I felt profound sadness when I opened the Register’s obituary page and saw the name Donald R. Schmitt.
Don, who was in his late 80s, died earlier this month in Philo, a tiny community in Mendocino County where he and his extended family operated The Apple Farm and an assortment of other lifestyle enterprises.
I knew Don only professionally. In his earlier life, he was a Napa Valley newsmaker. It’s not a stretch to say that he helped birth the town of Yountville as the tourist draw that we know today.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Don was the managing partner of Vintage 1870 (now V Marketplace), a historic winery repurposed for shopping and dining. Yountville had been a funky, backwater town. Vintage 1870 — a sort of Ghirardelli Square scaled for wine country — put the town on the map.
Its clothing and art retailers helped define what wine country tourism would become. In most ways, Vintage 1870 avoided ticky-tacky.
My family embraced Vintage 1870 mostly for recreational strolling. We consumed many an ice cream cone there. My children spent hours browsing the toy store.
I was charmed by the Chutney Kitchen, a restaurant with a creative menu overseen by Don’s wife Sally. For a time I was mad about chutneys. They became our garnish of choice for home cooking.
While overseeing Yountville’s commercial core, Don served on the Yountville Town Council for 13 years, four of them as mayor. He helped create the town’s first master plan to control growth and enhance the community’s quaintness.
In the late ‘70s, Don and Sally gave up Vintage 1870 and the Chutney Kitchen and moved up Washington Street to open the original incarnation of The French Laundry.
Their French Laundry, which they operated for for 16 years, was not the international epicurean sensation that Thomas Keller would later create, but it was special enough to attract the likes of Julia Child.
I ate there only once. My Browns Valley neighbor had helped me rebuild a bathroom destroyed by a leaking shower. He wouldn’t accept payment, so we took him and his wife to the coolest restaurant we could think of: the Schmitts’ French Laundry.
Don and Sally had turned a handsome stone building that once housed a bar, a boarding house, and yes, a French laundry, into a glorious incarnation of a French country restaurant. Ingredients were fresh and seasonal. The kitchen was open for inspection. Diners were encouraged to get up between courses and stroll the grounds.
This was the most relaxed dining experience I’d ever had away from home. Don and Sally made me feel like an honorary Schmitt.
In the early ‘90s, they sold to Keller, a little-known chef out of L.A., and decamped to the Anderson Valley to work with their adult children to restore a rundown apple orchard and launch some high-end tourism businesses.
When Don left for Mendocino County, I experienced a flash of abandonment. Had the Napa Valley become too fancy for their tastes? Did they now love another valley more?
My final meeting with Don occurred in the ‘90s when my family went to Mendocino on a camping trip. We booked a tent site at Hendy Woods State Park, not far from The Apple Farm.
Don invited us to tour his family’s work in progress. A scraggly orchard was being revived for the organic cultivation of diverse apple varieties. Paying guests could stay overnight in cute cabins set among apple trees and attend Sally’s cooking classes.
The Apple Farm had rustic appeal. It was an agrarian idyll, offering an escape from the hustle and bustle of urban life.
Ironically, I noted, it also offered an escape from what the Schmitts had helped create further south — the hustle and bustle of the Napa Valley.