The rows of Cabernet Sauvignon stretch as far as the eye can see. This is my first visit to California’s Napa Valley and like most first-time visitors, I am hopping from one storied winery to another, packing in as many tastings as I can in two days. But Napa isn’t just about wine. It also offers a plethora of fine dining establishments, galleries, theaters and hotels. Tiny Yountville has become the choice destination in the valley. But it wasn’t always this way.
In 1838, George Calvert Yount, a settler from North Carolina, planted California’s first vine in Yountville, the town that today bears his name. Soon other transplants, lured by the promise of fertile land and wide-open spaces, followed. For years Yountville, nee Sebastopol, was a sleepy little hamlet with a railroad depot, a small hotel and a veterans home. Many of the residents were migrant workers, living in the area and toiling in the vineyards. That all changed in 1994 with the opening of The French Laundry.
“When I came here [in 1988] there were just a handful of restaurants,” says Bob Hurley of Hurley’s restaurant. “That was at a time when people were coming up here for the wine. It was when the winemakers were having a renaissance. When I joined Domaine Chandon we were getting fish twice a week, produce twice a week. There were no services up here. It was like we were on mars.
“When Thomas [Keller of The French Laundry] came he made it the preemptive restaurant in the valley. That was a big statement. Pretty soon, we were being recognized. People were fighting for our business. Purveyors were seeking us out. People were fighting to come to the restaurants, too. It got even more exclusive and the quality went up. Yountville became a destination for food.”
Yountville is now the undisputed culinary capital of Napa Valley. Of course, much of that is due to The French Laundry, Keller’s culinary mecca on Washington Street. But let’s face it: most casual travelers can’t get a reservation unless they’ve booked it months in advance. If you aren’t one of the lucky diners, console yourself with a trip around the restaurant’s culinary gardens. Missing out on a nine-course tasting at the Laundry doesn’t mean you’ll have to eat at McDonalds. On the contrary, Yountville has a number of fine dining options that, although not as unique as the Laundry, will still satisfy any gourmand.
If dining at a Keller establishment is a must, two other options exist in Yountville. Ad Hoc is much less expensive than the Laundry but still gets stellar reviews for its four-course menu of ever-changing selections featuring local ingredients. If Ad Hoc is not to your taste, try Keller’s traditional French bistro, Bouchon, just down the street. Redd has garnered one Michelin star for Chef Richard Reddington’s ethnic-tinged wine country cuisine. For a more casual meal, head to Hurley’s. Chef Hurley serves simple, fresh California wine country cuisine at reasonable prices. It’s a nice change from the more elaborate meals down the street and the service is impeccable.
Yountville may only have 3,000 permanent residents but it doesn’t lack culture because of it. If you have time, check out a performance at the Lincoln Theater. The space hosts year-round plays as well as classical music performances. Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Napa Valley Museum, which highlights area artists. Maison Fleurie, once the old Magnolia hotel, is on the National Register of Historic places and worth a tour. If you want to hang out with locals, especially those who work in the many restaurants in town, head to Pancha’s of Yountville, a dive bar on Washington Street. If you want to see a AAA baseball game, head to the Veterans Home of California on California Drive. Stay afterwards and tour the cemetery to see graves from The Civil War. The best way to see Yountville and the surrounding areas is via hot air balloon. Several companies operate facilities in Yountville. As you soar through the clouds on an early morning ride, you can see Napa and Sonoma and even a bit of Mendocino County.
Of course, any visit to Napa wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the area wineries. Some are within walking distance but it’s always best to rent a car to take in as many wineries as you can. My picks include Clif Lede (Yountville), Shafer Vineyards (Napa) and Robert Sinskey Vineyards (Napa), which are all about five to 10 minutes from Yountville. If you need to be more efficient with your time, stay in town and head over to Ma(i)sonry. Housed in a historic stone building, owner Michael Polenske serves small-production wines from lesser-known vintners such as Uvaggio, Renteria Wines and his own Blackbird Vineyards. Enjoy a bottle in one of the great rooms or in the sculpture garden. Ma(i)sonry doubles as an art gallery. The art on display and for sale ranges from Napa Valley favorites to internationally renowned artists.
Although the town is small visitors don’t suffer for lodgings. The Bardessono is undoubtedly the best hotel in town and earns accolades for its sincere commitment to the environment. While environmentally friendly often conjures up images of mud huts and coconut phones, the LEED Platinum hotel is as luxurious as a Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons.
The neutral rooms are expansive—starting at 550 square feet—and are outfitted with wall-mounted HD TVs, jetted, self-regulating soaking tubs, sensored light switches, private stone patios with views of the mountains and king beds that you can sink yourself into. Tufa limestone as well as other reclaimed materials were used to build the 62-room structure. Salvaged dark cypress, walnut and other local woods can be found inside the complex. The entire property is solar powered and heated and cooled via geothermal springs. Organic linens and cleaning supplies are utilized throughout. Water is recycled for irrigation and drinking water is filtered onsite.
“I believe it is critical for the development community to be a leader in the effort to preserve a healthy planet. We can’t just continue to talk about environmental problems, we have to begin to act. I hope we have provided an example from which others can benefit,” says owner Phil Sherburne.
The hotel also has a full-service restaurant that utilizes fresh produce and herbs from an onsite garden, as well as a spa and rooftop bar and pool. Area locals often head to the pool on Wednesday nights to mix and mingle with guests and other residents.
If you can’t stay at the Bardessono or want something more economical, try the Railway Inn across the street. The hotel is constructed from 100-year-old train cars. The accommodations are simple: each car has a king, queen or full bed with private sitting areas and a full bath. But don’t expect in-suite butlers or motion detecting devices. What the Railway Inn lacks in luxury it makes up for in hospitality and charm and it’s is a great place for large groups. After all, why spend all your cash on your hotel room? Save it for The French Laundry.