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Aspen Times Weekly: A Yountville Sojourn

If you go to wine country, you will be happy at any of these three homes away from home.

Bardessono

6526 Yount St.

707-204-6000

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Villagio Inn & Spa

6481 Washington St.

707-944-8877; 800-351-1133

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Lavender, a Four Sisters Inn

2020 Webber Ave.

800-522-4140

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Until recently, the small wine town of Yountville, in the heart of the Napa Valley, was best known as the home of the French Laundry, one of the most famous restaurants in the world. Chef Thomas Keller put Yountville on the culinary map when he took over a stone building in 1992 and began crafting it into a Michelin three-star restaurant.

But in the last decade, the town, which has a history dating back to the 1830s, has undergone a metamorphosis that has made it one of the Napa Valley's most desirable destinations. In the past, St. Helena in the midvalley was considered the star and Calistoga, at the northern end, the authentic and friendly town. But following Keller's success, there has been an influx of upscale hotels and charming, distinctive restaurants, along with a transformation of the shopping, art and wine-tasting scene in this, the gateway to the Napa Valley.

Vineyards surround today's Yountville and the beauty of the community lies in its simplicity and accessibility. A wine country trip to the town lets one eat, sleep, shop and taste outstanding wines without having to leave the one-mile long main drag, Washington Street. For those who want a wine country destination without the hassle of driving to and fro, then Yountville is the answer.

Begin with the hotels. Within three blocks there is the Tuscan-style elegance of the Villagio Inn & Spa, the French Country charm of the Villagio's sister property, the Vintage Inn, and the contemporary California cool of Bardessono, a new Platinum LEED-certified hotel.

The Villagio and the Vintage bookend a stunning 23-acre complex of historic winery buildings that were once the Groezinger Estate, a 19th-century winery. The beautiful homes and brick buildings that formerly housed the working part of the estate today serve as home to shops and restaurants. Michael Chiarello, one of Napa's most important wine and culinary figures, moved his NapaStyle operation from St. Helena to the V Marketplace, as the complex is called, and helped to change Yountville forever. Today his "empire" in the V includes not only the NapaStyle store, which caters to locals and visitors by providing all things culinary, but also the outstanding Bottega restaurant. Dining at Bottega makes a trip to Italy seem almost superfluous.

Other shops in the V Marketplace include one of the Valley's best wine shops, fittingly known as V Wine Cellar, which offers a lounge area and many local wines by the glass, as well as some of the world's best pours. Kollar Chocolates, run by artisan chocolatier and former chef Chris Kollar and his Swiss-born partner, Naomi Pasztor, is unlike any chocolate shop you have ever been in. Savory and sweet chocolates are made before your eyes and utilize the flavors of the Valley. Fennel, pollen, lavender, cardamom and chili all make appearances in the chocolate ganache truffles.

Across the street and around a corner from the Marketplace is the low-slung, architecturally sleek Bardessono. This property has captured the attention of those who aspire to both luxury and environmental responsibility. Built around abundant gardens, the 62-two rooms are modern and simple and oh-so comforting. A highlight is the outdoor showers that put guests in a euphoric natural environment. The contemporary bar and Restaurant Lucy make it easy for those who wish to check in and never leave.

Of course, a short walk away are some of the most exciting and interesting tasting rooms in Napa Valley. At the far end of Washington Street sits an elegant, circa 1904 two-story brick building called the Ma(i)sonry, which is both an art gallery and a tasting room for many of California's most interesting boutique wineries. The wines of Pahlmeyer, Uvaggio, and Blackbird Vineyards are all available here. And Phillipe Melka, the most sought-after winemaking consultant in the Valley, is represented by the wines he makes for Lail Vineyards and Skipstone Ranch.

Not far away are other tasting rooms. The newly opened Hestan Vineyards gallery and tasting room is not only innovative architecturally, but it also serves as home base for the wonderful wines made by winemakers Thomas Rivers Brown and Jeff Gaffner. It also displays some of the finest cookware in the world.

And really, cooking is what Yountville is all about. In a linear mile are great restaurants like Bouchon, Redd, Bistro Jeanty and Ad Hoc. Plus newer, more casual additions like Ciccio, R+D Kitchen and Redd Wood are vying for attention. And don't forget the local Taco Truck.

For me, Yountville has it all. But even if it didn't, waking in the morning at a little B&B like the lovely Lavender Inn and being able to walk a block away for a latte and a chocolate croissant at the flagship Bouchon Bakery is a world-class treat.

It may be the best place in Napa.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.