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Hometown Luxury

Author: Bonnie Durrance
March, 2009 Issue

NorthBay biz profiles Yountville’s Bardessono Inn & Spa, a 62-room lair of luxury that’s raising the bar for sustainable hotels across the land.

In Napa Valley, a historically agricultural place, the famed “good life” results from the interaction of core features—land, weather and the passion of the people who love the terrain and the bounty it brings forth. With changing times, though, a question looms: How, in a tiny town like Yountville, can an old, local family build a sophisticated, contemporary resort without destroying the very atmosphere that gives the place identity

The Bardessono Inn & Spa is a story about the people, land and creative process that worked together in Yountville to bring harmony and resolution to seemingly conflicting ideals. Named for the family on whose land it sits, the Bardessono is a model of the principle that creative, sustainable, contemporary development can snuggle into an iconic place. It offers respite and renewal to its visitors, acknowledges and welcomes locals and considers the environment with the highest level of sustainable practice.

This new, 62-room luxury inn and spa and 92-seat restaurant is located on a five-acre site that was originally part of a 20-acre tract, bought in 1926, by John and Lucy Bardessono and brother in-law, Martin Zucco. The family, immigrants from the Piedmont district in Italy, was attracted to the area because it looked and felt like their homeland. They liked the property because it was (and still is) adjacent to an elementary school.

Like many farmers in the valley at the time, the Bardessono family raised walnuts, prunes, grapes and children. There were animals, too: hogs for salami, chickens for meat and eggs, cows for milk and cheese, and a draft horse to cultivate the fields. All the family’s vegetables came from Lucy Bardessono’s kitchen garden.

In a memoir, Lucy and John’s son, Steve, born during the depression a year before his father’s death, notes that, while some aspects of his family’s life may have been hard, “Lucy’s kitchen was always a warm and welcoming place for the neighborhood children.”

Now, 76 years later, in the very place the kitchen once stood, an inviting courtyard, shaded by the same great old live oak tree that once shaded Steve Bardessono’s house, stands ready to welcome new visitors. A tan-colored stone wall facing the courtyard is a key to family history—a connection to the past and an example of the principle of renewal that animates the entire place.

“This was our wine cellar,” Bardessono says, patting the polished stone with an outdoorsman’s suntanned hand. These stones, he explains, were once part of an old wine cellar, built before the family purchased the property, using Tuffa stone that was quarried nearby. The building had remained on the land through several iterations of family homesteads, even serving for a time as a spring house where they’d go every morning to get their breakfast eggs.

“So it had meaning,” Bardessono says. That was partly why, when the family decided it was time to develop the in-town, six-acre vineyard where their house and the old wine cellar sat, Steve and his brother, Peter, along with their wives, Pat and Maxine, chose a hotel project. “It would have been much easier to simply find a buyer,” he says, “but we thought the hotel would enable us to retain ownership of the property. And we thought that’d be important to the family. After all, we’ve had 70 years in this community.”

Community concerns addressed

Bardessono understood at the start that development of the property would not go over instantly with the town, which had rejected initial proposals out of hand. The six acres was Yountville’s last in-town remnant of its agrarian past—a historic farm and vineyard. The townspeople loved it. It was centrally located, between Yount Street and Hopper Creek, and right beside the school. People walking up Yount Street on the way to the soccer field could gaze past the Bardessonos’ grapes to watch the light play across the Stags Leap hills off to the east.

Bardessono, who once served as Napa County Agricultural Commissioner and was, all his life, deeply committed to the land, was determined that whatever development they created be in harmony with the history of the property and the town. But despite this commitment, getting a project approved seemed to take forever. Yountville Mayor Cynthia Saucerman recalls that the approval process stretched her entire eight years on the town council. People were concerned about traffic and noise, but also about the environmental impacts. Would solar panels look hideous? How could the view be saved? How might parking problems be minimized? What about floods? Could they still walk their dogs?

“There’s always resistance to change,” says Saucerman, adding that the town did all the required studies. “There was resistance to any kind of project being built there,” says Rob Anglin, an architect who was on Yountville’s zoning and design review board at the time. “People got used to it being a vineyard and a house.” Ultimately, the Bardessono family worked out an agreement with the town and, after considering many developers, chose quiet, meticulous, eco-conscientious Seattle developer Phil Sherburne to make the dream of a hotel in harmony with the town come true.

“What Phil gave us that other folks [who bid on the project] didn’t,” says Bardessono, “was an extraordinary sensitivity toward us, this property and what it had meant to this town and the community. He wanted to try to do something consistent with what the valley is, rather than transplant something from somewhere else.”

Do no harm

For Sherburne, Napa Valley was a big draw. He’d done developments in pristine and beautiful settings before, and his operating mission was to do no harm. Plus the Yountville project had its rewards and challenges built in from the start.

“[The town council was] concerned about the potential scale of the hotel,” Sherburne says. “They wanted it to have only one-third of the units on the second floor and to maintain the view corridor to the mountains. They limited the total square footage and range of uses. So it was kind of a defensive concept.”

One thing Bardessono and Sherburne had in common with the town was a desire to preserve the land’s history. The town council requested a border of grapevines along the south and west sides of the project (to be reminiscent of the vineyard that had filled the land for decades), and the two men additionally decided to use the old stone wine cellar as a guide. “I told Phil, we can’t just destroy all that,” Bardessono says. And Sherburne, with a smile, recalls, “So we took that building apart, saved the stones, cut them and used them in the building.”

The two men, though from different areas—Bardessono with roots in Napa Valley and Sherburne who grew up on his father’s dairy farm in Oregon—share a profound sense of grounding in land and place. Both understand and respect the agrarian culture. Both know how to work through hardship.

Sherburne says someone once said to him, “Values are transferred not by your parents talking to you, but by experiencing them emotionally through your parents.” He says his father was kind, understanding, calm and totally focused on what needed to be done. “When things would happen at the barn, he’d assess the problem, feel the emotion of it and move forward.” Sherburne learned to practice this lesson at age 15, when his dad was killed in a farm accident and it fell to him to run the farm. “I had to milk the cows that night,” he remembers. How does this translate to the adult Sherburne became? “A friend said to me once, ‘There are crisis creators and crisis resolvers.’

“I’m a crisis resolver,” he says. “It was a gift from my dad.”

Authenticity in all aspects

Sherburne likes to work with creative, competent people who are passionate about place. For the Bardessono project, he selected architect Ron Mitchell, AIA, who was then mnaging director of the Seattle office of Wimberly, Allison, Tong and Goo (WATG).  Mitchell, Sherburne says, shared his values.  “He’s a very low-key, down to earth person who didn’t have a lot of ego involved in his design work. He’s very authentic in his view of architecture being appropriate to place.”

“We all decided early on,” Mitchell says, “that the challenge was not to do ‘Napa Valley as Provence France,’ or as ‘Tuscan style.’ We wanted to honor the agrarian and agricultural past and its presence in the region. And we started developing a basic and honest architectural style—rusting steel, flat roofs, black window mullions, recycled cypress.”

The recycled cypress was a product of the kind of luck or synchronicity that often accompanies creative people who are sensitively tuned. “I basically go out and find things that feel appropriate to the place and appeal to me,” says Sherburne, “and through those elements, I develop the concept of what I’m going to do.” In this way, he found Evan Shively, the West Marin sawyer and sculptor who provided all the wood for the hotel’s desks, tables, doors, floors, ceilings and exterior siding from salvaged logs. 

“The wood is absolutely gorgeous orchard walnut, Monterey cypress and California bay,” says Sherburne. “It was all from trees that would have otherwise been burned or chipped out. Redwood from wine tanks was recycled to become ceilings of the public rooms.”

“When you see Evan and his wood,” Mitchell recalls, laughing in amazement, “It’s like—he started off as a chef! He doesn’t just cook us a dinner and put it in front of us and say, ‘OK, I’m done. Let’s eat.’ It’s,” Mitchell hesitates, searching for the right word, “a…commitment.”

Respect the material

“For me,” Shively says, ambling down a dirt lane through a series of heaps of mammoth logs to his massive, airplane-hangar-sized workshop, “our organizing principle is that we have a precious and beautiful natural resource that, for us to be truly grateful for, needs to be taken care of. That starts with using it according to its virtues. If it should be a giant, beautiful slab, we make it a giant, beautiful slab. If it should be rustic siding, we make it rustic siding.”

The process saves pressure on the living forests by using logs that are already down. “Huge, old growth redwoods should not be cut down for their lumber,” Shively says emphatically. “That time has passed.”

But forests are not the only source of lumber. “Trees don’t just grow in the forest,” says Shively. “Trees grow all through the urban fabric—in our backyards. Urban forestry is an enormous part of what we do. We’re also dealing with trees that were planted for an agricultural or horticultural purpose and, when their time comes, we find a way to use the species.”

Shively explains what Sherburne says frequently: that sustainability isn’t antithetical to quality and environmental viability. “It’s a very complex issue,” he says. “But one part of it that’s underappreciated is that quality is inherently on the side of sustainability. When we perceive it, we can perceive its preciousness. And therefore it endures.”

Reassurance and approval

When they presented their design to the Town of Yountville, the group said what they wanted to accomplish could only be done in Yountville. “And the people were very, very positive,” says Mitchell. “Which was very rewarding to me because, quite frankly, we were scared to death of not getting their approval and support.”

“There were two architects on that board,” recalls Bardessono, “and both were complimentary of this project. One member called it ‘courageous.’”

Rob Anglin, one of those architects, says Sherburne’s vision was an important factor in his vote for the Bardessono project. “I was impressed they’d gotten him as the developer,” he says. “I knew he did quality projects in Seattle and was aware of his work when I lived there. And I was also impressed by his commitment to building green.”

Planning and Building Director Bob Tiernan also remembers the enticements of the project for the town. “There were a number of public benefits provided by the project, including the small park located adjacent to the community center, the increased setback of 45 feet from Yount Street that’s planted with vineyard, maintaining a 60-foot-wide view corridor along the south boundary, and creating a public path that runs along Hopper Creek and the view corridor. Additionally, 1.25 acres have been dedicated to the town for affordable housing, and 25 units have been approved for the site.”

Overall, the town was pleased that the project would be a model of sustainability and would aim to be possibly the first Platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified hotel in America, and definitely the first on the West Coast. “Sustainability in architecture is very strong on the West Coast now,” says Mitchell. “There are a lot of firms leading the way. We’re part of that movement. I think Phil deserves a lot of credit. This currently has enough LEED points to get a Platinum rating, which is almost unheard of in the hospitality industry.”

Luxury and sustainability

A model of sustainability and luxury combined, the Bardessono creates half of its electricity from a 200-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system mounted on top of the hotel’s flat rooftops, nearly invisible to all but those passing overhead. A system of 82 300-foot wells work in conjunction with heat exchanges and small heat pumps to heat and cool the guestrooms and spa and preheat the domestic hot water supply.

Guest rooms have large glass panes for winter warmth and exterior venetian blinds to prevent thermal build-up in summer. Motion sensors turn off lights and electrical devices, drop shades when the room is empty and turn them back on when guests return. The rooms have LED, halogen and fluorescent lamps throughout. Water-conserving features include low-flow fixtures, dual-flush toilets and waterless urinals. Drip irrigation feeds drought-resistant landscaping.

Outside the kitchen, a monumental “Earth Tub” churns compost like a kind of giant salad spinner that readies all the recyclable veggies for compost to be used in “Lucy’s garden,” the organic kitchen garden that runs along the south side of the complex by the public path. “The garden sits adjacent to a beautiful nature walk that continues along the creek, among the trees,” says Yountville Vice Mayor John Dunbar, appreciating the effort the hotel has made to incorporate locals. “People and their dogs will be able to stroll where they weren’t able to before.”

Throughout the project, recycled materials like the Tuffa stone wine cellar-turned-wall add aesthetic and sustainable appeal. Recycled materials include glass tiles, green-certified fabrics, soy fiber-based rugs and organic cottons as well as salvaged Monterey Cypress, walnut trees, redwood wine barrels and California bay trees cut into slabs for guest room desks. Even the steel contains recycled material, and the Bardessonos’ contractor, Cello-Maudru Construction Company, of Napa, has recycled 93 percent of the construction waste.

Sherburne is careful to state that none of the sustainability features impede the luxury of the experience or the economic viability. “Really,” he says, “to be genuinely sustainable, a project has to be financially successful.” While these happen to be particularly hard economic times, he notes that many of his other projects were started under adverse circumstances—including one that opened on September 10, 2001—and all have all been successful.

The hotel experience

The Bardessono Inn doesn’t shout “luxury,” it whispers it, offering what architect Ron Mitchell calls “moments of delight.” As one onlooker describes, the moment Bardessono guests step out of their cars, they enter a world of renewal and care, and are eased into “layers and layers” of privacy and luxury. 

The design, in which rooms are nestled around four intimate courtyards, fosters both privacy and a sense of openness, an indoor-outdoor feel. Light pours in through the landscaped courtyards, and serenity characterizes the rooms. “There’s a very minimalistic feel,” says Director of Guest Experience Cristina Salas-Porras, “and, at the same time, there’s richness in the materials and artwork commissioned by local artists for the hotel.”

The rooms were designed with every convenience in mind, right down to dual sinks placed not side-by-side, but on opposite sides of the room, to give couples the privacy they need when hurrying to get ready for the next activity. Each 540-square-foot room has a fireplace, flat screen television, surround sound and is specially equipped for in-room spa services (including its own massage table). Many have both indoor and outdoor showers.

The grounds offer winding paths through the courtyards and nature walks that extend from town to the creek, with ancient olive trees and massive cypress trees all sustainably landscaped by local landscape designers Don Raichle and Brooke Valen of George Girvin Associates (of San Rafael and Santa Barbara) and installed by Tony Bertotti of Bertotti Landscaping in Petaluma. The rooftop pool is a place for enjoying sunrises and sunsets with commanding views of the Stags Leap Palisades on the east and Mayacamas to the west.

The spa services menu is several pages long and includes 10 different types of massage. Spa amenities designed to relax, detox, restore and delight are tuned to the seasons, changing with each equinox and solstice “to honor the gifts, colors and purpose each season brings to refresh, purify and balance your being.”

The 92-seat restaurant welcomes guests and locals alike. Chef Sean O’Toole, who most recently worked as group operations chef for Michael Mina and who’s worked with celebrated chefs such as Jacques Maximin, Daniel Bouloud and Alain Ducasse, will be creating menus catering to clients’ needs and centering on local specialties, enhanced from Bardessono’s own organic kitchen garden.

The bar offers treats all day long. Salas-Porras, who served as assistant to renowned organic chef Alice Waters, says part of the fun for her is incorporating the local residents into the hotel’s offerings and incorporating local features and activities for the guests. “When I travel,” she says, “I want to be with local people. So, in the morning, you could stop by on your walk with your dog, come into our bar and have a quick espresso or sit and leisurely read the paper. In the afternoon, there’ll be little glasses of wine and snacks so you can just stop in, get a little something to eat and then go on your way.” 

The Bardessono offers a variety of activities, from yoga classes to hikes in the mountains to cycling the Napa Valley on the hotel’s high-tech bikes. Plus, there’ll be entertainment. “We’ll be having events, musicians, talks,” says Salas-Porras.  “So if you live in Yountville and you have guests from out of town, we’d like you to say, ‘Let’s see what’s going on at the Bardessono!’”

The hotel is managed by MTM Luxury Lodging, a luxury hotel management company headquartered just outside of Seattle. The company manages one of Sherburne’s other hotels, Willows Lodge in Woodinville, Washington (which was placed on Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List in January 2008). One of MTM’s key values is one exemplified by Phil Sherburne: “We steward the environment wherever and whenever possible.”

Mayor Cynthia Saucerman says the sustainability commitment has been an important part of the project for the town. “The LEED certificate and green and sustainable features are really exciting. And of course we’re very excited about the additional revenues to the town.” According to Saucerman, the way the group proceeded generated interest and enthusiasm on the town’s part. “The manager, Roger Young, and the whole organization, has really reached out to the community,” she says, describing, as a prime example, the community portrait that San Francisco photographer Christopher Irion made—a virtual billboard of black and white portraits of everyone in town who showed up to be photographed. “We’ve saved that to put in the new community center,” she says, adding simply, “everybody’s excited.”



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