Trains hold special romance for Americans. They not only tamed the Wild West, they brought luxury to overland travel—who hasn’t dreamed of riding the Orient Express while sipping champagne? So when the Napa Valley was about to lose its only rail line dating back to 1865, it fought to keep it and found a wealthy entrepreneur to invest in it. Being the Napa Valley, the result was the Wine Train. Now no visit to wine country is complete without the train ride.
For three hours passengers can get a taste of the great luxury train era. In period cars they are lavishly fed a multi-course meal prepared by a top-of-the-line chef while the train travels through the vineyards ringed with mountains at a leisurely 12 miles per hour.
The Napa Valley Wine Train offers a variety of trips. There are lunch and dinner trips, a Murder Mystery Dinner Theater and a Moonlight Escape train tour in the domed Vista car. Each holiday there are special trips. There are also piano bar sing-along trips and a trip to an annual street fair in the town of St. Helena. The most popular are the lunch trips, and one of the most popular of those takes passengers to the Domaine Chandon sparkling wine winery.
There’s a shuttle from the ferry in Vallejo to the train station, so it’s possible to have a totally drive-free wine tour if you stay in San Francisco. At the station the wine tasting begins before you board the train. An expert explains the best way to taste a white then a red wine, pointing out what to look, smell and taste for.
As you board the train you cross a “love lock” bridge. In an ancient tradition from Asia, lovers bring or purchase a lock, write or engrave their names on it (an onsite engraver can do it for you at the station) and lock it on the bridge, sealing their love forever.
While the train chugs through the industrial edge of the city of Napa, passengers peruse the menu. The chefs of the wine train use fresh local produce, hormone-free meat from humanely raised animals, fresh line-caught fish and artisan products. A typical menu might offer a salad with locally produced candied walnuts and smoked goat cheese. The menu will offer a choice of meat, chicken or fish entrees, and vegetarian gourmet dishes. Wines are suggested for each course. The kitchen car in the center of the train has windows so you can watch your meals prepared as the train sways. By the time you are served, you are in the vineyards.
In the winter and spring, the leaves are yellow striped, and wild mustard blooms between the vines. In summer the leaves are green and flourishing, and in the fall the vines turn bright colors and the heavy grapes promise the coming vintages.
After the entrée, it is time to tour the train itself while dessert is prepared. The cars are lovingly restored rolling stock and are works of art. The train has steel cars from 1915 to 1917 that are paneled with Honduran mahogany, and have polished brass accents, etched glass partitions and velvet fabrics. The Vista car, built in 1952, is one of the first full-domed cars made by Pullman.
Dessert and coffee are served in a lounge car fitted with swivel chairs at the windows. There’s a wine tasting bar in one of the cars. At the end of the line, the engine is shunted via a sidetrack – an exciting moment for passengers who gather on the back viewing platform.
At the winery stop, passengers are taken from the train to the tasting rooms via luxury coach. At Domain Chandon visitors get a tour of the winemaking operations, then are offered a tasting of four sparkling wines before they are taken back to the train station. Fares on the Napa Wine Train are on the pricey side, but a lot cheaper than riding the Orient Express or the South African Blue Train through that country’s wine region.
The Napa Wine Train is an elegant and comfortable way to enjoy wine tasting in one of the world’s best wine regions.
Andrea Granahan is a writer who lives in Bodega, California.
IF YOU GO:
Excursions on the Napa Valley Wine Train range from $99 to $199 per person. The Murder Mystery Theater is $155 and the Moonlight Escape is $169. See winetrain.com or call (800) 427-4124.
There are RV campgrounds at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park and Lake Berryessa. For a list of private RV parks, visit NapaValleyHospitality.com/rvparks&campgrounds.htm.