of the property was a championship croquet player.  He hosted many tournaments there.  Now it is just a part of the property that we enjoy very much.  We don’t host any official tournaments but we do get competitive from time to time…especially at our annual company picnic. 

Why did you choose Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon to be estate fruit and source the for your other varietal wines? Are there plans to expand your estate fruit?

Cabernet Sauvignon is king on Howell Mountain, where our Estate Vineyards are located.  The vineyards were already planted when we purchased them and we are extremely happy with the quality of the fruit from these vineyards.  We planted about 2 acres of Zinfandel on the Home Farm property because it is one of Gary’s favorite varietals and grows well in the area.  

Onto your winemaker, Laura Barrett. You received your undergrad degree

courtesy Clif Family Winery

in Chemistry but weren’t happy in the lab. As a trained microbiologist….. I get that!!!!! (labs can be boring, especially for hyperactive people like me) With so many directions you could have gone with Chemistry, how did you decide that wine was the career you wanted  to pursue? 

I was in search of a career that would utilize my love for science and my degree in Chemistry.  But, I also wanted to be in the outdoors and work with people.  A laboratory environment seemed so dark and lonely to me.  I had an interest in fermentation science and was keen to discover how things were made.  So, when I came across wine and the wine science department at UC Davis, I decided to pursue this interest. 

Your first job in the wine industry was in New Zealand. Take us through that jump. You graduate from University of Vermont and end up in New Zealand at Stony Ridge Vineyards. Was it a difficult decision to relocate? Why did you choose New Zealand?  

I always wanted to do a semester abroad, but because of the intensity of my studies, I was unable to leave without falling behind.  So, I promised myself a year of travel upon graduation.  I first went to Guatemala to a language immersion program studying Spanish.  I sort of caught the travel bug at that point and decided to stay on the move.  I had a friend who was headed to Australia, so decided to tag along.  With wine on the forefront of my mind, we made the jump over to New Zealand to catch the grape harvest.  We landed at Stonyridge Vineyards, where my friend had a connection to the owner.  There, we worked harvest, which mean picking grapes, and worked in the café and later in the vineyard for pruning season.  I stayed for a year before returning to California for graduate school at UC Davis.

You decided to return to the United States and pursue a Graduate degree in Viticulture and Enology at the UC Davis. (Go Aggies!) You received the La Reve Foundation scholarship which is an extremely prestigious award. Please share more information about the scholarship and how you think it affected your career.

This scholarship was a huge turning point for me.  First, it was such an honor to be selected and was a great jumpstart to my confidence as a woman entering the wine industry.  Second, I used the funding to travel to the Margaret River region on the west coast of Australia to work vintage.  I worked with Bruce Dukes, who was also a UCD graduate who had recently opened a custom crush facility in his home town in Margaret River.  This was by far my best cellar experience.  I worked long hours of hard physical labor, and loved every second of it.  I used to keep a pad of paper and pen in my back pocket and write down everything Bruce said!

With all the conversation about women in the wine world, I have to ask your opinion on the matter. Do you find being a female to be a hindrance in being accepted as a winemaker? What do you find to be the most difficult hurdles to overcome as a winemaker? Do you think these obstacles would be any different if you were a male?

I do not find that being a woman in the industry is a hindrance.  We are certainly a minority, but there are more and more of us as the years go on.  Together, we are a powerful influence.  The most difficult hurdle to overcome as a winemaker is making that transition from Assistant Winemaker to Head Winemaker.  As an Assistant, you are still in the learning phase, usually with a mentor.  As a new Winemaker, you must gather your knowledge and formulate your own opinion, establish your style.  That’s a tough thing to do.  This hurdle would be no different for a male, in my opinion.  Getting through the transition requires knowledge, experience and confidence. 

Tell us about your first vintage as a winemaker. Were you nervous? Excited? Terrified? All of the above? Has those emotions changed over the years?

My first vintage as Head Winemaker was exciting!  I was ready to work on my own and was thrilled at the opportunity ahead.  The excitement of vintage never goes away.  That first pick of the season is always an emotional day and I always feel excited for the opportunity to make another wine.

One of our tag lines is “Pursue Your Passion.” You obviously have passion for wine. If you were to give advice to someone entering the wine industry to pursue their passion, what would you tell them?

I would tell them to get a harvest job in the cellar!  There is no better way to get hands on experience and learn about wine.  You smell it, taste it and move it through the winery day after day.  It takes attention to detail, strength and a lot of hard work, which sets you up perfectly for a career in wine.  Plus, a harvest cellar crew tends to have a lot of fun too!

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1 thought on “Pursue Your Passion; Clif Family Winery”

  1. I’m a huge fan off Clif Family wines!! I too was surprised by their outstanding quality and tasting room experience. I’m so glad you wrote about them.

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