The Napa Valley Wine Train is alive and well.
October’s wildfires didn’t damage its station, historic steel Pullman cars or 18 miles of railway. The randomly scorched hillsides are far from the rails and from most vineyards.
So we chose the Wine Train as a way to see and taste the legendary Napa vineyards while enjoying a good meal. From more than 18 tour options, we chose the gourmet Quattro Vino Estate Tour on a rainy Thursday in March. Spring, summer and fall have the best vistas, but winter can be cozy onboard the train, and groups are small. While our car had seating for 31, about 20 passengers were scattered among the seats.
At 10:30 a.m., I scooched across a seat upholstered in plush navy velveteen stitched to heavy tan leather, careful not to spill my complimentary flute of Domaine Chandon sparkling wine. The heater breathed warm air between me and the window, and my partner cozied against my left side. In front of us, black cotton napkins rolled around silverware and sweating water goblets set the mahogany-veneered table in anticipation of breakfast.
Among the first to enter the 1917 mahogany-and-glass-paneled car, we watched fellow tourists board. Attire was broad and varied. Travelers looked neat, but their clothes ranged from shorts and jeans to khakis and skirts. They kept warm with cashmere, leather and fur. The smartest of the group dressed in layers to be able to adjust to varying temperatures at each stop.
The train departed at 10:45 a.m., with plans to return six hours later. The engine started slowly and continued at about 20 mph, slower than I expected, but paced timed to four courses and three one-hour winery stops. The journey sounds long, but the day goes quickly.
As we rocked down the tracks, a server delivered a breakfast trio of ciabatta and smoked salmon, berry parfait and steel cut oatmeal brûlée. Which to savor last? The brûlée sweetness, of course.
Food is nourishment and entertainment between wineries if the mountainside, vineyards and wineries get boring. (They don’t.) White coaches ferry travelers from railcar to winery buildings, where private tours include wine and wisdom.
The business-development team of The Napa Valley Wine Train has curated three six-hour gourmet tours that visit three wineries, with a soon-to-be announced fourth tour called Famiglia. I chose the Estate Tour — a 34-mile round trip — because it included the California sibling of Moet & Chandon, the esteemed French Champagne house. I’d toured their cellars in Epernay, France, five years ago and wanted to see the American counterpart.
Facing a topographical map at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, Brut sparkling wine in hand, we listened to the tour guide explain the differences between Champagne (from that region in France) and sparkling wine (bubbles from the elsewhere). He pointed to Napa Valley growing areas — Mt. Veeder, Oak Knoll, Rutherford, Yountville, Oakville and St. Helena — and explained what grapes are grown in each elevation. Sparkling wine is usually made from pinot noir grapes.
As he poured the second of three bubblies, he reminded us we were drinking California in a bottle, not France. Made in the same style, it reflects locality or “terroir.” Because Napa has a longer growing season, he said, grapes are often riper than their French counterparts. That intensifies the fruit in the glass.
We barely passed through the gift shop before it was train time. Gift shop stops are important because some wines are only available on site. And special values may be offered.
Our booth aboard the train had been reset with new silverware for a second course of soup and salad. Wine is available at the in-car bar.
Click, click, click, clack … we rolled past Far Niente Winery, Grgich Hills Estate and Beaulieu Vineyards, among others. I wanted to say, “Stop here” so many times.
We did stop at Hall Winery in St. Helena. At Hall, works by 35 artists compete with wine for attention. In the vineyards, a 35-foot stainless-steel rabbit sculpture, “Bunny Foo Foo” by Lawrence Argent, leaps into view. A life-size white camel and supersized needle (get it?), “Camel Contemplating Needle” by John Baldessari, stand near the door of the 30,000-square-foot, environmentally conscious LEED-Gold-certified winery. Both art and wine engage the mind and senses here.
This is where I learned how much I truly appreciate a fine red and how much my budget doesn’t. The flagship wine Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon, named after the owner, is, for example, $175 — and worth it. The price reflects the micromanaging of production. At harvest time, Hall winemakers don’t crush grapes; they select perfect berries and make wine from free-run juice. The juice goes into small tanks to be managed by vineyard blocks, not just by grape variety. Attention to minute detail creates an elegance seldom found. Wines are available only on location, online and by mail.
Again we rushed from gift shop to van and back to the train, where servers presented miso-glazed salmon fillet with bean thread noodles. All courses were prepared by chef Donald Young in the rail car’s small kitchen.
After the main course, I adjusted my wrap in preparation against the outdoor chill, ready for the final winery, Inglenook in Rutherford. Inglenook founders harvested the first wine grapes in 1882. The winery produced communion wine during Prohibition and continued pace with its peers until the 1960s, when corporate owners pushed the brand into the mainstream wine business. Today’s owners, — film director Francis Ford Coppola and his wife, Eleanor — are restoring the 132-year-old Victorian-style chateau and rebuilding the brand.
Our visit took us through 17,500 square feet of caves carved into the basalt mountainside. It’s easy to imagine a chase scene filmed among 3,000 French and American oak barrels lining the walls. Or maybe just using the location for romantic selfies.
After marveling at the gift shop, I finished with a cappuccino in the stylish coffee bar onsite. The caffeine countered the alcohol-influenced fatigue, and I returned to the train and a wedge of pear tart with new vigor.
Soon after, we rumbled into the station and, yes, visited another gift shop, where even more wine was for sale.
The Napa Valley Wine Train headquarters 50 miles north of San Francisco at McKinstry Street Station. It reaches back to 1864, when it was built to take visitors north to the resort town of Calistoga.
Today 1915-vintage steel Pullman coaches carry passengers on a number of different journeys. Three-hour tours cost $150 and up, while the six-hour tours with gourmet meals and winery tours/tastings climbs upward from $250. Prices include everything but gratuity. To join a tour, reserve seats one to two months in advance.
Napa Valley Wine Train: 1275 McKinstry St., Napa, California, 800-427-4124, winetrain.com.