TRAVEL: Bold aspiration: Town aims to supplant St. Helena as the Napa Valley’s one-stop getawayYountville is all about slowing down and savoring the simple pleasures. It has shaped itself as the culinary capital of the valley, while retaining a small-town charm. Yet, in the past year, Yountville also has expanded at an astounding rate for a town of fewer than 3,000 residents.
By: Ann Tatko-Peterson, Contra Costa Times
YOUNTVILLE, Calif. — Quiet seemed to emanate from every corner of the small Napa Valley town of Yountville.
My husband and I had ditched the car a day earlier and now strolled down Washington Street, watching as other visitors stood a dozen deep outside the Bouchon bakery, lunched alfresco on the patio of Bistro Jeanty and ducked into tasting rooms.
At the street’s midway point, we stopped to stare across the lush two-acre culinary garden of the famous French Laundry restaurant. That’s when I saw it. Or, I should say, him. Smack in the middle of the garden, a man lay on the ground, arms propped behind his head and eyes closed.
The previous morning, such an odd escapade would have left me gaping. But today, I understood it only too well.
Yountville is all about slowing down and savoring the simple pleasures. It has shaped itself as the culinary capital of the valley, while retaining a small-town charm.
Yet, in the past year, Yountville also has expanded at an astounding rate for a town of fewer than 3,000 residents.
The state’s greenest hotel, Michael Chiarello’s newest restaurant venture, one of the valley’s largest spas and two wine-tasting rooms have all moved in. Longtime establishments have spruced up. And another luxury hotel and pair of restaurants are set to join the neighborhood this fall.
In a down economy, why has one small town evolved so rapidly?
A half-hour inside the town limits, feeling more relaxed than I had in a year, I started to see what so many enterprising business folks recognized months and even years ago. Yountville is hoping to supplant St. Helena as the one-stop wine country getaway destination.
“St. Helena used to be the heartbeat of the Napa Valley, but I think Yountville is taking that over and has become the center, with respect to all the chefs, the talent, the shops and tasting rooms and the (hotel) rooms available here,” says Chiarello, a longtime valley resident and former owner of Tra Vigne restaurant in St. Helena.
“It’s an experiential village — you can stay, eat, go to all these different restaurants, check out great art, enjoy the wine. It’s what makes Times Square, Times Square. Yountville is the rural Times Square.”
A bold assessment? Maybe not when you consider the valley’s first grapes were planted in Yountville. Domaine Chandon was the first Napa Valley winery to offer upscale dining, at etoile. And, as its residents proudly boast, the town has the most Michelin stars — six, led by French Laundry’s three — on a per-capita basis. Ah, yes, and then there is all that’s new in Yountville to consider.
Bardessono redefines environmentally friendly vacationing as the first LEED-platinum hotel in California.
Not only blending with, but also essentially becoming a part of nature was the aspiration of Napa Valley farmer Steve Bardessono, who partnered with green development pioneer Phil Sherburne. The result is a 62-room hotel, spa and restaurant that opened Feb. 2 with the most impressive “green” makeup ever seen in an American luxury hotel and spa.
In addition to standard elements — solar power, low-water fixtures and LED lights — the hotel uses 82 wells as part of an underground geothermal system that heat and cool the rooms and spa, automated external Venetian blinds to help control room temperature, and occupancy sensors to turn off lights and alter thermostats when rooms are vacated.
Also, the siding, flooring and furniture are made from salvaged trees, the redwood ceilings from old wine tanks and tiles from recycled glass.
Fans were asking the same question a lot as Chiarello attended events tied to his hosting duties for the Food Network’s “Easy Entertaining” — had he ever considered cooking professionally?
“That broke my heart,” he says. “I had gotten so far away from where I started.”
Chiarello already had decided to open his latest NapaStyle store — complete with wine-tasting bar for his Chiarello Family Vineyard wines — at V Marketplace. Across the cobblestone walkway he discovered Chutney Kitchen was shuttered and found the ideal home for his newest restaurant, Bottega (meaning “workshop”).
Dishes here pay homage to authentic Italian cuisine, with an emphasis on house-made ingredients; wine pours are generous, and by-the-bottle pricing is fair (about half what you’d expect to pay at San Francisco restaurants); and the dining room is rustic yet warm with Venetian plaster, Murano glass chandeliers and a wood-fire oven visible from the semi-open kitchen.
There’s also a separate bar area and two wood-burning stone fireplaces outside with lounge seating.
Living art gallery
One thing jumps out immediately upon entering Ma(i)sonry. It feels far more like an art gallery than a wine-tasting room. For starters, there is no traditional tasting bar.
“We want to slow down the wine-tasting experience so it coincides with the art,” says general manager Anthony DiCarlo.
Ma(i)sonry dubs itself a living gallery, where visitors can stroll among artwork and furniture by the likes of Ron Mann and Alexandra von Furstenberg while also enjoying the limited production boutique wines.
Tastings occur in the expansive outdoor gardens featuring contemporary sculptures, a stone fire pit and a 36-foot-long communal redwood table or inside one of three private rooms in the historic building.
The historic former Charles Rovegno House turned seven-room Burgundy House Inn underwent a major restoration to fortify the building. Then Ma(i)sonry opened last October.
Current tasting flights showcase Blackbird Vineyards, Brown Estate, Lail Vineyards, Pedras Wine Company and Renteria Wines. The flights will change on a regular basis to “keep it fresh” for returning guests, DiCarlo says.
Getting a reservation at French Laundry is no easy feat. But for those interested in sampling Thomas Keller’s French fare, eating at Bouchon is hardly settling. The Michelin one-star bistro-style restaurant has grabbed its own share of fame.
With popularity also came a need for more space in a kitchen designed to serve 75 but averaging 200. So, in May, a major overhaul opened up the kitchen’s layout, allowing Keller and Philip Tessier, the chef de cuisine, to help develop young cooks.
Born from that is Bouchon’s new prix fixe menus. Changing monthly, each one focuses on a separate region of France and offers wine or beer pairings. In February, the kitchen delved into the Alsace region’s peasant fare.
It was intriguing stepping out of the ordinary, and learning a little history along the way. Like how the baeckeoffe — a stew of braised lamb shoulder, oxtail, pork shoulder, potatoes and vegetables — was a favorite of wives who, after church services, warmed the dishes in cooling ovens at bakeries.
Brix Restaurant and Gardens is back. After flirting with a name change - 25º Bistro - the owners reverted to the original name while overhauling just about everything else.
Renovations inside and out have given the restaurant a classic country look, complete with heavy farmhouse tables and booths lined with wine barrels. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the incredible gardens.
And that goes well with the garden-inspired, farmstead menu, now in the capable hands of chef Anne Gingrass-Paik. Formerly at San Francisco’s Postrio and Hawthorne Lane, Gingrass-Paik arrived in December and is helping Brix rediscover its family-friendly roots. Sunday dinner is even served family-style.
Also new to Yountville and worth checking out:
• Girard Winery: Last May, Girard opened its only tasting room on the north end of Yountville. Here, rustic meets upscale. Real Missouri barn wood lines one wall. Suede-lined chairs create a sitting area in the private tasting room. Bar or private (with 24-hour notice) tastings available.
“We wanted something that was contemporary but still cozy, comfortable,” says tasting room manager Erin Luby.
Don’t miss the restrooms — decorator-showcase wonders with small burgundy tiles, steel blue-gray painted walls, a trough sink, pendant lights and an aerial picture of the valley that covers an entire wall.
• Pinot noir tour: Domaine Chandon features one of its still wine selections in this new tour, which began in January. The 35-minute guided tour highlights the winery’s history, details the sparkling and still winemaking processes, and then takes visitors into the wine barrel cellar, where they can sample the pinot noir right out of the oak barrel. At four months, our sample tasted a lot like grape juice.
It ends with a sit-down tasting. And yes, the fully aged pinot noir tasted much better.
• Bistro Jeanty: The Michelin one-star French bistro upgraded its floors, repainted the walls and remodeled its patio last July. Now alfresco dining also offers more banquet space and the ability for year-round use, even in the rain. The same French cafe feel, right down to the music, remains.
Also, the food hasn’t changed — thank goodness. The creme de tomate en croute is the best creamy tomato soup I’ve ever tasted.
And be sure to save room for dessert. Well beyond the point of being full, I still polished off the caramelized apple tart in a light, flaky crust.
If you go:
Getting there: Yountville is between Napa and St. Helena off Highway 29. Take the ramp toward Yountville and turn left on California Drive to reach Domaine Chandon or right on California Drive and then left on Washington Street to reach the main street.