So by now you might have realized just how much the KKDL gals love wine country. We’re even writing a book about it (coming soon). Over the years we have made it our personal mission to visit wineries and estates located along the California coast to sample their craft and explore their vineyards. Imagine our surprise when we realized we had missed out on an exquisite winery that was sitting right under our nose.
You may be familiar with the Clif Family Winery even if you don’t consider yourself a wine fan. If you’ve ever gobbled up a Clif nutrition bar, then you already know about the Clif family’s commitment to quality ingredients, beautiful packaging, and farm-to-table mentality. When we realized that the Clif family was not only a source of delectable snack bars, but an entire estate dedicated to sustainbly grown grapes and eco-friendly farm practices, we were dying to find out more.
In our search to explore this new discovery, we were given the chance to sit down with Linzi Gay, General Manager, and John McConnell, Executive Chef, of the Clif Family Winery. The two spoke candidly about what brought them to the Clif Family Winery and some of their favorite moments in wine country.
How would you describe your role with Clif Family Winery?
Linzi: I’m the General Manager which means I do a little bit of everything. I oversee the strategic direction of the business and make sure that we are consistent to our brand messaging and telling our authentic story through all that we do.
John: As our Chef, I’m tasked with responsibility of integrating our farm in many facets of our growing business. From our farm-to-table offerings from our food truck “Clif Family Bruschetteria” at Velo Vino, to creating items reflective of their place and certainly inspired by our wines, from jams and jellies to savory nut mixes to spices blended mixed to create wonderful wine-inspired pairings.
Our culinary team also services our tasting room, our estate program with delightful culinary lunches and lastly catered events done on or off-site. I have also developed recipes inspired by the seasons and with the intent on enjoying these culinary delights with the presence of wine.
How did you get your start in the wine/culinary business?
Linzi: I grew up in the Napa Valley with many friends and family in the business. I started my career at Clif Bar & Company in Berkeley, CA but then decided to move back to my hometown and get into the industry. I worked for some larger wine companies before connecting back with Gary and Kit in 2004 when they were just starting their Clif Family wine label. I’ve been with Clif Family ever since.
John: At the age of seventeen and while still attending high school, I was asked to come work in a kitchen. I have not left the stove. I attended New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. There too, I was fascinated by what I didn’t know about wine that lead me to Napa Valley, California. Since, I have traveled back and forth from coast to coast landing as far east as the Hamptons of New York deciding then and there it was time I return to Napa Valley. This time it would be with children in-tow.
What brought you to the winery?
John: It’s funny how things happen, but a friend who still works with us referred me to the job. After the interview process I weighed the pros and cons only to realize there were no cons. I gladly accepted and haven’t looked back since. Clif Family is a wonderful organization that not only empowers its staff, but they also walk the walk.
In my time spent behind the stove, I have yet to find balance that exists in this field. Well my friends– It’s here!
What makes Clif Family Winery different than other vineyards in California?
Linzi: Clif Family brings together food, wine, and adventure in all that we do. We are focused on creating authentic experiences for our guests through our food truck, tasting room, organic farm, and our wines. We also have a strong focus on sustainability through our farming. The Clif Family Farm is both CCOF Certified organic and Food Alliance certified.
How would you describe the Clif Family menu?
John: Definitely farm-centric. It’s all too cliche to reference “farm-to-table” as food philosophy, but we attempt to take it a step further, offering at times very limited and seasonal menu items. It’s caused a big stir that our patrons have been stimulated by. The focus, hence the name, is on out bruschette. Sourcing a whole wheat sourdough load from neighboring Model Bakery, we slice the loaf unconventionally to create a large foil for all of our bruschette. Topped with seasonal bounty ranging from foraged mushrooms, local pig, preserved tomatoes, smoked salmon, avocado, prime rib, leg of lamb or even brisket, there is always one or more elements from the farm.
Also, we feature wonderful and seasonal salads, arrancini, hand-milled red flint corn grown for polenta, seasonal vegetables from the farm, rotisserie Mary’s organic chicken, and a small but always tasty selection of dolce.
What are some of your favorite varietals from the winery?
Linzi: We just bottled our 2015 Rte Blanc Sauvignon Blanc and that is always my favorite white. It’s a crisp, refreshing white wine that pairs well with food or is perfect for just enjoying on its own on a warm evening on the patio. I also love our Howell Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from our Cold Springs Vineyard. This wine is the definition of a Howell Mountain Cabernet.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
John: If I had to narrow it down, I’d say veggies from the farm, but given a fermented, preserved or alternative preparation. When our farm throws hundreds of pounds of peppers my way, you can’t make lemonade, but you want to ensure each of those beautiful gems is given a proper “home”. This becomes the ultimate method of parenthood, and I love it.
How do you describe your style of cooking?
John: Fun. I’m very playful; a kid at heart. For me food is meant to nourish, but it doesn’t have to be a mystery or look too good to disturb or eat. Food should be fun and playful as we often eat two or three times a day. After helping my wife raise three children, I have a whole new outlook on food. Broccoli should be eaten because it tastes good, not because it’s good for you. I often look at how to bring lesser or basics ingredients into the spotlight by making them seem familiar. Given that we serve the majority of our work out of our food truck, the food should be approachable and familiar, but ultimately tasty. Food must taste good!
The Clif Family is known for using natural, homegrown ingredients in their products. How do the wine and food reflect that ‘farm-to-table’ value?
Linzi: On the wine side, our estate vineyards on Howell Mountain are CCOF certified organic and Food Alliance certified. We also work to source fruit from growers who practice sustainable or organic farming.
On the food side, we consider ourselves “Farm to Truck” – many of the ingredients we source for the dishes we serve on the food truck are grown on the Clif Family Farm.
John: Everything must have its moment. I realize that not every food service operation has a farm at its disposal, but we do! When you become in tune with what’s happening at the farm, you are truly listening to Mother Nature. I see the potential in everything right down to the byproduct. Everything must have a place and that place has become our outlet. We work very diligently to close the cycle and use only what we need and waste not. This lends itself to humanly responsible practices.
What is a little known fact about the winery/kitchen that readers would be interested to know?
Linzi: Many people don’t know that many of our Clif Family Kitchen food products are made to specifically enhance our wines. Our Roasted Pistachio & Almonds is a perfect pairing for our Kit’s Killer Howell Mountain Cabernet.
John: We are the epitome of artisan. As a team of only six, we have grown organically. It has been a slow and sometimes fast process, but the food has always had a level of care given to it that demands focus and attention. Our culinary team represent a larger passionate message that we aim to provide nourishing hospitality.
For more information on the Clif Family and their wonderful wine + food menu, visit their website: https://www.cliffamilywinery.com
All images and quotes are courtesy of Clif Family Winery.