Soaring the Skies - The only thing better
than seeing the Napa Valley on bike is catching the 30-mile-long valley
in one glimpse at 2,000 feet up in a hot-air balloon gondola in the
early morning light.
Yountville: The Culinary Center
of the Napa Valley
Story and photos by John Blanchette
ountville, California It was late September and up and down the
Napa Valley the air was heavy with the scent of ripe grapes. It was
harvest (locals call it The Crush) and the vineyards were
roiling with activity.
I was visiting the small, lower-valley town of Yountville
(population 3,342), about 55 miles northeast of San Francisco. This
is where the first grapes were planted in Napa Valley, in 1838 by town
founder George Yount. But more importantly, it is the center of the
Napa Valley's culinary world and where the greatest chefs in the area
have established their restaurants.
This is the home of Thomas Keller's Michelin three-starred
restaurant, The French Laundry, a pilgrimage site for food lovers. TV
chef and author Anthony Bourdain canonized Keller as the greatest chef
in the world on his TV series, and I sat in the same seat where he dined
on the show. Incidentally, there are only 16 tables in the restaurant,
which is why reservations need to be made months in advance.
A taste of France -Yountville is the home
of Thomas Keller's landmark restaurant
The French Laundry.
Keller has invested heavily in this town, so much so
that some townies factiously call it Kellerville. His house abuts The
French Laundry and across the street is his two-acre organic garden
open to the public, where many of the herbs and vegetables for his restaurants
are grown. Keller also owns the bistro Bouchon (the word for bistro
in Lyon), a bakery next door and, down the street, Ad Hoc, which prepares
comfort food better than you've ever had, from mac and cheese to meatloaf.
Rumor is that he is also planning to open a new inn and restaurant with
Laura Cunningham next year.
While missing the waft of Gauloise cigarettes filling
the air, you feel as though you are in France at Bouchon, with large
gilded mirrors, tile floors, period moldings and high ceilings. And
Michel, the general manager from Paris, finished the illusion. I know
of no other town with four Michelin restaurants so nearby. Within a
few hundred yards of The French Laundry, Bouchon, Redd and Etoile each
have one, six stars for this town in all.
Yountville covers only about four square miles, but
its culinary pedigree is expansive. Domaine Chandon Vineyard lies at
the southern entrance. A tree-lined driveway meanders through rows of
champagne grapes to the tasting room and above it the vineyard restaurant
Etoile. It is a contemporary French restaurant with an intelligent staff,
an engaging view, addictive desserts and a champagne-friendly menu.
In town is the local favorite, Hurley's Restaurant &
Bar, with reasonably priced Mediterranean fare. Bob Hurley is a Hemingway
look-alike who traveled the world before establishing himself in Yountville.
Wild Game Week is a much-anticipated event every year at the restaurant.
A few hundred feet down the road is Redd, where chef
Richard Reddington has created the feel of a contemporary New York restaurant
in wine country. Other upscale places to dine include the new Bardessono,
Cantinetta Piero, Michael Chiarello's Bottega, Bistro Jeanty for coq
au vin,Mustard's Grill, Brix, Napa Valley Grille, Pacific Blues and
the local Ranch Market has gourmet items to go for a great picnic lunch.
Grab a baguette and something chocolate at Bouchon Bakery.
Pedal power - Biking through the vineyards
is a healthy way to visit tasting rooms in Yountville, California.
Napa Valley Bike Tours offers a leisurely 15-mile, six-hour
tour of the local vineyards or a half day tour, with tasting room stops
along the way to refuel and a lovely picnic lunch in the romantic O'Brien
Twenty-four wineries are located around town, including
the famed Stags Leap, which in 1976 shocked the world (or at least the
French) and established the credibility of California wine when they
won a blind tasting in Paris. The American wine industry owes a big
debt to the French judges on that panel.
A rose among the grapes just days before harvest.
I visited many of the tasting rooms over my stay, including
Cliff Lede (pronounced lady), which has a sculpture garden
patio where you can enjoy the wine. Lede is a major producer of fine
wine in the area. He also owns the Poetry Inn, nested in the hills above
the valley. Each room boasts a panoramic view. Others include Maisonry,
serving a variety of upscale wines and Girard Winery's new tasting room.
Two of my favorites wineries, located off the Silverado
Trail, are Van Der Heyden Vineyards, which is the only winery in the
world making late-harvest cabernet, and Reynolds Family Winery, which
has consistently fine wines and my favorite pinot noir from the area.
The growers were happy with the quality of this year's harvest and expect
an excellent vintage.
Vino with a view - Located off California's
Silverado Trail, the Reynolds Family Winery offers relaxing gardens
to enjoy the tastings.
But if it's not enough to go biking through the vineyards,
there is another way to see the breadth of the 30-mile-long, five-mile-wide
V-shaped valley: by hot air balloon. Yes, I was talked into risking
my life floating 2,000 feet above the vineyards, but was calmed when
told that no passenger or pilot had lost their life in the 27 years
Napa Valley Balloon has been conducting flights. I later learned that
one unfortunate groundsman forgot to let go of a rope a few years ago
and is the only fatality in the business.
The ride was spectacular. Surprisingly warm and calm
in the upper thermals and quiet, when the air wasn't being heated by
what looked like a giant, double-barreled Zippo lighter. You must rise
early to enjoy the flight, balloons lift off at the crack of dawn and
flights last about an hour, usually ditching on a dirt road in the middle
of somebody's vineyard. Chase cars bring you back to enjoy a lavish
Champagne brunch ($230 per person).
There are a number of bed-and-breakfasts, spas and country
inns in Yountville. I stayed at the Villagio Inn & Spa, a destination
facility with a Tuscan accent and contemporary furnishings, featuring
a vineyard and its own private-label wine, which was a welcome complimentary
gift in my room. There is a complimentary Champagne breakfast as well
and pools, meeting rooms, a bar and restaurant and the best spa treatment
I ever had. It was a 100-minute, hot river stone rhythmic message. I
was so relaxed I fell asleep twice during the treatment. They recently
opened the new Spa Villagio to the public.
For further reading on the Napa Valley, try James Conaway's
books An American Eden and The Far Side of Eden,
or Robert Mondavi's autobiography, Harvest of Joy and the
recent publication The Rise and Fall of the House of Mondavi.
The movie Bottle Shock is loosely based on the events of
For information on housing, restaurant options, art,
music, food, shopping, special events and vineyard tours, contact the
Yountville Chamber of Commerce at 707-944-0904 or www.yountville.com.