January 14, 2009
Discovering the Wine Country's Walking Village
By Brooke Cheshier
"Yountville is a walking village.”
Revolutionary words? Maybe not in the sense that they are going to start an uprising. But in the sense that they transformed the way I view the tiny Napa Valley town – excuse me, village – that I have come to know and love in this past year?
Yountville has always commanded media attention for Thomas Keller and his Michelin-starred restaurants as well as for the pretty strip of shops lining Washington Street. I’ve lived here a year, and I still read about Ad Hoc’s fried chicken night at least once a week. And out-of-towners continue to go into Bouchon specifically for the saffron mussels and French fries (because even though they haven’t been on the menu for over six months, the scented bivalves are so beloved by guests the kitchen keeps the ingredients on hand…just in case).
Locals know these things, but they also know a different Yountville. They know the shaded walking path behind Vintage Inn, and the shortcut through V Marketplace to get to it. They know how delicious it is to stop at NapaStyle for picnic materials – a bottle of vino, some sandwiches and cheeses – and then follow the trail to the tiny park at the north end of town.
Locals know all about the series of interconnected – though slightly fractured – walking paths that make this town beautifully, windingly pedestrian friendly. But, I personally had never read nor heard about them until last week.
Which is why, today, I recruited Pat Bardessono, the author of the aforementioned quote and the woman responsible for my thought metamorphosis, along with her husband Steve to take me on a walking tour of their charming burg.
“You know that this town is just a small village surrounded by an agricultural preserve,” Steve tells me; it’s a sunny, cloud speckled winter day. I look left and see the majestic Mayacamas in the distance. I look right and see the lolling eastern hills of Stags’ Leap. And nearly all of it – north, south, east and west – is blanketed in vineyards.
We are standing on Yount Street in front of the original Bardessono property, which was purchased by Steve’s ancestors in 1926 and is now the home of the soon-to-open Bardessono resort and spa. This property also happens to be, according to Steve, Yountville’s geographic center. It is a lovely starting point for our adventure.
To begin, we head east, away from the commercial heart and toward residential Yountville; a few steps in the other direction would put us in the Hurley’s parking lot. As we walk, Steve tells me about eco-developer Phil Sherburne’s passionate environmental vision for the Bardessono and points out the future site of a small park at the corner of the historic six-acre property.
The park, as well as all the trails within the resort, will be open to the Yountville community, he explains as we continue past Lucy’s garden, which is filled with sapling apple and citrus trees and small lettuces. Named after another Bardessono ancestor, it is part of a series of organic gardens from which chef Sean O’Toole will source produce for the hotel kitchen. The idea, he says, is to make the Bardessono as much a local fixture as the post office we have just passed.
Normally, the trail continues alongside the post office, community hall, and a future library and courtyard, wraps around the resort and then divides. One trail flows east, toward quiet residences and the other flows north, toward the elementary school and into a wooded glen near Hopper Creek. This shaded portion of the trail has some of the best late-fruiting blackberries in the valley and had actually been the source of hours of sticky-fingered fun for me this summer.
Because construction severs these trails for now, Steve suggests we turn around and head toward Washington Street. After all, the idea is to get a sense of the entire series, which wrap around and twine themselves between Yountville’s grid-like streets. We don’t have time to cover them, so we return to our starting point and head west.
Our trail meets up with the sidewalks of restaurant row, crosses south behind the Villagio hotel and runs parallel to Highway 29. We have the choice of following it south, all the way to the Veteran’s Home and Lincoln Theater on California Drive. Or of going north, to the park, vineyards and cemetery on the edge of town.
We choose north, although we have to cut through V Marketplace to reach our path (technically the red-bricked sidewalks crisscrossing the market’s courtyard are part of the community trail system; at least Steve’s pretty sure they are). The course slips behind The Vintage Inn and then reconnects with Washington Street’s main sidewalk in front of The French Laundry garden.
I do a quick visual check for Tucker, the talented – and handsome – Georgia fella responsible for all of Thomas Keller’s gardens while we wander slowly in front of his blocks of leafy greens. I am mid-scan when Steve stops me. We’re on a tiny bridge and Steve points his finger into the dry brush below. I see an old trestle and can just make out the worn track bed of the Southern Pacific railroad, which once connected parts of the Pacific North and Southwest.
Steve gives me a quick but passionate history lesson, and I realize just how much he treasures the preciousness of his village. He knows the secret places, which you can only know if you’ve lived and walked a place a thousand times. The oldest tree. The prettiest spot on Hopper Creek. The tiny gym and tennis courts hidden behind Washington Street’s shops. The warmest spot for tomato soup. It’s Bistro Jeanty, if you’re wondering.
The thought occurs to me that one day, it will be my turn to know the secret places. I will be the one who whispers to visiting friends that they have to try the rabbit pasta at Bottega or that the best coffee in town can be found at the Bardessono. After all, I’ve already discovered my favorite blackberry patch.
On the return trip, we pass by Tina’s house. The Happy Birthday chorus booms from half a dozen tiny voices. Tina, Pat tells me, has been taking care of several of the teacher’s children here in town for years. She and Steve wave toward Tina and her yard full of kids.
“These trails link all of us,” Pat says, and I understand (we all do) she’s not just talking about the physical connections. Still, I’m glad I have good walking shoes, because I’ve got miles to go before I know what she knows.
Flickr Image Link of the walk: http://is.gd/fV9z