Up, Up and Away in Yountville

IMG_7612The first morning I walked to the lobby of the Villagio Inn and Spa in Yountville for the complimentary champagne or mimosa brunch, I noticed three different colorful hot air balloons soaring overhead. “I want to do that,” I said out loud. How cool would that be to see Napa Valley from a different perspective other than by foot, car, bus, bicycle or train?

I learned over breakfast that Napa Valley Aloft offers sunrise hot air balloon rides that range from 40 minutes to over one hour depending on the wind speed and pilot’s judgement. Afterwards for $20 extra, you can enjoy a champagne breakfast at the nearby Pacific Blues Cafe.

On the Napa Valley Aloft website they offer a $20 discount on their Classic Sunrise hot air balloon champagne brunch package for Villagio Inn and Spa guests. Sign me up! Since flying in a hot air balloon over Napa Valley has been on my Bucket List, I excitedly reserved a space for the next morning’s flight.

A group gathered at 6:30 a.m. in the entrance of the V-Marketplace, just a short walk from the Villagio Inn and Spa to complete waiverDSC_1032 forms. The sun barely peeked out yet at this time. I was a little concerned that the weather forecast was rain a little later in the day, however the staff at Napa Valley Aloft assured me that I would still be able to fly before the rain came into the valley.

We walked into the parking lot of the V-Marketplace and watched the crew put tarps, large wicker baskets and deflated balloons in a multitude of colors on the asphalt parking lot. Propane gas canisters were secured to start inflating these magnificent balloons.

I was placed in a semi-private flight with ten other passengers and met our pilot Jay Kimball. He was a true professional FAA certified pilot. He continuously accessed the inflation of the balloon and wind conditions. He told us that we would be flying at altitudes between 1,000 and 3,000 feet above the valley floor, depending on the wind.

DSC_1043Kimball pointed to another balloon that rose before us. He said it was a wedding balloon with a bride, groom and minister onboard with the pilot.

Once we rose above the parking, I saw guests at the Villagio Inn and Spa admiring us as we soared above them. I waved to them, remembering how just yesterday, I was on the ground admiring the beautiful rainbow-colored balloons.

We flew over multi-million dollars wineries, parks, backyards with swimming pools, and rows of vineyards. Kimball pointed towards Mt. St. Helena and the Mayacamas Mt. Range. To the east was the sculptured terrain of the Vaca Range. With clouds rolling in and the wind shifting and picking up speed, Kimball didn’t want to risk the flight, so after about 35 minutes, he radioed the chase van and gently settled us down into a large pasture, just as the first few drops of rain fell from the sky.

The van took us all back to the V-Marketplace and I walked with Kimball and a few others for our breakfast at Pacific Blues Cafe. Sitting across from Kimball, I learned that he started one of the original balloon companies in Napa Valley in 1976. Napa Valley was just starting to be a destination for wonderful wine and food. Since Kimball is an adventurous soul, he branched out and started a balloon company in DelIMG_7781 Mar California. It is still in operation today. Next he visited the beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico and started a balloon company there too.

As we drank Prosecco and ate a hearty and delicious breakfast, I realized that in order to gain a true Napa Valley experience, one must drink some of the best wine in the world, eat at some of the best restaurants in Yountville, and take in the magnificence of the Valley from the vantage point of a hot air balloon.

To learn more about Napa Valley Aloft, go to http://nvaloft.com. To learn about the Villagio Inn and Spa, go to http://villagio.com. To find out more about Yountville, go to http://yountville.com. To make reservations at one of the Yountville restaurants click on Yountville Open Table.

French Laundry’s Garden in Yountville, CA

IMG_7662Before Keller purchased the French Laundry in 1994 from the former Mayor of Yountville Don and his wife Sally Schmitt, the one street town of Yountville, CA wasn’t as big of a tourist attraction. As his turn of the century stone restaurant, surrounded by lush gardens became a foodies’ culinary mecca, Keller purchased three acres of land across the street from his award-winning Michelin star restaurant.

From 1880 to the late 1920’s this two-story building was a saloon, brothel and last a French steam laundry, thus the Schmitt’s decided to name their restaurant French Laundry.

Thomas Keller’s Manager of Culinary Gardens and Landscape is the handsome Aaron Keefer. His French intensive two acre garden grows Tuscan broccoli, beets, Red Russian garlic, cabbage, English Peas, Sacramento Delta asparagus, Red Ace beets, golden beets and Chorga beets, Flashy Trout Black Lettuce, leeks, Tokyo turnips and a variety of lettuce during the winter months. All are pesticide free.

Keefer was a chef before he worked with Keller four years ago. His grandfather was a conventional farmer as he grew up in upstate New York.  Keefer started cooking when he was 17 years old. Eventually he came out to California and worked with Bottega’s Michael IMG_7664Chiarello and at French Laundry.

Today he is the liaison between the chefs in the French Laundry, Bouchon and Ad Hoc kitchens and the garden. All are owned by Thomas Keller.

Keefer gives the chef an availability list, gets it back from them after they determine the menu for the next day, and then harvests all of the organic produce. “I give them vegetables, and the chefs turn them into works of art,” said Keefer.

The Chef du Cuisine at the French Laundry David Breeden comes out into the garden once a week for inspiration for his menu. He is obsessive about culinary details to make sure each guest has an emotional dining experience.

What is planted today is available to harvest in four months or later and it all starts in the engine of the garden – the Hoop House. It’s not a Green House; it’s where all the seeds grow into seedlings. “We grow 52 varieties of tomatoes – red, yellow, orange, white, stripe and blue tomatoes,” said Keefer. “During peek season we harvest 1000 pounds of tomatoes.”

IMG_7665Tomato season is from May to November.

Nearby the Hoop is the chicken coop with healthy looking chicken pecking at micro greens. The chicken manure is used for fertilizer and their eggs are collected to be used in Keller’s restaurants.

There is no fence around the garden. Locals and visitors have such respect for Thomas Keller and his gardeners, that they walk around the garden to admire its beauty that enhances the small town of Yountville in Napa Valley.

Dining at French Laundry begins with two unique nine-course dining menus – a chef tasting menu and a tasting of garden IMG_7656vegetables. Reservations for dinner are taken two months in advance. Dinner is served seven days a week from 5:30 to 9:15 p.m. Lunch is served on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

To make a reservation,  go to the OpenTable French Laundry page or call (707)944-2380.

Kollar Chocolates in Yountville

IMG_7639While driving through the one street town of Yountville in Napa Valley, stop at the V-Marketplace and visit Chef Chris Kollar and Naomi Pasztor at Kollar Chocolates.

Chris Kollar has been a savory chef for over 19 years. In 2001, he moved to Napa Valley and worked in some of the finest restaurants that include Domaine Chandon and as an Executive Chef at Peter Michael Winery in Calistoga. He used to cook steaks and chops, now he makes handmade chocolates.

When Chris met Naomi from Switzerland, the two decided to combine their passion of chocolate and open a modern chocolate kitchen and store in the V-Marketplace. Their kitchen is open with glass windows for guests to watch these chocolate makers prepare their beautiful artisan chocolates.

“It’s a three-day process to make each batch of chocolate,” said Kollar as I observed and interviewed him while he was IMG_7643making chocolate. “This vibrating machine takes all the air bubbles out,” shared Kollar.

The chocolates are beautiful and shiny with whimsical designs on many of my favorites that I tasted while in the store.  Have you ever IMG_7715tried Fennel Pollen chocolate? It’s an award-winning delicious treat with a light olive green hue.  How about Coffee Kahlua chocolate made with dark chocolate ganache? It’s superb. His red wine chocolate has Napa Valley red wine and dark chocolate ganache.

Chef Kollar always makes speciality chocolates for the holidays. Since I was in his store during Spring, there were chocolate Easter bunnies and large chocolate eggs on display.

Buy a box of chocolate and enjoy them alone or with a fine bottle of Napa Valley wine.

Kollar Chocolates – 6525 Washington Street, Yountville, CA.  Learn more by clicking on www.kollarchocolates.com.