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John B: Napa Valley
aerial view of Napa Valley from a hot-air balloon
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.

the French Laundry, Thomas Keller's restaurant in Yountville
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.

entrance to the Domaine Chandon Vineyard, Yountville

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.

bikers on the road in Yountville
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 Vineyard.

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 amidst clusters of grape ready for harvest in one of Yountville's vineyards
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.

guests relaxing at the dining area of the Reynolds Family Winery with barrels of wine in the foreground
Vino with a view - Located off California's Silverado Trail, the Reynolds Family Winery offers relaxing gardens to enjoy the tastings.

hot-air balloon over the Napa Valley

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.

welcome sign at the Napa Valley

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 1976.

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

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Let John know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for South of the Border Wine Country

Hello John – I enjoyed reading your article. I live in La Bufadora and have friends visiting next week, so you have given me some good tips on where to go in our wine country. We have always called Cetto – L.A. (like Los Angeles) Chet-o and it might have been worth mentioning that it is actually Italian in origin. Also, I don't know about when visiting the Valle, but when in town, it is better to have pesos than dollars. Right now the rate is approx. 11.70 for each dollar. Just sayin' and like I said good article!

--- Ella O'Bryan, La Bufadora, Baja, MX

Hi, We here at Country Living Magazine are working on a story about hotels around the US. We would like to feature the Paso Robles Inn. I have to find photos to go along with the story. I was wondering if you could please send me any images of the hotel. This can be anything from the rooms to the food! All images can be submitted low res and if selected I will ask for hi rez later. Also, if you know of any photographers that have photographed the hotel can you please give me the contact info? Thank you so much!

--- Will Morel, Assistant Photo Editor, Country Living Magazine, New York, NY

I am looking forward to my "silver" years, which in my case, will be the years (if fate is good to me) that I will finally be traveling. New Zealand is at the top of the list - I have always been drawn to it.

--- Sandra Mines, Seattle, WA

Yes, was a fun city. Bad wine though.

--- Bo, Portland, OR

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