Riding The Rails In Wine Country
I felt like an imposter as I waited for the Napa Valley Wine Train. While others would board eager to sample some of the region’s best vintages, my drink of choice would be…cranberry juice. I am a teetotaler.
So how much fun can a non-imbiber expect to have on a wine train? It turns out, plenty. The Napa Valley Wine Train offers a multi-faceted experience that goes far beyond wine. So, I never felt like an odd duck, like I’d been relegated to observer status while others indulged themselves.
I took the trip with SoulOfAmerica colleague Linda Parker Pennington, who is a wine drinker. Our combined perspective gives a well-rounded view of what to expect.
From the moment passengers walked into the registration lobby, they knew that riding these rails would be a treat. From vertically striped, melon-colored wallpaper to Mahogany ticket counters to tufted flowered sofas, this spacious “station” provided a relaxing, stylish setting to begin the day. Waiters passed around plastic wine glasses and filled them with a dry Chenin Blanc by Blue Plate as a wine specialist launched into an introductory tasting class. I was able to fill my glass with sparkling water from the lobby’s well-stocked bar.
We were instructed to line up to exit the station according to the numbers on our tickets. It made for an orderly stroll down a walkway and over a short bridge to the platform. On the way, dozens of padlocks hung from the chains of a cyclone fence, each engraved or painted with the initials of a couple in love. Legend has it that if you bring a lock for the fence and throw the key off the bridge, your love will last forever. Boarding the Napa Valley Wine Train makes you feel like a turn-of-the-20th century aristocrat. Bathed in sunlight, the rail cars feature rich Honduran Mahogany paneling, accented by brass and featuring etched glass partitions. Plush, swivel armchairs can face the arched windows, draped in lush golden curtains, or swirl 180 degrees to face the aisle for casual conversation with other passengers. The rail cars, constructed between 1915 and 1917 by the Pullman Company, are called Pullman Heavyweights, each tipping the scales at 141,000 pounds.
The train travels from downtown Napa north to St. Helena, paralleling State Route 29, during a three-hour journey. Its gentle motion and clickety clack soundtrack lulled us into an immediate state of calm. A cheerful red-vested steward welcomed us and shared information about the sights along the way. They included Domaine Chandon Winery, owned by Louis Vuitton, and the California Veterans’ Home, the largest of its kind in the state.
Though not all visible from the train, more than three dozen wineries dot the 25-mile route. At a speed of 18 miles per hour, we glided past wineries bearing names that define the wine industry in Northern California, including Robert Mondavi, Beaulieu Vinyard, Cakebread Cellars and Sutter Home. The ruler-straight rows of grapes run perpendicular to the train, passing by in a mesmerizing pattern of green leaves and tan soil under an azure sky. We were seated in the lounge car in the “caboose,” giving us the chance to step out onto a back platform for an open-aired view of the scenery.
During the first portion of the ride, we were able to purchase wine, beer, cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages. I felt entirely comfortable ordering my standby cranberry juice. Complimentary wines are included for certain special packages including the Friday’s Vintner’s Lunch, the monthly Appellation Dinners and the monthly Moonlight Escape. For prices, visit http://winetrain.com.
In the Wine Tasting Car, more than 100 unique and often-difficult-to-find wines are available for tasting and purchase. Flights of four costs $10. Lunch was served in a dining car that echoed the elegance of the lounge car and featuring white table clothes and bone china. Just as the wines offered were of the highest quality, the menu was comprised of gourmet dishes made from only the freshest local produce, line caught fish, and humanely raised meats; Linda had the Grilled Salmon Filet on a Bay Shrimp Risotto with Wilted Spinach and Shaved Parmesan, and I chose the Roasted Beef Tenderloin in a Bordelaise Potato and Baby Carrot Sauté with Cambozola Toast. The three kitchens on-board are under the supervision of Kelly MacDonald.
The beef tenderloin seemed to melt in my mouth, the tenderness complementing a rich and robust flavor that didn’t overpower the delicately sautéed vegetables.
For a slightly higher price, you can dine in the elevated “Vista Dome” car, an option that passengers Shelly Clements and her husband, Chris Broglio, of Richmond highly recommend. “It offers a fabulous view that you don’t get sitting in the lower deck of the train,” said Clements. “Our server grew up in Napa, so she shared insider stories with us about wineries and vintners.” Vista Dome diners receive a complimentary glass of California sparkling wine.
Besides the standard lunch and dinner packages, passengers can choose to pay more to disembark for a winery tour and return to Napa on a later train. Properties that offer tours include Grgich Hills, Raymond Vineyards, ZD Wines and Domaine Chandon Winery.
I mistakenly thought that riding the Napa Valley Wine Train as a teetotaler would be like attending a Texas barbecue as a vegetarian. Not so. Instead, I enjoyed a multi-sensory experience – from the feel of plush furnishing, to the aroma of exceptional cuisine, to the view of breath-taking vistas to the clickety clack of train wheels in motion.
What’s not to like in the Vista Dome Car?