enjoy a tasting flight at Hess Estate's Cellar in
California's Napa Valley
Calif. ó If vineyards at harvest time call to you ó
grapes plump on the vines, leaves turning red and gold ó
consider a visit to Yountville, in the heart of Californiaís
famed Napa Valley. A country village by this city galís
standards, Yountville is tiny: about 12 blocks long and
four blocks wide, an island lapped by rolling vineyards.
Washington Street, the main drag, bisects the town, where
3,480 residents count themselves lucky to be making a
living from tourism and the wineries that attract
connoisseurs from near and far.
of a novice regarding Northern Californiaís secret
hideaways, I headed there recently expecting to wander
along winding lanes through picturesque hills and valleys,
fixing the glorious fall colors for future recall. To add
purpose to pleasure, I also hoped to stop wherever a
friendly sign announced "Tasting Room,"
suggesting of a winery tour and a chance to buy a recent
vintage at the source, a taste of Napa sunshine to warm a
chilly evening back home.
due time I arrived ó with friends in tow ó to discover
that while some might call Yountville a village, itís a
village on steroids, a city in miniature, depending on
your definition. Nearly everything a wine-searcher could
want is right there, from lodging to dining, a 10-minute
walk from end to end.
donít need a car at all," said the bell boy at the
Vintage Inn, who was leaning against the reception desk
smiling, sharing a joke with the clerk while they waited
early arrivals. "Just park it over there beyond the
flower beds. You can walk everywhere," he told us,
piling our suitcases onto a rolling cart and disappearing
out the rear toward a distant fountain.
walk we did, passing a half dozen tasting rooms (suburban
outposts of distant wineries), fashion emporiums, art
galleries, Napa Style (a must-see kitchen and comestibles
shop on the Vintage Estate), a flourishing vegetable
garden and the Villagio Inn & Spa, next door.
notable than any of these, however, was Yountvilleís
culinary scene, famous for cornering at least five (or
maybe six) Michelin stars. From Bouchon, the bistro and
bakery, to the French Laundry (three stars between just
the two), and from Redd Wood (pasta and pizza), Bodega
(steaks and Italian specialties) to Bistro Jeanty (pure
French), they offered a bountiful cornucopia of fine (and
expensive) dining surprises.
travel credo being, as some guidebook wag described it,
"a peaceful night makes the next day bright," we
booked rooms in the Vintage Inn, built in 1985 on the
Vintage Estateís 23 centrally located acres. There are
other lodging choices here in Yountville. But the Vintage
Inn met our first criteria: a central location. It also
won points with a large swimming pool and hot tub, both
open into the evening for an after-dinner soak. The
deal-maker was a no-charge breakfast (included in the room
price): a buffet with fruit, cereals, sliced meats, bread,
cheese, tomatoes and a chef-manned omelet station.
an initial inspection of the proposed digs revealed a
second-floor room with king bed, puffy quilt, shamefully
large tub, two balconies, a fireplace and kitchenette
nook, we registered. As for the wine project, we tasted
and bought two cabernets at a tasting room across the
street. But what to do about exploring Napa Valleyís
quaint country roads? Enter the concierge.
of these wineries donít allow drop-in customers,"
said Christina Richardson, presiding over a desk in the
hotelís lounge. "You have to have
appointments," she explained. "And you canít
visit Far Niente at all." Far Niente, my former bossís
favorite wine, was the only label I could think of.
she added, with a conspiratorial smile, "I just might
be able to make a reservation for you at Nickel &
Nickel. Theyíre the owners of Far Niente. Let me call
them. Iíve been going to lots of tastings lately,"
she confessed. "Itís my chance to learn about
us a map of the 199 wineries in the Napa Valley ó most Iíd
never heard of ó she explained that better wineries not
only require a reservation, they also charge a fee for a
tasting; typically $25 (or more) per person. It sounds
pricey. But that fee pays for two hours with an wine
connoisseur who leads the tour, then presides over a
"flight," of five or six wines which he / she
pours, guiding you through a comparison and evaluation. At
some wineries, like Frogís Leap, a drop-in is more
casual. You can sit all afternoon on the porch or on the
lawn, drink in the rumpled hills beyond, inspect the
vegetable and flower gardens or play bean-bag horse shoes
with your kids.
with four appointments in hand we retrieved the car and
were off, to Hess (on rustic Mount Veeder), to Nickel
& Nickel (exclusive, organized, welcoming), to Frogs
Leap (casual, fun), and to Cakebread (join a group and
wait your turn). Later Richardson ó whose courtesy and
professional know-how made our mission a success, booked
"his and her" aroma therapy massages with bath
treatments at the Villagio Spa (next door), a 90-minute
marathon of kneading, oiling, finishing with an open air
soak in bubbly bath water. A rare indulgence for us, it
confirmed the old saw that "the couple that plays
together, stays together." Richardson also made
dinner reservations for us at Bodega (good food,
annoyingly pompous waiter), and at Redd Wood (fresh
veggies, scrumptious sauce, lively atmosphere).
didnít we eat at the celebrated French Laundry? It was
booked up for the next five months. But Bouchon had a
lunch cancellation, a meal that became the tripís
culinary highlight. Onion soup (the genuine article)
whetted my appetite, followed by Salade Maraichere au
Chevre Chaud (green salad), Truit Amandine (trout), fresh
bread and Bouchonís famous Pomme Frites (French fries).
A sommelier-chosen dry white wine enhanced the flavors.
we weigh down the carís rear wheels with a trunk full of
wine? Not quite, but we did buy select labels, complex in
the nose and smooth on the tongue. A few were reputed to
improve with age, the sort of vintage years you store in
the cellar and crack open when your toddler graduates from
college. Inspired by Concierge Richardson, at the Vintage
Inn, I realized there was much more to learn. I envisaged
a new-found hobby, something akin to bird watching;
calling for a distant trip, a guidebook, a checklist.
now checked off nine Napa wineries. Just 190 to go. An
epic journey begins.
and Sonoma Valleys are located east of San Francisco, on
State Route 29.
lodging at the luxury-rated Vintage Inn, call
(800)351-1133; or go to www.vintageinn.com.
more about Yountville, go to