Sally Schmitt looks like any other 76-year-old grandmother, with short-cropped gray hair and eyes that crinkle at the corners.
But this formidable culinary pioneer who launched Yountville?s famed French Laundry restaurant 30 years ago, then moved to Anderson Valley to help a daughter and son-in-law run an apple farm, is far from ordinary.
Schmitt raised five children ? all of them independently employed ? and set the family on a cutting-edge path that encompasses both farm and table. And she has executed it all with a penchant for simple yet distinctive design.
The Philo Apple Farm farms 32 acres of organic orchards and gardens using biodynamic farming practices. The farm also includes guest cottages and a commercial kitchen that produces a line of savory chutneys, balsamic vinegar, jams and jellies.
The family shares its food legacy with the world through its weekend cooking classes, presented nearly every weekend from February through early November at the Apple Farm. Up until this year, Schmitt taught all the classes.
Last January, Schmitt suffered a stroke and was forced to hand the apron strings over to her daughter Karen, who now teaches the classes and runs the farm with her husband, Tim Bates. Schmitt and her husband, Don, have retired to their cottage in Elk but still spend time at the farm they helped create.
Schmitt?s culinary tradition lives on in the many recipes that still comprise the core of the Apple Farm?s curriculum, savory applesauce with thyme and apple-fennel soup among them.
As the peak of apple season arrives at the farm this month, three of Sally?s grandchildren are adding their youthful energy, and a fourth is on her way.
?Our daughter Sophia is coming back as well,? Karen Bates said. ?She?s bringing her own farm horse and harnesses. ... We?re hoping she can add to the next layer of complexity.?
Sitting at the sunny kitchen table at the farm, Schmitt sounds almost apologetic about the radical turn her life took when she and Don first moved to Yountville in 1967.
?Don and I started out as a conventional couple,? she said. ?At that point, all five kids were born. I was a stay-at-home mom by choice ... and I was ready for something big.?
Back then, Yountville was little more than a rundown stagecoach stop. It had a grocery store and little else. But the Schmitts fell in love with the brick walls of the Vintage 1870 building, Napa Valley?s second-oldest winery, now known as the V Marketplace.
?It was purchased by a bunch of dreamers with not enough money,? Schmitt recalled. ?We were brought in as managing partners.?
A farm girl who was raised in Citrus Heights outside of Sacramento, Schmitt grew up canning and making jam and attended UC Davis. Don grew up in Visalia, went to UC Berkeley and served in the Air Force. He started his career as an agricultural appraiser in Fresno.
Soon after they arrived in the Napa Valley, the couple took over the cafe in the Vintage 1870 building and introduced the first espresso machine to the valley. Then they built their own restaurant, The Chutney Kitchen, at the rear of the building.
?We made chutney and offered a lunch room with soup and desserts,? Schmitt said of the space, now being transformed by chef Michael Chiarello into Bottega Ristorante.