Out here, the only sounds are the trills of birds, the creaking of crickets and the wind strumming the pines. Up here, the only traffic is lizards darting across the road from swaths of purple lupines that encroach on the cracked pavement. I'm powering up Howell Mountain Road, halfway between Napa Valley and the silvery clouds, and yet miles short of my intended destination, I have to stop. I'm just riding a city bike, after all—and all I had for breakfast was wine. Wine and Clif Bars. Take it easy, I'm only observing National Bike to Work Week. And this, this is my job.
Gary Erickson wouldn't have turned back. Founder of Clif and Luna brand energy bars and icon of the active lifestyle, Erickson is still co-owner of the company, who with wife Kit Crawford runs Clif Family Winery and Farm winery, drops in on his new tasting room regularly, takes epic treks on Italy's "white roads" and plays in a rock band. And that's probably leaving out nine things.
Located just south of Gott's Roadside (formerly Taylor's Refresher), Velo Vino is a handsomely remodeled bungalow filled with enough logo'd bike gear to outfit a peloton and enough wine to keep them off the road for a month. Don't bother with snark about filling your CamelBak with Sauvignon Blanc; now available in 1.5 liter pouches, the Climber Chardonnay ($16.99) is nutty and lean, suitable for refreshment on the summit, no cork and no fuss, and lifts the cinnamon of oatmeal raisin walnut Clif Bar to new heights. (Tastings include a sampling of spiced nuts with dried Rainier and Bing cherries; sample-sized Clif Bars are readily available).
The 2007 Gary's Improv Zinfandel ($28) is more fun and fruity than the typical Napa Zin, with cherry, plum flavors and nutty, roasted oak. Pairing: Luna Bar chocolate raspberry. With aromas of raspberry on chocolate pie and hints of cigar wrapper, the 2007 Kit's Killer Cab ($38) finishes with the finely focused tannins of a Chianti. Exquisite with chocolate brownie Clif Bar.
The tasting ends with a complimentary, frothy cappuccino, and I'm off to tackle the mountain on a route that the congenial Velo Vino staff have plotted out for me. In the end, I found I'd actually climbed miles past my first inclination to turn back. Maybe it was the Clif Bars; maybe I was propelled by the dream, the one where the summit looks like it's just around this next bend in the road . . . or the next one.
Velo Vino, 709 Main Street, St. Helena. Open daily, 10am-6pm. Tasting fees $10-$25. Grand opening party Friday, May 27, 5pm to 9pm. 707.968.0625.