Wine and Food Excursion.
It’s a sunny Thursday morning when I arrive at the Napa Valley Train Station located in the charming city of Napa, California. Napa is an American Viticultural Area and one of the premiere wine producing regions in the world. The station has been transformed to reflect this and after my drive up from San Francisco I relish the opportunity to let someone else take the wheel so I can truly appreciate the rolling hills, green vines, gourmet food, and sampling of great wines that make this region so special.
Local Napa wines featured in the gift shop.
“I love working here because people are all having so much fun while they ride and I really get to appreciate my new home” gushes the youthful, bubbly Iris who greets me on arrival. She moved to the Napa area nine months ago from Singapore and has been working on the wine train ever since.
Around me, I see couples of all ages, as well as large groups laughing and starting their day with a glass of superb wine from the well-stocked bar in the welcome center. There is a large burgundy sign listing the various dining options for the day. Today, this includes tasting tours of Raymond Vineyards, Grgich Hills Estate, and Krug, a trip to the Castello di Amorosa, or lunch in the Champagne Vista Dome and Gourmet Express dining cars.
Enjoying the view from the Observation Deck.
Each vineyard tour includes a meal aboard the train as well as motor coach transport to the vineyards themselves. Those who wish to stay on the train the full three hours can choose between multiple options, including the more intimate and expensive, Champagne Vista Dome car, the Western themed Silverado Grill, or the classic Gourmet Express package. For each, half the time is spent in a lounge car and half dining. I opt to relax and remain on the train for the entire three hour journey down the 25 mile track through wine country.
Spectacular vineyard views from the Dome Car.
As I approach the train for boarding I cross a small bridge covered in locks that glitter in the morning light. A few couples are bending down and placing their own personalized locks through the mesh of what is known as the Love Lock Bridge. Just beyond, I am struck by how beautiful the train is reflecting the brilliant blue sky in its large windows. Deep burgundy rail cars lined with gold trim bear names such as “Chardonnay” and “Champagne Vista Dome”.
I have the pleasure of meeting Cathy and Ed who are visiting from Birmingham, Alabama, as I enter the lounge car. “This is our first time here and we love it! We signed up for the wine train last night so we could relax a little and have a romantic day together. It’s exactly what we were hoping for so far” says Cathy as she sips her complimentary glass of welcome wine and sits back in the plush, yellow velveteen lounge chair.
Sitting next to me, I also meet Lisa and Carl who are visiting from Los Angeles; they arrived this morning after flying up from San Francisco. They are staying nearby but explain its’ only for the weekend. “I really wanted to see the antique train and Lisa and I love good food so we thought we would get both experiences on the train during our short time here.”
All aboard for vintage wine on a vintage train.
The Napa Valley Train was originally created in 1864 by savvy businessman and millionaire, Samuel Brennan, to transport his guests to a spa resort in Calistoga, California.
As time rolled on the train was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company for regular passenger service starting in 1885. In order to preserve both the railcars and rail line which were in trouble after the increasing use of automobiles, a group of Napa Valley residents formed the Napa Valley Wine Train Inc. with Vincent DeDomenico, inventor of Rice-A-Roni and former owner of Ghirardelli.
Their vision was to create a unique dining experience in a rolling museum that would give passengers an appreciation for Napa Valley past and present. Each railcar has been extensively restored to reflect the opulence of the 1920s, although many were built in 1915 and are celebrating their 100th birthdays this year. I spoke with energetic wine train coordinator Kim Powers who pointed out the ruby red Yin Yang etched glass windows. (Photo above.) “These are original to the cars built in 1915 and were the symbol for the Northern Pacific Railroad. We were very lucky they were well preserved and can be showcased here.” Other features that add to the feeling of old world luxury include Honduran mahogany paneling, silver place settings, and plush velveteen armchairs.
Classic style rail cars . . . elegant cuisine.
Although the rail cars retain their classic style, Kim Powers explains that main Locomotive number 73 is specially converted from diesel to 100% compressed natural gas and is the first of its kind. “Since the conversion, our clean air locomotive has saved more than 225,000 gallons of diesel!” boasts Kim enthusiastically. This epitomizes the balance of style and environmental preservation central to the philosophy of the founders and makes for a very pleasant, soot free, experience when outside of the viewing platforms.
Delicious Raspberry Lemonade.
Once on board, my enthusiastic server Sara greets me and offers a complimentary glass of either the 2012 vintage Raymond Vineyard Merlot or Chardonnay.
I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of the complimentary wines and they pair well with my appetizer featuring juicy flavorful grapes, local sage, chive, and Applewood smoked cheddar cheeses, a king prawn perfectly cooked on a bed of seaweed salad and a sesame ginger octopus salad.
The Merlot is a beautiful deep burgundy color, full bodied with a mild spicy oak flavor pairing well with the smoky Applewood cheddar cheese. Conversely, the Chardonnay is a bright pale yellow, very refreshing and smoothes with hints of citrus and apple which compliments the tangy sesame flavor of the Prawn and Octopus salads.
The daily meals . . . with wine flights
Everything not included in your menu plan is a la carte. To recreate the experience of a tasting onboard, I order the Napa Valley Flight. Four different wine flights are offered with prices ranging from $13-19. My favorite is the 2013 Frank Valley Chardonnay which is a pretty straw yellow, and is very refreshing with hints of lemon, tropical fruit, and honeysuckle followed by a smooth finish. After the flight, I try the delicious tart raspberry lemonade adorned with fresh raspberries and a lemon wedge. It is fun to drink with pieces of raspberry throughout and I see many people sipping away as I walk around the train.
A refurbished historic carriage.
As I explore, I head outside to the observation deck and begin to smell the sweet aroma of grapes on the Napa Valley air.
The earth is a dusty, red brown and the bright green vines add a pop of color to the landscape. I also notice bright pink and red roses in full bloom at the front of each vine.
My host Iris explains that they are not only beautiful but also serve to warn farmers of any disease or pest that might threaten the grape vines as the roses are more fragile.
I have a small map that shows each vineyard we are passing and before I know it we are in St. Helena. From the observation deck people watch with wide eyes as the conductor detaches the engine and begins to move forward on the track. It is a bit disconcerting to see the engine moving forward without you and it is a relief when it reconnects in the rear and starts moving again on its return to Napa.
Enjoying our lunch in the dining car.
My beautiful table setting.
After the turnaround I am guided to the dining car where I sit at a table set with a beautiful pink orchid and gaze out the large window offering unobstructed views of the Valley.
Multiple options are available for the main course including roasted beef tenderloin, marinated ribbed pork tenderloin, grilled breast of chicken, vegetable gratin, and the fresh fish of the day which was salmon.
Iris says the most popular is the Beef Tenderloin which is made to order on board and she is proven correct when Carl, Lisa, and Ed who have joined me from the lounge car order this option. I decide to try the fresh fish which is a Salmon that has been marinated overnight in white wine.
My meal is delicious and surprisingly inspired. I start with tomato bisque whose rich creamy lobster flavor is enhanced by the tanginess of the locally sourced tomatoes. Crunchy croutons soak up the broth nicely and add a nice texture to the soup.
I also try the salad offering with fresh crispy lettuce, crunchy cabbage, shredded carrots, candied walnuts, and the absolute highlight of the dish, smoked goat cheese. This is lightly dressed with a sweet honey cider vinaigrette and is a good option if you want something a bit lighter to start the meal.
My salmon is flaky, very flavorful and pairs well with the suggested 2013 Swanson Pinot Grigio which has notes of meyer lemon, melon and peach.
Flaky Salmon with Seaweed
salad and Mashed Potatoes.
The dish is a surprise combining creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, tangy, crunchy seaweed salad, wilted spinach, and a lobster cream sauce with the salmon. Each ingredient enhances the next and I will now incorporate this into my own meals at home.
For dessert, I try the chocolate flourless cake which has a texture that is more like a mousse. I loved its intense chocolate flavor although Carl felt it was too rich for him. He preferred the crème brulee option which he said was creamy but felt lighter.
“I had a great time!” says Cathy who plans on recommending the tour to her friends. We all agreed that the day was well spent and I felt happy and relaxed after my trip and lovely meal. The wines onboard can be purchased at the gift shop located in the train station and I brought home a bottle of the Frank Family Chardonnay myself. The Napa Wine Train is certainly a unique gourmet dining excursion that helps preserve a piece of history in a tranquil setting. Cheers!
Packages range in price from $124 to $234 and childrens’ pricing is possible on request. A ferry service with town car transportation from San Francisco is also offered for those who do not want to make the drive up. To make reservations call 1-800-427-4124 or http://winetrain.rezgo.com/
Bag your vintage bottles of Napa wine.
— Feature by Lucy Lane, Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent; photos by the author and courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Train.