But both regions have a long way to go before they become Napa Valley.
If Christians make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and Muslims to Mecca, lovers of California wine make quaffing quests to Napa Valley. And for modes of transport in quest of wine, food, ambiance and scenery, the Napa Valley Wine Train is like no other.
If at first glance the Wine Train strikes you as an amusement ride for tourists, join the club. As one who doesn’t need to be railroaded into the veneration of Bacchus, I considered the Wine Train a potentially pleasant but existentially unnecessary feature of the Napa landscape – right up to the moment I stepped aboard. It didn’t take long to arrive at the glaringly obvious: the Wine Train is way too much fun to be monopolized by tourists.
That the Wine Train team doesn’t miss a step is best demonstrated by my lone complaint about the trip: I couldn’t find anything significant to complain about. Having hung around food and wine in the fine-dining industry for a couple decades, and now as a journalist on constant lookout for muck to rake, I assumed the inevitable chinks in the Wine Train armor would give me something to carp about. So curmudgeons beware: the following is an exposé. But what’s getting exposed is embarrassingly upbeat.
And in case you’re wondering – no, it wasn’t the alcohol.
My Wine Train experience was underway long before I set foot on the platform. From the comfort of the phalanx of couches in the station’s main room, Leia and I were served an appetizer of inside info by wine educator Mike Delacy, who imparted facts about the geological marvel that is Napa Valley (boasting 120 soil types scattered throughout several microclimates) plus tips on maximizing our experience of wine – tips we more than dutifully observed while swirling, sniffing and sipping the real thing. Delacy’s bottom line: we should “simply feel good about having a glass of wine.”
FEAST FOR THE EYES
Our lunch train got rolling at 11:30 a.m. sharp, crept through downtown Napa and swept gently into the silver and black of bare vines counterpointed by the gold and violet of cover crops – some only 50 feet from my window in the Le Gourmet Express car. I’d driven the northerly route into the valley many times, low to the ground along the main drags of Route 29 and Silverado Trail. Now, as a passenger perched high above the track bed, I seized the opportunity to savor the scenery. Fog laced the pine-spiked hills behind Dominus and Cosentino wineries. Below, a sea of vine rows in uniform waves lapped the shores of archipelagos of architecture enclosing presses, tanks, crushers and barrels.
The Wine Train’s interior is a study in the opulence of late 19th-century luxury rail. Our dining car was paneled in Honduran mahogany accented with brass. The deep gold of velveteen curtains and valences framed the windows. We sank into embroidered armchairs at a table dressed in white linen and topped with a white-shaded, silver lamp and silver vase embellished with long-stemmed flowers. Behind my chair rose a glass partition etched in a floral pattern that echoed the era of Samuel Brannan, whose millions funded the building of the original Napa rail line in 1864. I was being transported not merely in space but in time.
GETTING TASTEBUDS ON TRACK
Among the Express Lunch delectables whipped up for us by Executive Chef Kelly Macdonald’s kitchen crew were a baby lettuce salad flecked with candied walnuts and smoked goat cheese, dressed with a honey cider vinaigrette, plus a velvety potato leek soup that chased the morning chill. For my main course I went oceanic: salmon garnished with local caviar and decked out with a crown of hash browns bracketed by baby carrots and an orange beurre blanc that synched with the salmon and deftly cut any bitterness lingering in the bed of kale.
Also on the main course lineup were Beef Tenderloin, Achiote Pork Tenderloin, Sweet Pea Ravioli and Alaskan Halibut. It was tempting to order everything and ask the staff to box up what we couldn’t finish. (Not enough hours in the day; not enough stomachs in the digestive tract.) Maître d’ Donna Clark stopped by for a minute to shoot the breeze, make sure all was ship-shape at our table, and convey our compliments to the kitchen.
All menu offerings include suggested wine pairings. I teamed my soup with a creamily textured Miner Viognier circulating a rumor of passionfruit. I hauled my salmon aboard with a Caymus Conundrum, classified for convenience on the wine list as sauvignon blanc, but in fact an intriguing mélange of white varietals marked by tones of apricot and cinnamon; elegantly unacidic.
All this gustatory gratification would fall flat without the Wine Train’s superb staff. When our server, Rebecca Narvaez, was done clearing lunch from the linen, she led me on an impromptu tour of the other cars – a nice supplement to the reconnoiter that Marketing Assistant Savannah Mattfield had conducted before the train got underway. Wine Train passengers are lucky that “train legs” take less time to acquire than the proverbial “sea legs.” The Wine Train’s subtle rocking motion takes a few minutes to adapt to – especially with a little alcohol in your bloodstream. (Women running the Wine Train gauntlet in 4-inch spikes ought to win some sort of door prize.)
Inspired by the sight of servers floating down the aisle balancing top-heavy champagne flutes on their trays without breaking a sweat – or a flute – I set out with Rebecca past the train’s 83-foot open main kitchen to grab a view from the glass bubble atop the Vista Dome Car. We wended our way back through the Silverado Car, a place of casual à la carte dining, to the dessert/wine tasting Zinfandel Car. There’s where we met Darcy Nelson, who helped us navigate a course through chocolate cake and crème brûlée – a thankless chore – as we further unwound on the plush swivel chairs lining the car’s east window.
Also working the Zinfandel Car was Wine Train educator Larry Dougherty. Those put off by the raised eyebrow and arcane lingo of the stereotypical wine-tasting authority (“Hmmm … it’s a coquettish little Carignan; I find its impertinence amusing”) will appreciate Larry’s soft-spoken and unpretentious guidance. Napa Valley, just a sliver of territory on the map of California, boasts wall-to-wall wineries, and Larry helped us grasp not merely the cartographic territory but the goût de terroir: the flavor of Napa’s soil and climate expressed in liquid form.
A master of imparting insight while keeping you in your comfort zone, Larry arranged a rendezvous with some new friends, including a Terra Valentine Spring Mountain Cabernet exuding cedar and dark chocolate in the nose – perfect with my dessert. The vanilla in Leia’s classic crème brûlée was an eHarmony.com customer in search of a soul mate, and the Hill Family Estates Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc’s adroit fusion of melon and peach was a matchmaker’s wet dream. The common denominator of these disparate pours: moderate price and excellent value. Hey it doesn’t take a Robert Parker to figure out that a ’61 Lafite is a good bottle of juice. But what are the prime picks in the price range of the proletariat? Larry can pop that cork with ease and grace.
The Dessert/Wine Tasting car was further enhanced when server Michell Russ dropped by. Back in the dining car I’d eavesdropped on her lively insider commentary on an intriguing facet of Napa Valley: the history and interrelations of winegrower families. Call it the wine skinny on the area’s godfathers and godmothers. It was fun peppering Michell with questions only a veteran of the Napa scene could answer. And the answers? I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun. You can ask Michell in person.
VERDICT ON THE VOYAGE
Those wishing to get their tickets punched for more elaborate excursions can take advantage of the Wine Train’s stopovers at wineries such as Grgich Hills and Domaine Chandon. Holidays in hedonism include Easter and Mother’s Day (and let’s not ignore the Father’s Day special barbecue and beer menu). And Agatha Christie fans will find the Wine Train’s Murder Mystery Dinner Theater a page-turner come to life. The nitty-gritty of schedule, prices and array of tours is available on the Wine Train’s copious and colorful website, www.winetrain.com.
And so, 36 miles of round trip and a century of history later, we came back to earth on the platform in the city of Napa, palates pampered, imaginations ignited. We’d glided through the valley in a cocoon of pleasure, immersed in the vistas, flavors and hospitality of a unique place on the planet – a 90-minute drive from downtown Brentwood.
My verdict on the trip: stepping aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train isn’t unlike breezing through the front door of a friend’s home. The décor is unique, the food and wine and view from the balcony are superb, but your friend knows how to get out of the way and let you mold your own experience. The Wine Train puts on an incomparable show, but if the purpose of your trip is to simply enjoy the company of the person sitting across the table from you, the staff knows how to help make that happen.
Unlike the proposed eBART line – rumored to reach far East County by the end of the century – the Napa Valley Wine Train delivers on its promise. Don’t let the tourists hog all the fun.