USA, CA: In Yountville Pushing the Epicurean EnvelopeMy first view of Yountville was driving along Washington Street, the main ‘cultivated’ thoroughfare, lined with both ivy-covered historical and faux-vintage buildings, a small train station, wine tasting rooms, restaurants, galleries, sculpture lined sidewalks, an array of large palm trees, neatly clipped hedges and colourful hanging flower boxes.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2010
'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Mark Twain popularized the saying in "Chapters from My Autobiography", published in the North American Review in 1906.
Mark Twain would have liked Yountville. Statistics on this Napa County town aren’t lies but absolute fact. Yountville, with 12 top restaurants, just a knife’s throw apart, attract foodies from all over the world to this classic grape-clad escape. Sequestered within four square miles, Yountville’s prowess as a culinary powerhouse is unmatched; the town boasts the largest concentration of Michelin stars per capita on the planet, sharpening Yountville’s culinary edge with six coveted Michelin stars within six walking blocks. The town also has 11 sophisticated hotels and 10 wine tasting locales. Finally add another two dozen regional wineries tucked within the town’s own AVA (American Viticultural Area) and you might find yourself, ‘Walking on the Wine Side of life.”
Recipients include the three star awarded, French Laundry, considered by many to be the best restaurant anywhere in America, the one star Bouchon, the one star Redd, and the one star rated, étoile at Domaine Chandon. Also new in this year’s Michelin line-up are two recipients in the “Bib Gourmand” category, also known as inspector’s favorites for good value: Bottega restaurant and Bistro Jeanty, a township institution serving classic French bistro fare.
My first view of Yountville was driving along Washington Street, the main ‘cultivated’ thoroughfare, lined with both ivy-covered historical and faux-vintage buildings, a small train station, wine tasting rooms, restaurants, galleries, sculpture lined sidewalks, an array of large palm trees, neatly clipped hedges and colourful hanging flower boxes. Like Main Street in Disneyland, this is a town meticulously well-tended.
This tiny community of just 3200 people is no hick-town that suddenly found itself festooned with wine and food accolades. The first grapevines were planted here in 1838 by George Yount. Its therefore no coincidence that the people who now live and work here are passionate about food and wine, piquing the senses and pleasing the palates of both locals and visitors alike.
“We get over four million visitors a year,” said the former town mayor who just happened be our tour guide on an art and wine tasting jaunt along Washington Street, as she pointed out another sculpture, “this particular work of art is valued at US$350,000 (NZ$ 440,000),” she said, before we were ushered into another tasting room for more sampling of wines.
The lovely thing I found visiting Yountville is that when you arrive at your choice of accommodation (I stayed at the luxurious Bardessono Hotel, Restaurant & Spa with its sensational rooftop pool), you can park the car and walk or bike to just about everywhere. On my two-wheel ‘taste trek,’ had I had the capacity, I could have easily pedalled to all 24 wineries tucked in just four square-miles.
Long lunches seem to be the norm in this part of California. On our first day we lunched at the famed Bottega Restaurant owned by TV Chef Michael Chiarello. Inside a building built in 1830, we heard first hand how good chefs fine primary ingredients that set them apart. Michael told us a story on how one day a hippy-type named Amigo Bob, (yes truly and only in America), stopped by his house as he was mowing his lawns on his ride-on tractor. “He asked me if I was interested in buying his organic polenta. I told him I wasn’t interested but to leave me a bag and if I need some I’d get back to him. I threw the bag under the tractor seat and immediately forgot about it. Six months later we were thinking of including polenta in one of our signature dishes and we needed to source a supply. I suddenly realised there was this bag under my seat so I went and retrieved it. It turned out to be a pre-Columbus type polenta – the very best in this region,” he concluded smiling knowingly.
Hurley’s Restaurant and Bar, (no stars here) is a firm favourite with many chefs and locals alike and that’s how the owner and veteran chef Bob Hurley likes it. He’s lived in Yountville for 25 years and said, “We call our selections, wine country cuisine.” His signature dish is Braised Wild Texas Boar, with truffle scented soft polenta, roasted seasonal vegetables and crispy house made onion rings. Like many restaurants in this town his wine list doesn’t include any wines outside of Napa Valley!
If you want to be wined and dined at the legendary powerhouse French Laundry restaurant expect outstanding attention to detail and all 62 seats filled every night with bookings made a year in advance – restaurants of this calibre are not on every street corner. Having secured a seat you’ll find the chef serves up two unique nine course tasting menus prepared with organic produce, each a series of smaller, focused dishes. No single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the meal. As a sampler: Grilled Fillet of Australian Hiramasa, akita komachi rice, bok choy, navel orange, shiso and charred shishito pepper-eggplant “vinaigrette.” The wine list is of course also impressive; a 100 page book-type selection includes a mere seven New Zealand wines. If you can’t make it there in person they have launched an IPad wine list showcasing 20,000 bottles in a slightly quirky and breezy format. Dining at the French Laundry will set you back US$ 270 (Prix Fixe) or NZ$ 340.
Another delight is to wander across the street from the restaurant into the French Laundry’s two-acre veggie garden. Here we had a private tour meandering among 25 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, baby yams, oyster leaf seedlings, fingerling potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. There are no fences just 24 vegetable plots each measuring 7.6m by 7.6m with grass walkways between each plot, a place where chef’s saunter up every morning and order what they need for that days menu.
Bistro Jeanty is another Yountville restaurant with a French theme focus. Over lunch in the restaurant’s slim-line courtyard I could have sworn I was in some French provincial country town. Born in the Champagne region, Chef Jeanty it turns out is French - Sacré Bleu! At one stage his little corner of France was awarded one Michelin star, three years in a row. Crème de Tomate en Croute (tomato soup in a puff pastry) is his signature appetizer dish. However, don’t leave town without trying the Mousse au Chocolate Brulee.
Thomas Keller, a fixture since opening the French Laundry in 1994 is also the chef and owner of Bouchon Bistro, another restaurant that has garnered a Michelin star on this town’s wine walk of fame. On the Friday night we ate dinner the restaurant was of course full. Thomas Keller, the owner espouses his passion and why he opened a bistro in Yountville. “French bistro food is my favorite - steak frites, a two-inch high quiche with bacon and onions, a salad with an egg on top finished with a perfect vinaigrette, a croque madame, some oysters and a glass of champagne. These are foods that represent the most important kind of cooking there is because they're rooted in tradition. So when I thought of opening a restaurant that's more casual than The French Laundry, I decided to explore and deepen the culinary heritage that I admire so much. A Bouchon can be, and should be, whatever you need it to be. It's a casual place, a social place, a place where people come to relax talk and to eat. A kind of home.”
And that best describes my impressions of dining on fine cuisine and drinking superb wines in Yountville – I felt at home – simply enjoying my just desserts and ‘Walking on the Wine Side of life.”
Located 88 km. north of San Francisco, travellers can arrive via scenic Highway 29 or via Napa County Airport, Sacramento (SMF), Oakland (OAK) or San Francisco (SFO) international airports. We actually took a ferry from downtown San Francisco to Vallejo (60 minutes) then by shuttle bus service to Yountville (about 45 minutes). www.baylinkferry.com
Sporting a chef line-up worthy of a world tour, Yountville’s 2nd Annual Moveable Feast program hits town January 1 – February 28, 2012 with value-season hotel/dining packages and a roux of seasonal prix-fixe meals. For more information such tasting opening hours, travel inquiries and reservations, contact the Yountville Chamber of Commerce at T: +1 707 944 0904 or go to: www.yountville.com.
Bardessono Hotel, Restaurant & Spa
T: +1 707 204 6000
T: + 1 707 945 1050
T: + 1 707 944 0103
T: +1 707 944 8037
T: +1 707 204 7645
Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley
T: +1 707 252 4444
Napa Valley Bike Tour & Tasting
T: +1 707 944 2953
Villagio Inn & Spa
T: +1 707 944-8877
T: +1 707 944 2345
Shane Boocock would like to thank Koleen Hamblin from KOLI COMMUNICATIONS as well as Air New Zealand www.airnewzealand.co.nz, and United Airlines www.united.com for their wonderful service and support during his trip to San Francisco and Yountville in the USA.
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