Rolling Off a Clif

In the Napa Valley, Clif Bar CEOs Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford have built a wine-tasting room that doubles a a refuge for cyclists. To really understand the concept, I figured I had to join Erickson for a ride. I should have known better.

Partying on the patio.     Photo: Courtesy of Velo Vino

Erickson at Velo Vino's one-year anniversary concert.

Cyclists before a ride.

Tales from tours in the Alps.

“Bigger gear here,” Gary Erickson says to me over his shoulder just before banking left and disappearing behind a wall of oak and madrone trees. We’re about 45 minutes into our ride, the last five of which have been on an old fire road carved up by tree roots. Erickson’s guidance has been spot on since we saddled up in St. Helena, so I obediently downshift, follow him through the turn and—oof—start slowly cranking up a steep grade.

It’s a perfect summer afternoon for mountain biking on Howell Mountain, on the east side of Napa Valley. The forest offers a shady respite for the swelter of the vineyards below. The kids from Pacific Union College who usually swarm the trails are on vacation. It’s a Thursday, so there are no weekenders. There’s just one problem: we’re on road bikes.

I’d been warned that rolling with Erickson could be like this. The 54-year-old founder and CEO of Bay Area-based energy foods maker Clif Bar has a well-known preference for “white roads,” a term he started using in the mid-1980s during a long bike tour in the Alps. As Erickson and a close friend plotted their course on the fly, they learned that the red roads on their map were the most direct, but also more crowded and less inspiring. The white roads were far more interesting. They required greater commitment—think shouldering bikes over snowy passes—but gave him what he was after: adventure. So was born a mantra that’s guided many tours that followed as well as his vision for Clif: ride the white roads.

Last year, I’d sat down with Erickson and his wife and co-CEO, Kit Crawford, at Clif’s Bay Area headquarters to talk about where the white roads have taken their company over the last 20-plus years (it’s now worth a reported $235 million). Among the things I learned: they still love competing, real men do eat Luna Bars, and food is a great business to be in. We also talked about a new venture they set to launch in St. Helena, where they’ve lived since 2003, a cycling-themed tasting room for their Clif Family Winery. They were envisioning the place, to be called Velo Vino, as a space where, as Erickson put it, “all these worlds collide”: Clif Bar, wine, cycling, food from their organic farm, “and everything in between.”

Fast forward to this summer. Velo Vino has emerged as a unique destination in the California wine country for cyclists, a welcoming hub to start and end rides. You can order an espresso, bring your own lunch, and swill cabernet. You can simply hang out on their shaded back patio—in spandex. All this, and wine aficionados seem to love it: Velo Vino is among the top rated tasting rooms in the Napa Valley on Yelp.com.

So when Clif Family Winery called recently to see if I’d be interested in a visit, I said absolutely. But I suggested we mix in a ride with Erickson. What better way to get the full Velo Vino experience? Erickson’s response: Good idea.

As much as I was thrilled at the prospect of a ride with Erickson—he’s been something of a hero of mine ever since I read his 2004 book, Raising the Bar, which outlines a business philosophy of responsible and sustainable growth—I was also anxious. Yeah, he’s almost 20 years older than me, but the man rides his bike a lot, still taking long European tours. And I was given no clues about the kind of ride we’d take, other than that it would last a few hours. So I decided to bring along a ringer, my friend Mark, a former semi-pro cyclo-cross racer. If Erickson put down the hammer, I’d just draft behind Mark and try to keep up.

It was a great plan—at least while we were on pavement.

A BIKE GEEK ENTERING Velo Vino has this as a first reaction: My kind of place. This is because of Fred. Fred is a beat-up old steel road bike stationed near the front door. Hanging from Fred’s top tube is Fred’s story, as told by Fred. The short version: He was Erickson’s trusted bike in the Alps for about 10 years, until he got replaced because Erickson’s “aging body couldn’t push the gears I was born with over those difficult passes.” But Fred is happy now because he’s surrounded by photos of the good old days.

The shots, which are mostly concentrated on one wall, are from a number of Erickson’s adventures in Europe. They’re the kind of images people usually keep in albums and pull out when friends come over and you get to telling travel stories. Looking at them made me suddenly realize that, some day, I absolutely must go on a grand biking tour of Europe.

Elsewhere inside Velo Vino there are more bikes, both vintage and modern, along with racks of Clif cycling apparel, displays of gourmet nut mixes from Erickson and Crawford’s high-end snack brand, Gary & Kit’s Napa Valley, a small bar, and many bottles of wine. There is lots of attractive wood: floors, walls, shelves, picture frames.

When Mark and I first showed up, Erickson and Crawford were out back on the patio, which, with its built-in stone seating areas, wicker couches, and coffee tables, felt like someone’s private outdoor living room. This is by design. “People come in and say, ‘Oh, I feel so comfortable here. It’s not pretentious. It feels like home,’” Crawford said when I asked her how Velo Vino compares to other tasting rooms. “If you don’t know about wine, it’s OK. Just come in and we’ll talk to you about it.”

“We’re getting 35-member bike clubs staging rides out of here,” Erickson added. “They go out and come back and they’re literally laying all over the place. To feel so welcomed as a cyclist, it’s awesome. This is our piazza, our refugio, you know? Just a place to take refuge and hang.”

To attract cyclists, Velo Vino will sometimes set-up a big screen on the patio and screen films like Peloton. In July, they hosted Tour de France nights, replaying the day’s stage. They also put on regular music concerts, with Erickson, who plays the trumpet, occasionally taking the stage.

The operation has clearly had a positive impact on Clif Family Winery’s business. Over the last year, they’ve gone from 25 members in their wine club (called, naturally, Club Peloton) to 500. As Erickson sees it, opening a real tasting room helped the brand, which they’d launched in 2008, “enter into the legit category in the wine world.” It also gives them a chance to connect with potential customers. “You go into BevMo and there are thousands of brands. How do you compete?” he said. “This has given us a nice niche for direct communication with people.”

For Erickson, it’s also a chance to play the part of the charming European restaurant owner, many of whom populate his tales from the Alps, where a day of riding often ended with a huge meal and bottle of wine. As we chatted, he instinctively got up and refilled the wine glasses of a couple seated behind us. When another couple rode onto the patio on bikes loaded down with saddlebags, he quizzed them about their trip. They were from Montreal and had flown into San Francisco, mounted up at the airport, and ridden north, aiming for Velo Vino.

Erickson is a born schmoozer, but there’s also a business goal behind the small talk. He’s conducting subtle qualitative market research for both Clif Bar and Clif Family Winery. “We go up to the table and start with, ‘Where are you from?’” he said. “That leads to their first Clif Bar. Then they say something like, ‘Hey, whatever happened to the chocolate espresso flavor? You gotta bring that back.’ Yes, you can do that through email, the Web, Twitter, whatever. But there’s nothing like being able to sit down with someone.”

With that in mind, this October, Erickson and Crawford are taking a five-week road trip in a bio-diesel RV through the West to introduce people to a new line of snack bars under the Clif Kit’s Organic label, which launched in May. It’ll be just the two of them, plus their terrier, Sparky, and their mountain bikes, cruising between stores and handing out samples.

But first, there’s today’s ride. “So, uh, where are we going?” I asked.

“Up past the Clif vineyard on Howell Mountain,” Erickson answered. “We’ll do about 30 miles and 3,500 feet of climbing.”

He paused and smiled broadly, then said, “And we’ll go on a little white road.”

ERICKSON HAS THE THICK legs of a lifelong cyclist and steady, smooth pedal cadence. More importantly for me, he rides like a gentleman.

As we worked our way up out of St. Helena he took great care to warn Mark and me about road hazards and traffic, and kept looking back to make sure we kept up. When we made a short pit stop at the Clif’s Cabernet vineyard—five and half acres of grapes near the top of Howell Mountain—he fetched us cold water from a fridge. I barely had to draft behind Mark at all.
 
Not that drafting is worth much when you’re climbing a crumbling fire road, trying to keep your skinny tires from spinning out. As we near what I pray is the top, I look up from my handlebars to see that in another 100 feet, difficult becomes impossible. Not only does the trail become ridiculously steep, the dirt turns to smooth, exposed boulders, topped with fist-sized rocks. Erickson has to be kidding.

And he is. “Fakeout!” he says, turning sharply left onto a singletrack path obscured behind the trees. It swings us around the top of the mountain and a few minutes later, we’re back on pavement.

“Bit of a sporting descent,” Erickson cautions before we rip down a winding road into Pope Valley. We climb another road up to the Clif Family Farm, near Erickson and Crawford’s home, stopping for a brief tour. He leads us to an area where an old farmhouse once stood. It burned down but the stone foundation makes for a killer outdoor party spot. In another couple weeks, his daughter, in her mid-20s will be getting married here.

He points uphill, where his property extends into the forest. “There’s some rideable singletrack up there,” he says. But we don’t have time to try it today, as Erickson has to get to a neighborhood meeting. So he gives us directions back to Velo Vino and pedals away.

When I get home in the evening, I enjoy a couple glasses of Clif’s cabernet. Then I head down to the garage to spend about 45 minutes cleaning the Napa dirt off my bike.

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