I recommend approaching Yountville in the dark. Nighttime driving conceals Napa Valley's Mayacamas Mountains and hillsides, so I wake in my hotel surprised and enchanted by the vineyard landscape.
Darkness also helps me imagine the time before Napa Valley became an international wine destination. The industry ran on faith between the winery-decimating plague of Prohibition 100 years ago and the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when Napa wines beat French wines in a blind taste test. The latter event started a worldwide Napa Valley wine obsession that continues today.
And for Yountville, a town nestled in southern Napa Valley, the opening 25 years ago this weekend of chef Thomas Keller's the French Laundry began its time of flourishing. Keller turned the French Laundry into an international bucket-list destination, a place where people who can't get (or can't afford) reservations take selfies in front of the sign.
Equating Prohibition and a restaurant debut in historic significance to a wine region may seem an overstatement. But consider: Keller holds a total of seven Michelin stars across his now-imperial restaurant portfolio - two within blocks of each other in Yountville. The French Laundry's perfect three stars is a rating only a handful of American restaurants have ever achieved. (One of the others is Per Se in Manhattan, also owned by Keller).
Next door to the French Laundry is a small house that is the American training ground for the world chef championship called the Bocuse d'Or, which takes place in Lyon, France, every two years. It is often called the "culinary Olympics." So Yountville is now ground zero for the Bocuse d'Or's Team U.S.A.
On a recent evening I spent with Keller at the French Laundry, he mused: "I was born at the right time for the profession in the same way that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were born at the right time. The idea of American cuisine really blossomed for America when I was a young cook, so I was in the beginning, I was in the infancy of that."
Yountville has prospered over the past quarter-century as a standard-bearer of an increasingly well-lived American life in food, wine and the arts. The Yountville Chamber of Commerce boasts on brochures, "From Michelin Stars to Masterpieces!"
The "Masterpieces" refer to Yountville's flourishing arts programs. The Napa Valley Museum, opened in Yountville in 1998, has an exhibit on printmaking, with samples from Picasso, Chagall, Dali and Matisse. It is the starting location for the annual Yountville Art, Sip & Stroll, during which the town's streets are lined with work by local artists (and visitors drink wine from one of Yountville's many tasting rooms). Museum bonuses: The nearby Veterans Home of California has the town's most spectacular views. Steps away, outdoor public bocce ball courts beckon. And you can stop off at Domaine Chandon on your way up or down the hill for a sample of sparkling wine.
Weather too beautiful for an indoor museum? The decade-old Yountville Art Walk through town displays multiple large outdoor sculptures (now more than 30) for viewing any time, along sidewalks and in parks. My favorite is a field of smooth stones piled on top of each other to make a Zen-feeling garden of rock mushrooms. It, like many of the sculptures, is for sale. Five sculptures are directly across the street from the French Laundry. Others grace Yountville's public parks, including tiny Van de Leur Park - home to a fountain monument of the town's founder, George Yount, and some intoxicatingly fragrant roses.
In summer, Yountville hosts music and movies in the park (with snacks sold by Yountville's Little League). For entertainment in a grander setting, the 1,200-seat Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater had a $22 million overhaul in 2005. It's all accessible via the free Yountville Trolley, a fleet of open-air vehicles with knowledgeable drivers, operated by a transit authority established 20 years ago.
The French Laundry also underwent a renovation and added a major addition for its 20th anniversary in 2014. The original wood-and-stone building was at different times during Yountville's history a saloon, a brothel and a steam laundry - hence the name. It is so unassuming that, Keller said, there is a similar house a block away and "people would walk into their house looking for the French Laundry."
The new glass addition, not visible from the road, is modeled on the late I.M. Pei's Louvre Pyramid. Keller, who considers himself a steward of the property, told me that he still at times has "buyer's remorse" about the expansion. But the addition accommodates an enormous new kitchen with skylights and an open-fire hearth that allows the staff to experiment with the menu (which starts at $325 per person).
For a French Laundry experience with no price tag, the ungated three-acre Culinary Garden across the street is open to the public for impromptu strolls. It's a great place to sip morning coffee. The French Laundry's culinary gardener, Aaron Keefer, maintains a helpful plant-identification map at the head of the garden that changes with the seasons. The garden's sheer existence is luxurious; imagine how much money could be made from growing wine grapes here. Keefer calls his crops "24-karat carrots."
He says some visitors even sneak a taste of the French Laundry by picking from the strawberry patch (Mara des Bois, Albion, and Seascape varietals, all with distinct flavors), but he still welcomes visitors. On my most recent visit, a child toddled through the grassy paths. Note to aspiring gardeners: No volunteering in the garden. Keefer says a California law prohibits a gardening program similar to the interning program at restaurants known as "staging."
Making luxury is hard work. Both the French Laundry and the nearby Napa Valley vineyards reflect the American tension between a quest for luxury and a puritanical commitment to grinding labor. Struggling vines' roots dig deeper for resources, and the strain of growth produces more complex fruit. The same might be said for Keller. His renowned pursuit of professional excellence has been both revered and criticized (sometimes by the same people) over the past 25 years for being harsh on staff. Sometimes this criticism comes from the same Instagrammers who gladly fill their feeds with photos of his dishes.
Keller's newer Yountville restaurants play on another American contradiction: our delight in both the high- and lowbrow. Behind his Ad Hoc family-style restaurant is Addendum, a fried-chicken-and-ribs shack open for lunch "spring through harvest." A bucket of 13 to 15 pieces costs $49, as takeout or eaten at the on-site outdoor picnic tables. Bouchon Bakery, right next door to the one-Michelin-starred French bistro Bouchon, sells Fuhgeddaboudit chocolate-covered crispy cereal bars with caramel ($5.50) and gourmet Ho Hos called Oh Ohs ($6).
Keller's newest addition is La Calenda, a Mexican restaurant helmed by chef Kaelin Ulrich Trilling, son of Oaxacan cooking star Susanna Trilling. Chips are thick and warm, the guacamole simultaneously chunky and creamy with onion and cilantro flavors in every bite. Later, I find out that consistency is thanks to the kitchen's technique of pureeing a small portion of guacamole, then folding it back into the chunky base. La Calenda benefits from Keller's connections (the kitchen uses Rancho Gordo heirloom beans) and the French Laundry's culinary garden, which now grows hard-to-find Oaxacan peppers.
Keller's and Yountville's successes have been entwined like vines over the past quarter-century. So what next? When he bought the French Laundry, it had already operated under the name as a beloved community mom-and-pop restaurant for about 15 years. Keller confides: "You reach a certain age, you start to think, what happens next? What happens to this?
"And I'm sure [former owners] Don and Sally Schmidt felt that same kind of thing. And it hasn't come from me yet but it's in the back of my mind because at some point this restaurant not just needs to live on, but needs to thrive, needs to be taken over by a young chef or chef-maître d' or manager or whoever that has the same types of visions and the same types of values and the same types of traditions."
It's up to Keller whether the French Laundry - and its historic building - will get a new life when he decides it's time. If he finds someone with imagination and ambition to take over, imagine how much better the good life in Yountville might be in another 25 years.