Make the Grade

A Great Ride to Great Zin on Ink Grade Road

This is nice, I think as I follow fellow CampoVelo riders deeper into Pope Valley one crisp morning. But how much farther east are we going to ride along Pope Valley Road, a long and mostly flat, if scenic, route? That’s when I get turned onto Ink Grade Road. Specifically, it’s a left turn.

Outside of CampoVelo, a well-supported Gran Fondo that starts and finishes at Charles Krug Winery in April, the year-round starting line for your Ink Grade Road ride is Clif Family Winery’s Velo Vino tasting room in St. Helena. Besides the winetasting bit, and the bruschetteria food truck for later, Velo Vino is a veritable candy store for Napa Valley cycling, with biking apparel, an espresso bar and, naturally, the namesake power bars that Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson shopped around to bike stores in the early ’90s and met with some measure of success.

One of nine rides detailed on a handy little map offered at the tasting room, the 24-mile Velo Vino version begins south of town, so there’s less time spent on busy Silverado Trail before the turn at Sage Canyon Road. Even with some traffic, winding past Lake Hennessey is more relaxed than I’d thought after many times driving this route; and after the split at Chiles Pope Valley Road, it’s absolutely sylvan cycling as mossy canyons and scrubby digger pines give way to moss-draped oaks, high valley vineyards and rustic roadside attractions like a hundred year history of rusting automobile hulks.

Near the top of the Ink Grade climb, at 1,170 feet in elevation, Erickson and cofounder Kit Crawford’s Cold Springs Estate appears in a clearing in the woodland. Here’s an organic produce farm, which feeds their food truck in the valley below, an estate Zinfandel vineyard, and the ruins of an historical stone winery. They’re not open to drop-in visits here, so take White Cottage Lane over the hill and through the woods back to the tasting room.

Clif Family Winery 2016 Napa Valley Estate Zinfandel ($60)
A toothsome Zin with a toothy label, this has smoky aromas of French roast coffee, oiled teaks and plum wine spiced with pine needles—is that the sweet scent of balsam, or is it just the holidays approaching? This is a chewy, not jammy Zin, thick with dried black cherry, dates and Cab-like tobacco notes. The bottle is heavy, so best not to pack it for a mid-ride lunch, but the high relief silver label, shaped like a sprocket wheel, surely inspires reflection on a glass or two well earned.

Velo Vino, 709 Main St., St. Helena. Open daily, 10am–5pm.

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