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April 20, 2012

Hop Aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train

Napa Valley Wine Train

Wine tasting is the reason you go to Napa but ask any child how they feel and they’ll bluntly tell you that tasting rooms are drop-dead boring. Riding trains, on the other hand, is quite the opposite and you even lose track of time walking up and down the cars if your parents will let you. So there. After years of driving past the Napa Valley Wine Train while daytrippin’ around Napa and waving to total strangers, I finally booked a date to hop aboard with my kids and see what the fuss was all about. On a Saturday morning, we all got in the car and drove to Napa for a Gourmet Express lunch train ride.

The Audience

The Gourmet Express is an all-day affair – check-in at 10.30am, back at 2.30pm. I  needed to get my troops’ approval and found all the excuses for a lunch train ride. Visiting grand-parent: check. My dad was over from France and wanted to spend quality time with us and his grand-daughters. Crappy San Francisco weather: check. Everybody knows Napa should be in Provence – sunny skies all the way.  Free Saturday: check. Spring break, no girl soccer game that day. Last but not least,  the wine train folks were very generous and offered me complimentary tickets. We were set

Before the Train 

We arrived in Napa around 9.30am and stopped by the OxBow Public Market, Napa’s answer to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. It’s smaller but less crowded and we easily found a table to drink tea, milk and coffee before check-in. We even checked out the Model Bakery and The Fatted Calf to stock on dinner items. Yum! Just so you know, the Oxbow Public Market is only 3 blocks from the wine train station so you can park at the wine train parking lot, walk to OxBow and walk back to the train station. Easy.

Checking-in

We checked in diligently around 10.30am and I was surprised to see a presenter take the floor with a microphone in front of a room full of travelers. This was a little too touristy for me but I listened. Basically the wine train offers a free wine tasting before boarding the train and this person presents the wines to the audience, asks who just got married, whether you come from Kansas or at which winery you’re stopping along the way. Definitely not my thing but some people like it. During the talk, we slipped into the wine store and bought a bottle of wine to drink on the train. Because yes, it’s called a wine train but there’s no wine with your lunch.However you can BYO wine bottle (corkage fee) or purchase wine at the table – which most people do.

The Food

The good: after you board the train a server brings you a menu with options for every course. The service is also very prompt to bring bread and water and answer about any questions you may have. I found that very pleasant and my girls, who were sitting at a table of their own (we were an odd number and got 2 tables for a party of 5) felt like royalty. They read the menu and ordered themselves. I dare say, their table manners were even better than they are at home and they ate everything with contentment and a healthy appetite. FYI there is no kid menu but mine were happy with the soup as a starter and the chicken and pork entrees.

In late spring, the Wine Train offers an altertnative that I think is great for families – the Silverado Lunch Package. It’s a car decorated with photos of old western movies with a BBQ on board. With sliding windows, it’s the closest the train gets to an open-air train and I think it’s fabulous. Just walking through the Silverado Car, I loved all the pics and the rustic vibe .

The bad: The menu was fancy but the food only so-so – as in, fair but not exceptional. That’s a bummer because the tickets are quite pricey but I guess you pay for the whole experience. Sadly dessert was a forgettable affair (it’s my favorite course) but it was great to walk over to the lounge car because the meal was starting to get looooong. From a parent perspective, I can see the absence of kid-friendly options being an issue for younger kids even if the train’s kitchen can cook pasta for the same ticket price.

The Experience

The good: You eat on a moving train and all the food is cooked on board. Now that’s pretty cool because once you’re done with your meal, you’re free to explore the train at will and that includes the kitchen car. As soon as my girls were able to get up – around dessert time – they disappeared from sight and went about discovering the train. Not that it’s big – it’s only 9 cars long – but the rear car has an open deck on Napa’s countryside and walking through the train, you can fantasize on the Vista Dome car where diners sit on a glass-topped observation car. As far as the scenery, it’s Napa. Vineyards, vineyards, more vineyards. The waiters provided comments on what wineries we were passing by and a few anecdotes on big estates, that was fun. However I wish it had been less like a laundry list of numbers and bottle prices. See, I didn’t know there was a connection between Disney and Napa via the Silverado Vineyards. And the lounge car with its rotating club chairs that can face any direction is a good space to relax after the meal.

The bad: this is not a Disneyland ride or the Santa Cruz mountains steam train. Don’t expect instant gratification in the fun department. This is a slow train ride (36 miles in 3 hours) with lunch served on board and the meal is the main purpose of the train ride. It sounds obvious but you see the same scenery twice, one way and back. Yes, the return lacks surprises but a loop is just not an option. As far as the atmosphere, it’s perfect for a formal family reunion but (with the exception of the Silverado Car), the regular lunch cars could feel stuffy and too quiet for the young crew. If your kids like to run around and express themselves, I do not recommend the gourmet or champagne lunch options. If they’re fine during an hour-long sit-down lunch, everything will be fine  but you might want to bring coloring books or other activities.

Good to Know for Kids

  • Keep an eye out for the dates of the Santa Express: each year it sells out months in advance and it looks incredible. The train is completely decked out, lights everywhere, carolers, and the morning train has Santa on board for the kids.
  • Check out the Silverado Lunch with BBQ and drop-down windows – the kids will love it.
  • Booster seats available upon request (mention it when you reserve your seats).
  • Bring activities on board.

For Train Buffs

Cars numbered 1011 (Cabernet Sauvignon), 1013 (Silverado), 1014 (Zinfandel), 1015 (Le Petite Gourmet), 1017(Merlot) and 1018 (Chardonnay) were all built in 1915 for Northern Pacific Railroad and used between Seattle and Portland. In 1960, Northern Pacific sold these 8 coaches to the Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad, where they became the Denver Ski Train. Then in 1986 and 1987, the Denver and Rio Grande decided that they wanted to upgrade to lighter more modern coaches. At this time, the Wine Train was in the process of looking for rail cars to start their own short line railroad.

The Wine Train’s broker, Doug Morgan, located a small fleet of lightweight cars in Canada and arranged for a swap for the eight coaches which belonged to the Denver and Rio Grand. The Wine Train then acquired the Denver and Rio Grands older (circa 1915) coaches, and the Denver Rio Grade acquired the newer coaches from Canada. The engines were built in Montreal Canada the the Montreal Locomotive works. Engine #70 was built in 1958 and Engines #71,#72 and #72 were built in 1959. Number 1085, the Champagne Vista Dome, was built in 1952.

Practical details

  • Website: www.winetrain.com
  • Go there: The Napa Valley Wine Train Station is located at: 1275 McKinstry Street, Napa, California 94559.
  • Reserve: Call +1.800.427.4124 or reserve online.

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