In the midst of packing for our move to San Francisco early this summer, I found myself seated at my local dinner spot next to a resident of St. Helena, a town in the Napa Valley in California. While I typically value my bar stool at Otto (from which I’ve consumed more Margarita pizzas than glasses of wine) as a special place to enjoy a personal moment amid the bustling city, it would clearly have been a lost opportunity not to at least ask for a few wine country recommendations. When I mentioned my blog, From the Athlete’s Kitchen, my new friend immediately recommended Velo Vino, the tasting room founded and by extension run by the founders of Clif Bar. They also have a farmstand, CSA and a food truck, she told me.
It turns out that the Clif Family Farm and Winery were started all the way back in 2004, around the same time I was chomping my way through countless Clif Bars at my desk in New York, insatiably hungry during the months of training for my first marathon. This was also about seven years after Clif bar founder Gary Erickson and Clif co-owner Kit Crawford (who is also Gary’s wife) moved to the Napa Valley. Erickson, having made the brave decision in April, 2000 to turn down an offer to take Clif Bar public and personally receive an eight-figure buyout, left the co-owners in the preferable position to not only develop and implement a core set of company aspirations* for Clif Bar, but also to eventually start a sister brand, Clif Family.
Today, Clif Family encompasses the Clif Family Farm, Velo Vino, the Clif Family Tasting Room, Clif Family Kitchen and the Clif Family Bruschetteria. It was Gary’s early cycling trips through Europe, where the days always ended with local food and wine, plus the sustainable values instilled into Kit by her parents combined with her experience working in a San Francisco specialty food shop that ultimately led the couple to open the Clif Family umbrella. Their shared experiences over several trips to Northern Italy, specifically in and around Bassano del Grappa where their cycling efforts were fueled by the bruschetta from the restaurant Samsara, inspired the Clif Family Bruschetteria. The Bruschetteria is an inviting food truck that on most days sits adjacent to Velo Vino, to augment the tasting room with fresh food from the Farm. It is so much fun to chat with executive chef John McConnell about what’s fresh from the farm and tasting great atop the local bread used for the bruschetta.
I got to visit these intrinsically intertwined entities this fall, and in the process learned that my favorite energy bar company delivers far more that I’d ever realized.
The Clif Family Farm lies at the core of the Clif Family brand, where some of the grapes for the Clif Family Winery are grown**, plus fruits and vegetables for the Clif Family market stand at the St. Helena Farmer’s Market, and many of the ingredients in the products in the Clif Family Kitchen line. Before supplying the Bruschetteria, the food grown on the farm was distributed among members of a CSA, about 40 people at its peak. Occasionally, some of the farm’s bounty even supplies the employee cafe at Clif Bar headquarters in Emeryville, CA.
An exciting program in development on the Farm is Clif Family’s Seeds Matter initiative, which encourages the use and trading of organic seeds, taking Clif Bar’s aspiration to care for the planet beyond practices followed only after planting. Click here to read more about Seeds Matter.
There is actually a food supply that flows back to the farm, the leftover organic ingredients from the bakeries that produce Clif Bars. In 2015, the Farm began a chicken breeding program with the heritage breed Mottled Javas. The remnant ingredients like organic cherries sent from the Clif Bar bakeries comprise a part of the chicken feed. Drew Erickson, who manages the chickens and breeding program, explained that the breed is the second-oldest in the country, per the Standard of Perfection, the chicken breeder’s bible which dates back to 1847. Mottled Javas are a dual purpose bird, meaning that they are good egg layers and good for meat, while also serving as foragers, eating bugs and weeds while fertilizing the land as they go. In fact the chickens have been moved around the farm in response to invasive weeds. I never knew that a chicken could be considered a working animal, esp one who’s job description includes reducing food waste for a multi-million dollar energy bar brand under the same ownership! Drew gives some of the birds to other farms and schools as a way to help maintain and raise awareness of the heritage breed, while the hens’ eggs supply the Bruschetteria, the market stand in St. Helena and the Clif Bar Employee cafe. As the chicken population grows at the Family Farm, it may be possible to supply the food truck with meat as well.
In addition to producing chickens and a variety of fruits and vegetables, the Clif Family Farm also produces olive oil. Wine Club Manager Candice Crawford shared the late- Autumn tradition that started over a decade ago and led to the line of olive oil offered by Clif Family Kitchen. The day after Thanksgiving, thirty family members and friends tried their hand at making oil from the olives harvested from the ten centenarian trees growing on the Farm. As the group tried to rake the olives out of the 100-year-old trees, they found that it’s hard work getting stubborn olives off the branches, going up and down ladders and reaching with rakes! Kit and Gary had bought an olive press and everyone dumped the harvest – twenty buckets worth – into the press right on the spot, for a yield of about ten eight-ounce jars. When the oil was tasted, it was incredibly bitter! (I can attest to the extreme bitterness of an olive picked right off the tree – I spat out the first bite immediately as a small audience watched, waited and laughed…) That first batch was allowed to rest and settle for a few months, after which it was marginally better.
A year to the day later, the whole gang tried their hand again, this time with some using electric rakes to help further shake the olive branches (imagine a giant electric toothbrush of sorts) while others held a tarp below to catch the raining olives. There was a better yield that year, about enough for twenty eight-ounce jars. The oil was tasted immediately again, then set to rest. This time the product was a bit better.
A few years further on, an olive consultant was hired to advise picking and resting time to optimize the harvest (which has continued at around the same time) and a professional picking crew was called. As a result of the overall expertise, the Farm began to see a higher yield, and the oil that had a milder, more subtle flavor. Clif Family Kitchen’s first official batch of olive oil was released in 2008, and in 2010, an additional eighty olive trees were planted. In 2012, an additional piece of nearby land was purchased (nicknamed Croquet because of a court that was on the property), where three hundred established trees grow. Today, all the trees are in use and yield about 100 cases of twelve-ounce bottles per harvest/once a year.
Clif Family Kitchen olive oil, preserves from the farm, spice mixes and other foods can be found at the Clif Family tasting room, Velo Vino, and are available to CF Food & Wine Club members (see cliffamilywinery.com). To visit Velo Vino is to enjoy one of the more relaxing yet also inspiring stops on any wine country tour. It’s a fun reminder of the company’s heritage to see a variety of Clif Bar brands available in the tasting room, and several bikes and photos placed throughout the space remind us that the inspiration for Clif Bar came out of the need for a better energy bar during one of Gary’s long rides. The message written on the chalk board in the center of the room harks back to another discovery during one of those early rides, which later played into his decision to keep Clif Bar private, ultimately allowing for the eventual opening of Velo Vino in 2011. That message, “Take the White Road” refers literally to the roads on a Michelin map, on which red roads indicate the most direct, fastest route to a destination, while the white roads indicate a circuitous and challenging yet more delightful option. While Gary and a close friend where on their first cycling trip to Europe and headed for their first alpine pass, the Grosse Scheidegg in Switzerland, they were enlightened by a few locals to the option of taking the White Road. They did, earning unforgettable pedaling and views, and it was the White Road mantra that led Gary to eschew a personal fortune in the buy out offered by Quaker in order to continue Clif Bar’s journey as a company and entity.
Velo Vino buzzes with visitors and locals alike, some stopping by for an espresso or simply to stock up on Clif Bars before a ride. Others settle in with lunch from the Bruschetteria and a bottle from the Winery, and leave with goodies from the Clif Family Kitchen. And behind the scenes, the team at Velo Vino works among other things to support the local community, an effort that bridges back to one of Clif Bar’s Five Aspirations, via their Sip & Support program. On one Thursday each month, 20% of the proceeds from the tasting room and Bruschetteria are donated to benefit a local organization, such as the St. Helena Public School, Girls on the Run, the Sunrise Horse Rescue and the Vine Trail, a bike trail that’s being built in the Napa Valley, to name a few. And each December, Clif Family dedicates three Thursdays to Sip & Support.
Since my visit, I have reached for my almost daily Clif bar with a new sense of pride. Not only is the company committed to The White Road, its co-owners are personally behind over two decades and counting of interesting, educational and important projects which benefit both the individual and multiple communities. Now, my Clif bars not only lend satiation, but also inspiration.