YOUNTVILLE — If vineyards at harvest time call to you grapes plump on the vines, leaves turning red and gold consider a visit to Yountville, in the heart of California's famed Napa Valley.
A country village by this city gal's 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.
Somewhat of a novice regarding Northern California's 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 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.
In due time I arrived, with friends in tow, to discover that although some might call Yountville a village, it's 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.
So 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.
More notable than any of these, however, was Yountville's 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), and from Redd Wood (pasta and pizza) and Bodega (steaks and Italian specialties and owned by Turlock native Michael Chiarello) to Bistro Jeanty (pure French), they offered a bountiful cornucopia of fine (and expensive) dining surprises.
"Most of these wineries don't allow drop-in customers," said Christina Richardson, presiding over a desk in the lounge of our hotel, the Vintage Inn. "You have to have appointments," she explained. "And you can't visit Far Niente at all." Far Niente, my former boss's favorite wine, was the only label I could think of.
"But," she added, with a conspiratorial smile, "I just might be able to make a reservation for you at Nickel & Nickel. They're the owners of Far Niente. Let me call them. I've been going to lots of tastings lately," she confessed. "It's my chance to learn about wine."
So 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, whose courtesy and professional know-how made our mission a success, booked his and her aromatherapy 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 and at Redd Wood.
Did we weigh down the car's 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 Richardson, I realized there was much more to learn. I envisaged a newfound hobby, something akin to bird watching, calling for a distant trip, a guidebook, a checklist.
I've now checked off nine Napa wineries. Just 190 to go. An epic journey begins.