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After the French Laundry, What?

The Schmitt family moves from restaurant to apple farm.

April 10, 2002|MIRA ADVANI HONEYCUTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 20 years ago, Don and Sally Schmitt opened their dream restaurant in the then-sleepy Napa Valley town of Yountville. It was a small place they called the French Laundry. After running the homey restaurant for 16 years, they sold it in 1994 to Thomas Keller. Today it's among the most famous restaurants in the world--and the Schmitts are farming apples.

This is hardly the comedown it might seem. As co-owners of the Apple Farm, they have carved out an idyllic, though hard-working, life, farming more than 80 varieties of apples in Mendocino County's Anderson Valley.

The Schmitts had opened their first two restaurants in Yountville in 1967. They were managing partners in the Vintage 1870 shopping complex, where they operated the Chutney Kitchen and the Vintage Cafe.

"At the cafe, we served wonderful hamburgers and had the first espresso machine in Napa Valley," recalls Sally. "It was a wonderful time to be there. Napa was just awakening. All the vintners were working together to prove that California wines can hold their place in the world."

In 1978, the Schmitts left Vintage 1870 and opened the French Laundry, where, Sally notes, the cuisine was more Chez Panisse (the two had lived in Berkeley) than three-star French. She ran the kitchen; Don handled the front of the house. She had no formal restaurant experience. Her resume consisted of a home economics degree and cooking for her husband and five children. "And I just like to cook," she says.

Under the Schmitts' reign, the restaurant was well known for its food and its wine list, which was particularly deep in hard-to-find older California bottlings. But eventually, it was time to move along.

"It was time for a change," says Sally. "We wanted to do one more project while we had the strength. I'm thrilled to see Thomas do so well. He clearly loves the property as much as we did and has taken such good care of it."

In 1982, the Schmitts were on the lookout for a retirement property in the Anderson Valley when they spotted a distressed farm with a "For Sale" sign. "So," Sally says, "I asked my daughter Karen and her husband, Tim [Bates]: 'You want to be apple farmers?'" The Schmitts and the Bates bought the farm in 1984, and the Bates set about rescuing the property and turning it into an organic farm. The Schmitts joined in 1994.

"We never thought of growing apples or getting into farming," recalls Sally. "I think one reason people love to come here is that they see us doing what they dream of."

The apple paradise they have created from an abandoned labor camp is a 30-acre orchard, ranging from 100-year-old trees to seedlings.

The Schmitts' and the Bates' labor of restoration has resulted in a haven as well as a home and farm.

"Especially with the world the way it is, it feels safer, more secure, more real when it comes down to what really matters, " says Sally.

The sweet smell of apples envelops the Schmitts' and the Bates' organic farm. The fruit stand nestled against the barn holds assorted jars of jams and chutneys and bottles of cider vinegar, syrup and apple juice. Wooden crates are filled with apples--Red and Golden Delicious, Winter Banana, Sierra Beauty, Pippin and Greening. A sample fruit next to a paring knife rests on top of each crate. In a corner sits a neatly tied bundle of orchard prunings and a few apple wreaths. A sign marked "New Product" is propped against bottles of apple raspberry vinegar.

In addition to apple orchards, the sprawling property holds the Schmitts' and Bates' homes, a produce stand and four cabins designed in a minimalist country style. "It borders on Shaker," Sally says. "It's country without being cutesy." These cabins serve as residences for guests who sign up for Sally's weekend cooking classes.

Sally, who used to teach cooking classes in Napa Valley, says she didn't realize how much she loved them until she started up again on the farm. While she attends to the cooking in her Mediterranean-style kitchen, Don plays the role of wine steward. "He keeps our wine glasses full," Sally says.

The weekend hands-on classes, which cover five meals from Friday dinner to Sunday lunch, are limited to eight people and cost $300, not including the cabin. The Thursday demonstration classes hold 16 and cost $55. The face-to-face contact in the classes adds another dimension to Sally's earth-mother sensibilities.

"I have more of a chance to touch base with the people," she says. "It's a wonderful way to get my message across to a lot of people."

Sally's message concerns organic farming and sustainable agriculture. She is pleased to see the heightened awareness of consumers toward organic produce and the Chefs' Collaborative, an organization that urges chefs to buy pesticide-free produce and meats.

The Schmitts' son John owns the nearby Booneville Hotel, and three generations of their extended family work the farm. The 10 grandchildren pitch in to do farming, cutting fruit, labeling products and stocking the produce stand.

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