YOUNTVILLE — As dawn breaks over Napa Valley, Guillermo Rodriguez, affectionately known as Memo, is about to arrive at what he calls his little part of paradise. He turns into the parking lot and is immediately surrounded by color. Mounds of flowering shrubs are in full bloom, while shade trees add a lush appearance. And this isn’t even the main parking area.
Rodriguez is a busy man, and he loves his job because he is doing what he loves best — gardening. He is in charge of all aspects of the grounds as property manager of Brix Restaurant a mile north of Yountville.
Brix is part of a 16-acre property that was formerly the Christmas Store. In 1996, the Kelleher family purchased the property, redesigned and renovated the building, added a gift shop and extensive gardens and planted 10 acres of cabernet sauvignon grapes on this prime Oakville appellation land. These would produce the excellent Kelleher Family wines that are offered in the restaurant.
As I entered the main parking area, I was overwhelmed by the variety of spring and summer flowers, a lovely fish pond and a canopy of locust trees. From this parking area, you can glimpse lime green umbrellas that beckon you to visit the back garden area, where up to 70 visitors can dine al fresco while viewing the extensive gardens with vineyards and the Mayacamas Mountains in the background.
Rodriguez and I meet in the vegetable and herb garden where, one by one, members of the Brix “family” come out to welcome me. After a hearty handshake, General Manager Michael Cope listens to our garden talk for a few minutes then politely excuses himself to hurry back to his office.
We stroll a few steps discussing the importance of soil and what makes a successful crop. As Rodriguez describes the soil/compost mix, he scoops up a handful and inhales deeply, almost as if he is testing a fine wine. All 25 raised beds are thriving with strong healthy plants. Rodriguez says no chemicals are used in this garden and when they need a little nudge, he feeds them fish emulsion.
There is an abundance of all of our favorite herbs and greens and a few unusual vegetables to add a little spice. We see Russian Red kale that will soon be replaced by peppers, and green beans that will be transformed into tasty tempura appetizers. Rodriguez said 99 percent of the plants, including fruits and citrus, reach the kitchen, and most types are used daily.
Chef Chris Jones, formerly from Sonoma’s The Girl & the Fig, arrives as we stop at the cardoon bed. Cardoon, one of the more unusual vegetables, is similar to an artichoke plant, but is more robust and grown for its stalks. He enthusiastically shares one of his cardoon recipes, and his description is mouth-watering.
Next we are joined by Valerie Kelleher-Herzog, who is the proprietor and general overseer of the restaurant, gift shop, wine business and, enthusiastically, the gardens. Knowledgeable about plants, she collaborates with Rodriguez about all facets of the garden.
When I mention that this is such a happy atmosphere, but it needs a dog, she immediately talks about Colby, one of her yellow Labradors who was found waist-deep in the fish pond trying to catch his dinner. “He had a big smile on his face,” she said. I don’t think we’ll be seeing Colby in the garden.
Some beds are waiting for the next season’s pumpkin seeds that will be planted by Kelleher-Herzog’s children. Tomatoes and squash are relegated to beds hidden in an area behind old coastal live oaks because they have a way of growing out of bounds overnight. We visited the greenhouse where tomatoes, peppers, melons and other summer seedlings will soon be moved outside. Kelleher-Herzog shared another Chris Jones recipe for a "Green Stripe" Zebra tomato and watermelon salad with a tangy vinaigrette.
Visitors are encouraged to stroll through the gardens and relax at one lovely section that is reserved for weddings and other celebrations. A curving path lined by tall flowering shrubs, designed by Rodriguez, alternately hides and reveals the bride as she makes her way to the altar.
Because the garden is part of the view from the restaurant, it is Rodriguez’s responsibility to keep the entire landscape pristine and healthy year-round, a chore that even the best of gardeners might find difficult.
If you are lucky enough to be seated outside, be sure to order food, the Kelleher cabernet and the sunset over the Mayacamas.