25 Apr Yountville: The Best Wine Country Escape
The charming town in Napa Valley offers top-notch experiences with a tranquil vibe
Fear of missing out is real for many Napa Valley visitors. Both first-timers and veterans often arrive at the epicurean playground brandishing a packed agenda that leaves no tasting room or table unturned. Guilty.
The antidote for this common angsty affliction is the lovely little town of Yountville, a compact, scenic stretch packed with top spots to eat, drink, sleep, shop and stroll. It’s the perfect place to park the car (free here), breathe in that cool Napa Valley wine country vibe and take a tasty bite out of the area’s many pleasures rather than try to devour the entire 30 miles’ worth in one go.
Located 9 miles north of Napa proper via State Route 29, also known as the Saint Helena Highway, the 1.5-square-mile municipality of some 3,500 residents was founded by pioneer George Yount, the first Euro-American to settle in the valley and, in 1839, the first to plant grapes in its now celebrated soil.
Yountville, which has its own AVA (American Viticultural Area) recognized for its long, cool growing season, boasts some 15 walkable wineries right in town, many along its main road, Washington Street. With names like Heston, Handwritten and Hope & Grace, they feature stylish tasting rooms that run from sleek to spectacular, many offering next-level experiences that include rotating art exhibits, curated pairings or a walk amidst the vines with a winemaker. Dozens more vintners, both notable and new, ply their trade nearby; it’s a five-minute drive to the storied estates of Far Niente and Cardinale, the latter producing a single Cabernet per vintage.
Yountville, which likes to claim the most Michelin Guide stars per capita of anywhere in North America, is the culinary heart and soul for award-winning chef Thomas Keller’s empire and home to his flagship—three-starred French Laundry, where the nightly changing multi-course tasting menu starts at $350 per person should you somehow score a coveted reservation. If not, it costs nothing to wander the kitchen gardens across the street—and dream.
Just steps away, Bouchon, his single-star spot, serves approachable French bistro fare indoors and out on its patio. The line for its bakery’s buttery goodness forms early every morning, as does the wait for the weekend-only fried chicken at his casual Ad Hoc eatery (his barbecue-focused Addendum is currently closed). Then there’s Calenda, Keller’s ode to Oaxacan cuisine and culture, and Regis Ova, his posh new caviar and champagne pop-up. Want to take some Keller home? Finesse, The Store now sells his collection of kitchen tools, apparel, gifts and accessories.
Other notable chefs have hung their toques in town too: Bistro Jeanty regularly gets a Michelin star for its cheery space and chef Philippe’s home-style French food, Cindy Palcwyn’s iconic roadhouse Mustards has stood the test of time and, more recently, Nick Tamburo, formerly of New York’s Momofuku, has brought his East Coast energy and Asian flair to the new North Block restaurant in the old Redd Wood space.
Celebu-chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega Napa Valley dishes up rustic Italian cuisine in the converted historic winery V Marketplace, a series of stone buildings dating back to 1870 that also house boutiques such as Kollar artisan chocolates. Chiarello’s newest offerings here include Coqueta, which serves Spanish tapas, and Ottimo, a cafe-market setting that sells wood-fired pizzas along with his handcrafted products and decor.
The buzzy restaurant Brix just celebrated its 25th birthday with a facelift, including light woods, ledgestone and fold-away window walls that fully open the inside to the outdoor patios overlooking the Kelleher family’s lush grapevines and gardens. At Lucy Restaurant & Bar, New American menus are designed around what’s fresh from the property’s organic produce gardens. The casual Ciccio uses its wood-fired oven for many menu items, much of it sourced from owners Karen and Frank Altamura’s nearby ranch.
RH Yountville, Restoration Hardware’s high-end concept, pulls together food, wine, art and design in its five-building designer showcase compound. Seeking something simple and solid? The family-owned Southside Cafe does a Latin-tinged breakfast and lunch. On weekends, Model Bakery’s highly addictive—and Oprah’s favorite—brick-oven-baked English muffins are available at their window-service Mini-Model. Or perhaps hankering for the familiar? R+D Kitchen, with locations in Newport Beach, Santa Monica and Dallas, has an outpost here.
Surprisingly, there’s also lots to do locally that doesn’t involve eating or drinking—or getting in a car. Take a self-guided or docent-led stroll along the Yountville Art Walk, a collection of 38 pieces of outdoor sculpture, or pop by the Gallery at the Community Center, which exhibits the works of local, regional and even world-renowned artists as well as an annual Youth Art Show. Or enjoy a concert or theatrical production at the Napa Valley Performing Arts Center.
Perhaps there is no wine country experience more memorable than floating in a hot air balloon above the area’s terraced vineyards and estates; Napa Valley Aloft launches right from town. Or grab a bike and gaze upon grazing sheep along Yountville’s sweet side roads, or cycle the 12-mile dedicated multi-use Vine Trail that runs all the way to the town of Napa. Feel like hitting the links? Check out Vintner’s Golf Club championship nine-hole course.
Where to lay your weary head? Tucked into the middle of town, LEED platinum–certified Bardessono Hotel & Spa’s zen-infused, art-filled property includes a rooftop pool with mountain views, spa with seasonal treatments, field-to-fork restaurant, complimentary bikes and, for your furry friend, their Barkessono program; its more traditionally styled sister property, Hotel Yountville, features a spa and guests-only eatery. The Estate at Yountville offers a pair of elegant options—the Vintage House and Villagio. The newish North Block Hotel has 20 chic rooms, a spa and eponymous eatery.
The best stretch to visit Yountville might be during the riotous mustard bloom that generally lasts from late January through March, blanketing fields in magnificent swaths of yellow. Lore has it that a directionally challenged Jesuit priest scattered the non-native seeds to guide him home; these days their flowers are quickly followed by bud break in the vineyards, signifying the start of a new growing season. It’s also a terrific time of fewer crowds, pleasant temperatures—and improved odds of snagging that sought-after tasting room spot or restaurant reservation.
Incline Village resident Susan D. Rock is Tahoe Quarterly’s longtime Food & Wine editor.