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    Wines from Clif Family Winery – Checking in with Winemaker Laura Barrett

    ClifFamily-Logo-PrimaryNapa Valley maintains a reputation as one of the preeminent wine producing areas in the world.? This reputation was enhanced, and actually created for all intensive purposes, by the celebrated Judgement of Paris in 1976, where both a white and a red wine from the valley beat much heralded French wines in a head to head competition.? This single event turned the wine world on its head and gave birth to the continuing Napa mystique.

    Now world famous wineries and names dot the landscape in Napa, and large conglomerates buy and sell property.? One of the treasures of the region, however, is the large number of smaller, family run wineries.? These producers put their heart and soul into their wines, and offer a distinctly different experience than you get when visiting one of the big names.? Here it is usually about a laid back, family experience, and one where a common theme will generally be the quality of the wines.

    In this article we’ll take a look at one such example, a smaller, family run winery and farm that takes its wine seriously, it’s food seriously, but neither too seriously.? The story here is about wine and food going together with family, friends and good times.? Celebrating life is what this is all about, and what they do at Clif Family Winery.

    Clif Family was started, and is owned, by Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, who also own the Clif Bar & Company,

    Vineyard Sign

    Vineyard Sign

    one of the world’s leading organic energy food producers.? Their first bottled vintage from the winery was in 2006.? Gary and Kitt found their passion for great food and wine, and the celebrations that so often accompany them, from their own family experiences as well as during their cycling adventures through Italy.? They wanted to bring some of that home, and did so by starting a winery that celebrates life.? Here you’ll find vineyards, farm fresh foods, a Bruschetteria Food Truck, a laid back philosophy and an obvious love of cycling.? The latter is evident through the cycling adventures they promote in Napa, the welcome thrown out to those willing to bicycle their way to the winery and, of course, the sprocket and chain which form the main element of the wine labels.

    What you’ll also find here is a rather large assortment of wine varietals, blends and styles.? This can be a warning sign, as around us in the Northeast we have several wineries who suffer from ‘trying to do too much’, and in the end wind up doing nothing very well at all.? Could that be the case here?

    Laura and her favorite ingredients

    Laura and her favorite ingredients

    Unlikely, and the reason for that is winemaker Laura Barrett.? We first met Laura 4-5 years ago when she was winemaker at Casey Flat Ranch, just across the Vaca Mountains on the east side of Napa, in Yolo County.? This was not, and is not, an area known for world class wines, yet here Laura was, turning out world class wines.? We loved her rich red blends and absolutely adored her Sauvignon Blanc, aged in oak and smooth as silk.? ?Having a chance to share some time at dinner with Laura back then gave us an appreciation of her passion for winemaking.? We had no doubt she would do great things at Clif Family.

    When I had the chance to speak with Laura recently she mentioned how the experience and opportunity at Clif Family was giving her the ability to expand her repertoire and make her a more complete winemaker.? She has had quite a journey already, from her time in Margaret River in Western Australia, a stint at Fisher Vineyards in Napa, where a close family run winery and a history of top notch Cabernets were in place, to Casey Flat Ranch, where she worked in the middle of nowhere and still made great wines, to the current position at Clif Family.? Here, she is in another environment which supports her creativity, allows her to take new directions, and also gets her more involved in the viniculture than she has previously.? Now she participates in and directs elements of the management of the various contract vineyards that provide grapes for some of her wines, as well as overseeing vineyard operations at the family’s Howell Mountain

    Laura with 2015 Erta Cabernet

    Laura with 2015 Erta Cabernet

    Estate.? She believes this experience is really rounding out her winemaking abilities.

    Laura’s first full vintage, where she had a say in the growing season, harvest, crush and fermentation, was 2015.? We’ve been waiting for her reds from that year, and finally have the Cabs to taste and report on.? This is very exciting as we love Napa Mountain Cab, and we love Laura’s wines.? Along with the two, single vineyard cabs, we have a Petite Sirah.? We also have three very different whites.? This promises to be enjoyable.? Here’s what we found in the bottles:


    2016 Dry Gewürztraminer – sourced from the family owned Ferrington Vineyards in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, this wine sees 40% oak and carries a healthy 14.1 % alcohol.? This was the first time Laura had worked with IMG_1499Gewurtztraminer, and it is now one of her favorite varietals.? While Clif Family has a focus on organically farmed wines, and all newly sourced vineyards must be organic, this vineyard is not.? But, as Laura pointed out, “you don’t find a Gewürztraminer vineyard on every corner.”? True enough, and when you find great grapes, well….you find great grapes.? Our impressions:

    The wine is a brilliant golden yellow, not dark at all but rich in hue.? There are also green highlights as you turn the glass.? On the nose aromas of orange, ripe peach and tropical fruit emerge quickly.? The palate is very fruit driven as well.? It is bright, but has texture and some body.? There is a great, cleansing acid that provides balance. A touch of tannin and short burst of lemon cap off a very long finish.? Wow, is this good, and different.? Retails for $30, but can be had through the wine club for $24.? We think it is a great value there, and will put it on our Value List.

    2016 Viognier – This wine comes from Oakville fruit and sees 100% Neutral French Oak treatment.? Also IMG_1498checking in at 14.1% alcohol, this is not a simple, summer quaffer.? What did we think?

    The wine is a light, pale yellow.? The nose is rich with pear, apricot and a touch of honeysuckle.? You get much the same on the palate, along with bright acid and a surprising richness.? This is not as floral as most Viogniers.? We loved it.? Retails for $28, about $22 through the wine club.? Another wine for the Value List.

    2016 Oak Knoll Sauvignon Blanc – We were doubly excited about this one, as we received an early release bottle, and have some experience with what Laura can do with oak and Sauvignon Blanc.? This wine sees 11% new oak for seven months,? with the majority of the rest getting more gentle treatment in once used Chardonnay sbbarrels.? About 20% of the wine is done in stainless steel.? Previously, the production lots were too small to support anything but on site winery sales, but with expanded production Laura is making enough this time to support the wine club as well.? I dare say not for too long, however, as it will likely go quickly.? How did we like this?

    The wine screams out pure aromas of pear, along with some white peach and richer fruits.? This is not a grassy grapefruit blast.? You get those same fruits on the palate, with some nice texture and body.? The oak has smoothed this out, but not dented the purity of the fruit. You also don’t get much of the oak directly.? It conditions the wine and then leaves the party.? I suspect this is much harder to pull off than one might believe, but Laura has succeeded fabulously.? This is a great wine as well, and caps off a run of three supremely well made whites.? Also on our Value List, this retails for $38 and costs $30 through the wine club.

    2015 Petite Sirah – Here the fruit comes from bench sites partly up the mountains, on the east side of Napa, at about 1200′ in elevation.? The wine is aged for 20 months in 45% new oak. ? Petite Syrah can be dense and brooding at times.? What was IMG_1497this like?

    The wine is a dark, purple red, as you would expect.? It was opaque out of the bottle.? Long legs cascade down the glass after a good swirl, also not unexpected.? The rich nose is resplendent with dark fruit, predominantly blackberry.? There is also a touch of blueberry in there as well.? A little oak makes an appearance.? There is a little floral quality.? It is rich on the palate, and full bodied.? Tannins are solid and well integrated.? This had good acid and balance.? Just when you think it is the usual, big and chewy Petite Sirah, the wine stays fresh.? The fruit is carried through the mid-palate in pure tones.? It is rich, and luscious, but at the same time focused and a bit restrained.? As such it is somewhat self-contradictory in that most wonderful of ways.? It is the iron fist in the velvet glove, and one of my favorite wines of the year to date.? It finished with a dusting of chocolate.? $45 retail, $36 through the wine club.? Bravo, and certainly another wine for the Value List.

    2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Croquet Vineyard – Clif Family has a total of about 10 acres of estate vineyards.? There is an old vine Zinfandel plot, the Home Farm Vineyard, which we will not have the pleasure of IMG_1496tasting here, as well as two estate Cabernet Sauvignon tracts.? This one, Croquet, Laura describes as the more rustic, with bigger tannins.? As such she has to treat it more gently during the crush and fermentation process, trying to keep some of those tannins in control.? This vineyard, as well as its sister Cold Springs Vineyard, are both above the fog at over 1400′ in elevation.? What do we think?

    This is a touch darker than its sister below, but has the same rich, ruby red color.? The nose is lighter than you would expect, with cherry and blueberry.? On the palate the tannins are indeed firm, but managed.? The fruit is pure, and the mid-palate brings an unwaveringly rich experience.? With some air time this developed some savory notes, as well as an herbal quality.? It’s a big wine, somewhat hidden by its focused fruit, but more noticeable as it opens up.? It finishes very long and is a great expression of Napa Mountain Cabernet.? At over $100 retail it is a bit pricey.? The wine club price will be a bit lower.

    2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Cold Springs Vineyard – Here the fruit hangs for a lot longer time, and this helps the tannins to mellow out.? Due to this Laura can work the grapes harder. While at an equal altitude, and IMG_1495not far away from the Croquet vineyard,? the aspect and sun exposure are different.? Let’s see what that resulted in:

    Again, a dark ruby red, but a half a shade lighter than the Croquet.? This is transparent and brilliant.? You will never find particulates or sediment in a wine from Laura, as she sterile filters everything.? She has always done so, and when you open one of her bottles you get exactly, without exception, what she intended you to get. It’s a bit of an obsession, but we’re not complaining.? ?But back to the wine at hand, and a nose of plum and cough drop cherry.? There is also some earth (think newly opened bag of potting soil), some savory, and a wonderful touch of caramel.? This is complex, full bodied and, like all of her wines, focused and clean.? The tannins are much more integrated than in the Croquet Cab.? It finishes very, very long.? Pricing is the same as for the Croquet.

    These two cabs would make a great gift bottle, or a perfect pair to bring to a wine tasting to let your friends compare and contrast the two wines.? Each is from the same mountain, and made by the same winemaker, but they are quite different.

    Chef John McConnell and Bruschetteria Food Truck

    Chef John McConnell and Bruschetteria Food Truck

    We were certainly expecting great things from Laura, and she didn’t disappoint us.? We can only imagine that the rest of her wines exhibit the same quality and attention to detail.? We have to try the remaining wines, and will do so through the wine club or a future visit, whichever comes first.

    Clif Family is really a destination.? Come for a visit, taste some great wine, have lunch and a bottle of your favorite juice.? If you’re into cycling, pedal to the winery; they’ll like that.? Even better, go on one of their cycling adventures.? Then you get to pedal away from the winery, pedal back to the winery, and enjoy some great food and wine to cap off the day.

    Laura is still exploring, and is excited about the latest release, a Rhone style red called “Bici”.? This is 59% Grenache and 41% Syrah.? Something tells me it will be good.

    By the way, we would be remiss if we didn’t pay a bit more homage to the food.? We had the chance to munch on IMG_1493three of their snack offerings while we enjoyed the wines.? These were the Rosemary Roasted Almonds and Pistachios, Smoked Spanish Pimenton Toasted Almonds and the Maple Curried Cashews and Peanuts.? Now while that may sound a bit unusual, I can tell you I loved all three.? The Rosemary was right up front, and then it integrates beautifully and if you close your eyes you could almost think you were enjoying a great cut of prime rib.? Seriously.? The Pimenton Almonds were tangy and full of flavor.? The Maple Curried nuts were a revelation, as I hate most things maple, never would put maple together with curry, and finished the bag in no time.? In fact, they were my favorite of the three, but all were good.? There are many more artisan foods available, including chocolates, butters, jams and hot sauce.? Take a look and see what inspires you.

    You can read much more about Clif Family Winery, Laura Barret and what they’re all about on the website at https://www.cliffamily.com/.? While Laura describes her current experience at Clif Family as being the “pinnacle of her career”, we would add the words ‘to date’ at the end of that phrase.? We can only believe there are even greater wines ahead of her, and can’t wait to see what comes next.

    Try these if you get a chance.? They are all wonderfully crafted wines.? Keep in mind that this will require, as with many small Napa wineries, that you either visit, join the wine club or order direct online.? They do essentially all of their sales via direct to consumer channels.? It’s worth any extra effort this takes.

    A votre santé!

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