Riding the rails


POSTED: Saturday, June 20, 2009

All aboard for a multifaceted adventure through America's legendary wine country!

Since the Napa Valley Wine Train started rolling on Sept. 16, 1989, it has carried more than 2 million people through the heart of the fertile valley. Translated from the language of the Wappo Indians who first inhabited the area, Napa fittingly means “;land of plenty.”;





        » Address: 1275 McKinstry St., downtown Napa, Calif.

» Phone: (800) 427-4124


» Cost: $49.50 to $184 for adults for regular tours; $25 to $184 for children aged 2 through 12. Children younger than 2 ride free if they don't occupy a seat.


» E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


» Web site: winetrain.com





        Three tours include lunch and tastings at renowned Napa wineries: Grgich Hills Estate, Domaine Chandon, Raymond Vineyards and ZD Wines. Lunch- and dinner-only options also are available. All lunch tours begin with a 20-minute wine-tasting seminar at the station.

Special events are held regularly, including Comedy or Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre, Vintners Lunch, Appellation Dinner, Moonlight Escape, Varietal Voyage and Family Date Night.


The Wine Train recently launched the Napa Valley Connection from San Francisco. Board the BayLink ferry (weekdays) or the BayLink bus (weekends) from San Francisco to Vallejo.


A shuttle travels from Vallejo to the train station, 20 minutes away. Those on shorter tours will have a few free hours in the afternoon to explore downtown Napa before taking the shuttle back to Vallejo in time to catch the evening ferry (or bus) back to San Francisco.


The Wine Train is celebrating its 20th anniversary with Winemaker Dinners featuring Heidi Peterson Barrett of La Sirena and Amuse Bouche wineries (July 11) and Jamey Whetstone of Whetstone Wine Cellars (July 30). Also planned is a Four Winemaker Walk dinner on Sept. 19 with Marla and Dale Bleecher (Jericho Canyon Vineyard), the deLeuze family (ZD Wines), Judd Finkelstein (Judd's Hill), and Rich and Shannon Salvestrin (Salvestrin Winery).


Details are posted on the Web site.




By the odometer, the ride isn't long; it's just 36 miles round-trip between downtown Napa and St. Helena. But the moment you step into the antique rail cars, you'll feel as though you've been whisked back a century to the glorious heyday of train travel. This is sightseeing with sophistication and style, a real-life page from Agatha Christie's “;Murder on the Orient Express.”;

Much of the Wine Train's allure stems from its history. Montreal Locomotive Works, the Canadian counterpart of the American Locomotive Company, built the train's four engines 50 years ago to haul freight cars.

Although hundreds of these locomotives were once in service throughout North America, only about 20 remain. Some are exhibited in railroad museums. In addition to the Wine Train, Grand Canyon Railroad in Colorado and Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in Ohio operate a few others.

Each of the Wine Train's nine steel cars measures about 80 feet long, weighs more than 70 tons, and is named and numbered. Elegant 1085 Champagne, dubbed the Vista Dome car, provides views of nearly 180 degrees through curved glass windows. It was one of only 10 such cars built by Pullman-Standard in 1952.

The rest of the Pullmans date between 1915 and 1917. All the cars have been meticulously restored; the eight that carry passengers flaunt luxurious touches such as Honduran mahogany paneling, etched glass partitions, gleaming brass accents and original artwork by Czechoslovakian painter Ernst Nepo.

You're welcome to explore. Watch the chefs in action in 1090 Le Chef de Cuisine, an entire car that is now a kitchen; learn about oenology in 1014 Zinfandel, the wine-tasting car, which is stocked with more than 100 constantly changing vintages; and linger on the observation decks of 1011 Cabernet Sauvignon or 1018 Chardonnay to drink in the gorgeous vistas.

Many passengers are content to remain in their seats, admiring the vibrant murals outside their windows. Settlers first planted grapes here in the 1830s. Today, vineyards ranging from five to 550 acres in size stretch as far as the eye can see in the verdant 35-mile-long valley. Large, luscious clusters of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and zinfandel will be ripening from August through October, the ideal time to visit.

The train traces the route the iron horses of the Napa Valley Railroad Company traversed in the 19th century. Mormon merchant, hotelier, newspaper publisher and real estate developer Samuel Brannan founded the railroad in 1864 to provide visitors from San Francisco with an easy way to get from Vallejo, where the ferries dock, to Calistoga, the town he established 40 miles north.

Calistoga is known for its hot springs, and Brannan's intent was to develop a deluxe spa resort there reminiscent of Saratoga in New York. He coined the name Calistoga by combining the words California and Saratoga.

Although the steel track Brannan built no longer extends to Calistoga, the Wine Train chugs along most of what remains of it. Honoring its role as a steward of Napa Valley history, the company has invested $5 million during the past 20 years to replace virtually every rail, tie and bolt of the original track.

Executive Chef Kelly Macdonald exhibits the same kind of commitment in the kitchen. Known for meals that rival the sumptuous fare of Michelin-star establishments, he has received numerous honors, including two coveted awards of excellence from the James Beard Foundation, deemed “;the Oscars of the food world”; by Time magazine.

Macdonald's philosophy is “;fresh first.”; He changes menus four to six times per year, based on what's in season. He makes his own sorbets, and toasts and grinds his own spices.

On Tuesday and Saturday mornings, Macdonald is among the throngs of people snapping up blue-ribbon produce at the Napa Farmers' Market in the train station's parking lot. He buys artisan breads and hand-selected lots of goat cheese from purveyors in the valley. Only the best meat, line-caught fish and poultry make it to the Wine Train's tables.

With three kitchens preparing different menus, it's like having a trio of gourmet restaurants on wheels. Current highlights include Beef Tenderloin with Grilled Squash in a Syrah Sauce, Pork Tenderloin with a Vegetable Saute of Beans and Beets Topped with Foie Gras, and Grilled Shrimp with Scallop Seviche in a Lobster Jus. Everything is cooked on board to guests' specifications and served with the panache of a Buckingham Palace butler.

Back at the station, oenophiles browsing in the Wine Train Wine Shop mirror the delight and awe of kids in a candy store. Director of Wine Ryan Graham presents an impressive selection of 625 wines, 85 percent of which come from Napa Valley.

He rotates new labels into the inventory daily. Many are small-production vintages that are only available in the valley so even the most knowledgeable wine enthusiasts are likely to make exciting discoveries. Even better, the Wine Shop can pack and ship purchases, making it easy for you to savor the wonderful flavors and memories of your Napa Valley visit anytime you please at home.


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer. Her column, Hawaii's Backyard, appears every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin travel section.