Wednesday, May 28, 2008
The Good Life, Naturally
Suppose you owned and ran a massively successful and beloved sports-nutrition company. You live in Napa Valley where you can run and ride horses and bicycles through heaven itself in your free time. What else could you want?
That’s the funny thing about entrepreneurial sorts. For most of us, we know Clif Bar’s Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford as the people responsible for creating an energy bar that tastes like real food and for growing the company so that we can find their products as readily as Moon Pies when we’re in a 7-Eleven.
To be sure it took them both—Gary the visionary/mad scientist of the kitchen and Kit whose natural sales ability could disarm and cheer Dick Cheney. The potent combination they present is a recipe for success in any endeavor.
Those familiar with Clif’s long list of products are probably also aware of the number of organic and natural ingredients used in those products. Gary and Kit are clearly pleased to think that every time someone eats a Clif product it is a victory for sustainable farming practices and natural foods.
At their farm in Napa they raise horses, goats, turkeys and chickens in addition to a garden and grape vines they planted. To say Gary and Kit live close to the land is something of an understatement; they embody the Slow Food Movement in a way that most of us can only dream about.
To hear them tell the story, it sounds like a love for organic food and new business ventures are occupational hazards for the pair. Living in Napa has resulted in many friendships with people in the wine business. And because the wine business attracts successful entrepreneurs the way starlets attract paparazzi, the pair wondered what they might be able to bring to the table. For them, the real attraction was in the intersection point between good wine and sustainable farming. The challenge was on.
An introduction to winemaker Sarah Gott was the final ingredient needed for the new venture—Clif Bar Family Winery. Gott is known for her work with Joseph Phelps and the winery she started with her husband, Joel Gott Wines. For some years she has pursued making wines from grapes from organic or at least sustainably farmed vineyards.
Before meeting Gary and Kit for lunch, I’ll admit I struggled to get my head around the idea that the people responsible for go fast foods could also be the force behind a new winery. But they are charming, dedicated and passionate; even a short conversation reveals that. Listening to Kit talk about preparing dinner from ingredients in her garden made me feel I was missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.
She believes their drive to deal with farms that engage in sustainable techniques even if they aren’t certified organic can help those farms bridge that gap by encouraging them to complete the transition. Kit says that certified organic is less important than employing sustainable practices.
Gary spoke of how his love of wine grew as a result of cycling tours he did in Europe. After finishing a long day’s ride he would enjoy a leisurely dinner with a bottle of wine.
Clif Bar Family Winery has released four wines. As we tasted them over lunch Kit and Gary stressed that they weren’t interested in releasing another $100 bottle of Cab, but rather wines that represented a good value to be enjoyed by people who appreciate the experience of a good meal.
There are two wines titled The Climber, a red and a white. The white is a blend, mostly Sauvingnon Blanc with some Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Muscat that retails for $12.50. Its citrus and grapefruit flavors and crisp finish make it the perfect antidote to a hot afternoon. Think of it as lemonade for grownups. The Climber red is a wild blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Syrah and Merlot. At $15 you’ll swear someone is getting gipped. It’s got the spice and bright fruit to stand up to any rich meal.
In lesser production are Gary’s Improv and kit’s killer cab. Gary’s Improv is mostly Zin with just a dash of Petite Sirah; it would be fun with hard cheeses, pizza or spicy sausage, but it’s best application may be at a dinner party when you want to make your guests say, “Wow!” And for those who want a great Cabernet to go with a NY Strip but don’t want the wine to cost 10 times what the meal cost, kit’s killer cab has the luxurious fruit and structure of a great Cab without having so much tannin that it will need to be laid down until electric cars are in common use. Gary’s Improv is $32 while kit’s killer cab goes for $35. It would be easy to pay twice as much for a lesser wine.
Kit and Gary have stories as rich and varied as Paul Newman’s and their drive to do good with their company while enriching the lives of their customers and living an enjoyable life is tragically rare. Given they run an impressive business, live a great life and seem to be having a positive impact on the planet, I wonder what sort of dreams you have when you can sleep that well.
Clif Bar Family Winery