The sins of progress have been kind to one of the world’s most prestigious wine regions.
Once a sleepy, laid-back hideaway where the residents of Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and
Calistoga smugly enjoyed the fragrant air, tended their vines and quietly celebrated
perhaps the planet’s most attractive setting, California’s Napa Valley towns are now
favored destinations. The increasing popularity of the viticulture produce has attracted
large crowds to the Golden State’s wine country. Visitors have discovered that Napa Valley
embraces fine dining – and a precious cache of blue ribbon wines that include the whole
range of exciting tastes from the reds of Cabernet Sauvignon to the classic California
Chardonnay, ranked among the finest white wines anywhere.
On weekends, visitors crowd Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, driving through the 35-mile-long, seven-mile-wide basin.
The Napa Valley boasts 45,000 acres (as of Jan. 2019) of vineyards and, incredibly, only a small percentage of the enchanting landscape has been developed, thanks to forward-thinking residents.
With more than 300 Napa wineries competing in the marketplace, the valley is a wonderland of Victorian architecture, showcasing the historical stone buildings, many grand old landmarks, French-style chateaus and estates which appear as if they were plucked right out of Europe. The gently rolling hills, the prolific earth that quietly hosts neatly planted vines and inspiring mountain ranges – often draped with drifting clouds that play hide and seek with the vineyards – are the essence of the region. Circumventing the predictable visitors, a splendid hideaway awaits those with a sense of discovery.
Yountville, in the heart of the valley and just a 90-minute drive north from San Francisco
or west from Sacramento, is ensconced on an easily accessible stretch of land just off busy
Highway 29 at the Yountville exit – an immense bonus, according to the citizenry, because
weekend travelers often bypass the town on the way to the high-profile towns of Napa, St.
Helena and Calistoga.
[bctt tweet=”Founded in 1855 by George Yount – who set the standard by producing some fine wines in his day – Yountville is a gem in waiting.”] The elegantly upscale town, home to 3,000 residents within its 1.6 square miles, seems to be tucked in and around a spectacle of working vineyards, vines, and hillsides that grace the perspective in a
time-honored panorama. It seems as if everyone knows everything about everyone in
Yountville, including what he or she had for dinner and if the wine was red, white, or
bubbly. The sense of community is overwhelming and without a touch of pretension.
“Everyone who lives here is right up the road. We’re a small town with a big heart,” one resident laughed.
“We have the amenities of a large city without the annoying temperament,” added another.
They might be right. In comparison to Napa Valley, Yountville has little traffic
(and no traffic signals) and no gaudy fast-food joints or blazing neon lights. Instead, it
boasts specialty shops, wineries and dining choices – replete with celebrity chefs to keep
one’s taste buds humming. The best times to visit Yountville are spring and winter, when
the light is soft, the bouquet of fireplaces is in the air and there are few visitors. No
matter when you go, however, you’ll discover that Yountville is the perfect town to walk or
cycle, and that it is virtually impossible to get lost while enjoying the antique shops,
restaurants and historic sights.
Pick up a self-guided Walking Historical Tour & Fitness Map from the Yountville Chamber of Commerce and browse through the town’s 25 listed sites, including five that are included on the National Register of Historic Places. One site mentioned on both lists is Vintage 1870, the designated starting point. Ideally named, Vintage 1870 was once the home of the Groezinger Winery. Built in 1870 (and the largest winery in California at the time), the facility is now an attractive shopping complex with 35 specialty shops and galleries, including the popular Pacific Blues Cafe©, a remarkable deli with a delicious bouquet offering a selection of freshly baked breads and an outdoor deck.
Across the street is award-winning Hurley’s, a red-hot restaurant with a huge
fireplace and an open kitchen serving wild game, locally grown wild mushrooms and steelhead salmon from the Sacramento River. Owner/chef Bob Hurley said,
“We’re not too serious about ourselves, and in Napa Valley that can be difficult. My job is to make dining seamless, exciting and affordable.”
Other fine restaurants recognized country-wide are Bouchon, with a menu of classic bistro cuisine from Paris and Provence; Brix, for Sunday brunch; the high-energy Pere Jeanty Bistro Provencal; lunch at the Villagio Inn & Spa; and the famed French Laundry, so renowned for its fine table that reservations are required two
months in advance.
Call ahead for wine tasting at the Bell Wine Cellars, Goosecross Cellars, and Noah Vineyards; reservations are not necessary at Cosentino Winery and Domaine Chandon. In 1973, the French settled in with Domaine Chandon and became the first-ever American sparkling wine venture by a French champagne house (Moet & Chandon). A large, stylish complex that is a destination unto itself, Domaine Chandon has a visitor center, informative guided tours, tasting salon and The Restaurant, which opened in 1977 and is celebrated for introducing fine dining to Napa Valley.
Also celebrated are the wine country hot-air balloon rides. Napa Valley Aloft, the original balloon company in the valley, heats up their balloons in the middle of town in the Vintage 1870 parking lot – and floats them across the countryside with six to eight guests for a spectacular hour of viewing, followed by a post-flight breakfast at Compadres Mexican Restaurant. The package is $220 per person, including pickup at your site. During an early morning one-hour flight with the San Francisco skyline on the horizon and the vineyards appearing like a large canvas dappled with greens and pastels, owner/pilot Nielsen Rogers explained the town’s origins.
“Though Yountville wasn’t incorporated until 1965, its boundaries remained basically unchanged since 1874. Yountville sprung up from earthy roots.”
In 1970, the one-mile-long town was brick-to-brick with shoddy bars and characters who looked like Willie Nelson on a bad night …. The beginning of good times and the good life in
Yountville began when Domain Chandon moved in – and now Yountville is here for everyone to enjoy.
Find the closest Good Sam Park’s in Napa here.