It turns out that the bottlings of Clif Bar Family Winery and Farm, in their very first national release this year, have integrity and charm all their own, and they’re made with a significant percentage of organically grown grapes. Technically the wines are not part of the energy-snack-and-drink line, but they might as well be: All the products come from the minds of husband-and-wife owners Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, who launched Clif Bar and Company in 1992. Begun on a shoestring, the outfit now brings in $200 million a year in revenue, Gary says, and distinguishes itself by being one of the most eco-conscious companies around.
Gary and Kit are wine lovers who live on the East side of Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley, so developing a lines of wines seems a natural next step. “The wines are unique and have a personality, just like the bars,” says Gary, who’s 50 and still climbs mountains regularly (Clif is Gary’s dad, Clifford, to whom the company is dedicated).
Napa winemaker Sara Gott — who is the former winemaker for Joseph Phelps and, along with her husband, makes Joel Gott Wines — is behind the four new Clif offerings, my favorite of which is the Climber White Wine 2007 ($12.50). This is surprising, as it’s the only white, and I’m not generally a big fan of whites from California. But the oddball blend — Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Muscat — is just right for summer, mixing notes of white grapefruit and honeysuckle with a pleasantly crisp finish.
Gary tells me that part of the idea of the line is to let people know that “blends are good.” Wines blended from different grapes are the norm in Europe, but New World wine culture developed differently, with an emphasis on single varieties. “We like the idea of being able to play with a blend,” he adds.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that my second favorite was the line’s other blend, The Climber Red Wine 2007 ($15), made from no less than five different grapes. This wine is not a deep thinker, but it’s light on its feet and provides plenty of red-fruit excitement, including the welcome taste of pomegranate. So far the two "Climber" wines — as well as Kit’s Killer Cab 2005 ($35) and Gary’s Improv Zinfandel 2005 ($32) — are only available in some states, but the owners hope to be blanketing the country by the end of the year.
So why didn’t Gary just keep the wines as an entirely separate brand from his other business? “We weren’t going to name it Clif at first,” he tells me. “But then we realized the values are the same: quality, value, price, creativity, sustainability, whimsy, adventure.”
All good, but the limitations of wine-and-food matching mean that the synergy can only go so far: Drinking a Clif wine alongside a Clif Bar wouldn’t do either any favors.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.