As tradition would dictate, hospitality and wine are nearly synonymous. Idyllic images of wine country showcase portraits of joyous patrons seated around tables overflowing with cheese, ripe produce, ample bottles of wine, and abundant conversation. Hospitality, it seems, is a given.
However, recently an unfortunate and subtle shift has taken place. More often than one would expect, tasting rooms in the Napa Valley are not all – hold your breath – hospitable. Often erring on the side of systematic tastings, tightly ordered schedules, under-educated staff, and strict mandates to cover the bottom line, the result can be off-putting to even the most gregarious tourist.
The one complaint repeatedly heard from outsiders to the valley is that service in Napa is sporadic, at best. Intimidation runs high, with engagement trailing a distant second. The equation has, quite simply, been distorted. The result? Many younger wine drinkers and explorers are hedging their bets on Sonoma, Healdsburg, Paso Robles, Anderson Valley, Santa Ynez, and Alexander Valley. To be honest, who can blame them?
This then begs the question: Is hospitality a forgotten grace in the heart of the American wine industry?
It has been our recent goal to find those Napa Valley establishments where hospitality is still a practiced art form. This is particularly important as tasting room fees rise, as do the massive quantities of tourists flooding the valley; if we recommend a location to friends and colleagues, we want to be certain that the value is consistent with expectations.
Given all of this, we’ve hit the pavement hard, searching high and low for the friendliest staff, the most engaging tasting rooms, the best ambience, and the most delicious wines. Because, let’s be honest, it’s the experience at the cellar door for which people are paying; if they simply wanted to taste, they could just as easily make a purchase at their local market and drink it at home, surrounded by friends and family. Those who choose to travel to wine country do so for the allure and celebration of being on-site. For many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The “rules” for our observations are simple: When necessary, we call ahead for reservations. If not necessary, we walk into a tasting room – unannounced – like any other guest, poke around a bit, and sit at the bar like the legions of other tourists visiting the valley. We are just as prone to picking up conversations with our seatmates, as we are with the tasting room staff. We are inquisitive. We are engaging. We are polite. We don’t flash around the fact that we have a blog or work in the industry, we don’t demand free pours, and if the wine is good, we purchase some. End of story. As such, we are like every other patron who supports these establishments.
Having employed this process over the past few months, we feel confident in writing our first profile that meets our expectations; a location that we would confidently recommend to family and friends.
On a recent rainy Saturday, we decided to pop into Velo Vino, Clif Family Winery’s tasting room and retail venue located in the southern end of downtown Saint Helena. We had no idea what to expect. From the outside, Velo Vino has a diminutive presence. In contrast to the many larger wine houses populating the valley, Velo Vino is almost underwhelming to the region’s over-stimulated senses of grandeur and opulence.
However, upon walking in the door, the reason behind such external humility became immediately clear: the real value is placed on creating a warm and inviting tasting room. The folks at Velo Vino have taken hospitality to a new level. The experience here is much more intimate. It’s almost as though guests are walking into proprietors Kit Crawford and Gary Erickson’s home. Part tasting room, part cycling shop, the confluence of interests appeals to both fresh-faced Millennials and experienced cycling and wine enthusiasts, alike.
On our particular visit, we fortuitously timed it with the wine club pick-up holiday party. Far from “shooing” us away because we were not wine club members, we were eagerly invited in. Seated atop two bar stools, we had an uninterrupted view of the room. Festive carolers, enviable passed food, abundant wine pours, smiling faces, and holiday spirit greeted us. Ultimately, the tasting room took on the environment of a true party…where friendships were made, genuine enjoyment was shared, and the proverbial “bread” was broken.
At one point, speaking to a staff member behind the bar, we asked if Gary and Kit ever made it on-site. Much to our amusement, our host immediately turned to his left and beckoned to the man and woman pouring adjacent to him. Sure enough, it was none other than the two proprietors, bottles of wine in-hand, smiles on their faces, and ever-animated conversation coming forth. Because that’s the difference here. We were not patrons, tourists or visitors. We were guests. Pure and simple.
Total time on-site? Two hours. Our only reason for leaving? Previously arranged engagements elsewhere. Had this not been the case, we would have likely remained on-site for the duration of the evening.
The Clif family is well-known in the world of endurance sports. From Clif Bars, to Luna Bars, to sponsored teams, to IronMan athletes, and more, the many brands of Clif Bar are permanent fixtures in outdoor enthusiast shops across the country. However, not as well known to those outside this realm are Gary and Kit’s fascination with all things food and wine.
Given their love of the culinary world, they purchased the Clif Family Farm in Pope Valley in the late 1990’s and started a small wine production in 2004. The first wines were aptly-labeled kit’s killer cab and Gary’s Zinfandel. With the launch of the 2004 Climber Zinfandel, the duo took production from a small mom ‘n pop shop to mainstream production. Focusing their initial efforts on the wholesale market, they met success, but also quickly realized that there was no way to intimately connect with their customers. As such, it was only a matter of time before the desire to open a retail location became paramount as a way to properly launch the wine brand, as well as a place to connect with all things Clif.
When initially creating a conceptual model of what the venue would be like, Gary’s main insistence was for the site to have the feel of a refugio. For climbers and mountaineers, refugios are welcome outlets high atop ranges, where shelter, food, companionship, and comfort are found. Some are as simple as a remote campsite, while others are actual physical dorm-like structures, complete with caretakers who provide food and libations. While refugios may vary in size and scope, the general themes are consistent: hospitality, comfort, and nourishment. Gary wanted Velo Vino to adopt this same disposition.
Thus, when renovating the current location, he ensured that the back room was sectioned off for tables and chairs, complete with warm walls and bright windows, thus emulating the refugio experience and providing a good place for visitors to bring their lunches and enjoy a glass of wine and some food, post-ride. Yes, you read that correctly: post-ride. Not only are guests invited to enjoy in the portfolio of edible goods offered at Velo Vino, but they are encouraged to partake in a ride, either choosing their own route or selecting from one of the eight custom routes, ranging from 7 to 41 miles, drafted up by the Velo Vino crew.
This sense of belonging and engagement is what has made Velo Vino so popular. Whether it is to pop in for an espresso, a glass of wine, a ride, a bite to eat, or a relaxed conversation with friends, the staff aims to anticipate and serve their guests every need.
It took some time for Velo Vino to transition from concept to reality, but in April 2010, the doors finally opened. In the subsequent years, it has become the epicenter for the active-minded consumer.
Due to the popularity and sales in the tasting room and through the wine club, since opening its doors, Clif Family Wines has dropped their distribution and transferred all sales to 100% on-line and on-site. There are currently seven wines in the portfolio, with three more anticipated in 2013. Each wine ranges in production from 200 to 700 cases, bringing the total somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000. Additionally, off-site from Velo Vino, they have a working farm totaling ten acres, as well ten acres of vineyards, and 420 olive trees.
Food, wine, activity, and engagement are at the heart of all things Velo Vino. From farm tours at Clif Family Farms, to a popular Community Support Agriculture (CSA) group, to off-site olive oil production, to an annual bike ride and harvest party with Gary, and to a summer solstice party with the Clif Bar Band, the unique intersection of Velo Vino and Clif Family Wines appears to have found its popular niche. In every sense of the word, it has modeled itself into a destination location.
Veteran winemaker Bruce Regalia leads the winemaking team at Velo Vino. Although a consultant in title, his hard-to-miss presence is a common sight in the tasting room. As with all other members of the extended “Clif Bar Family,” Bruce is a fixture of the Velo Vino family. His propensity for Pinot Noir (he is the former winemaker and General Manager at Duckhorn’s Goldeneye, where Pinot Noir is king), Sauvignon Blanc (it’s the most satisfying to make, as it reaps rewards so quickly), Mendocino County grapes (he’s true to his roots), and Grenache (why not?), are perfectly at-home in the Clif Family portfolio. Bruce’s winemaking is consistent and powerful.
Our favorite wine from our time at Velo Vino was the 2011 RTE (Sauvignon) Blanc. The love was visible right from the start, as our tasting room host emerged with a bottle of pale-hued liquid adorned with a gorgeous black and white photo of Gary on a bike climbing Passo Gavia in the Italian Alps. Whereas many Sauvignon Blancs tend to be either citrusy or grassy, and often overly acidic, this one captured the perfect amount of grapefruit pith and minerality. The result was a wine with great character and lots of citrus flavor, but without the resulting bout of acid reflux from immature fruit and a winemaking process gone awry. Fantastic work from Bruce.
The one surprise? A Gewürztraminer that left us wanting more.
When, Where and How?
1312 Vidovich Avenue
Saint Helena, CA 94574
Hours: 10am – 6pm, daily