Californians live within a car culture. For as much as we complain about having had to wait too long for our European style high speed trains to be built, we also won’t hesitate to hop in the car and drive up or down the coast for dinner.
So, while we are waiting, why not combine antique trains with good food and wine?
While it’s not easy to get to a lot of places (read: outside the urban area) from the East Bay on public transportation without first going over to San Francisco, people are becoming more aware of the fact that public transportation is important not only to the California travel experience, but for business in general. Which is why it was nice to hear that the Napa Valley Wine Train is commencing its shuttle connection between the North Concord/Martinez BART station and the Napa Valley Wine Train station in the town of Napa.
My Take On Napa Valley
There really is a lot to do in Napa Valley – most of which is centered around imbibing bottles of Cabernet, and eating wonderful local food while drinking that Cabernet. Personally, I like the drive up Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail, starting early in the day and stopping on a whim at whatever winery or food purveyor looks interesting. I like the randomness that comes with exploring. I can’t say that I’m even remotely fond of confinement, schedules, or tours. That being said, even while I’ve always thought of the the Napa Valley Wine Train as a very touristy thing to do, it has always been on the edge of my “things to do someday” radar.
Someday was yesterday.
My Napa Valley Wine Train Experience
My invitation came from Kira Devitt, the new Director of Marketing for the Napa Valley Wine Train and I have to say that my day was enjoyable because of her enthusiasm and knowledge of the train.
The train is made up of ten cars that are either dining, lounge, or kitchen cars along with the new “power” car that supplies energy to the rest of the train, taking the strain off of the two engines. Right after boarding, Kira gave me a personal tour of the entire train, talking as she went, giving me a history of the cars. She also talked about the history of the Napa Valley Wine Train project – which was not embraced enthusiastically by the wine community in the beginning. As Kira mentioned, land prices are high in Napa Valley and those last remaining train tracks take up about two rows of vines. But the train has now been operating for about twenty years and has brought some positive change to the Napa area during that time.
Politics aside, as the train left the station, we were distracted from the backyard scenery in Napa by our waitress offering us a complimentary glass of red and the waiter who brought us each a plate of antipasti with three cheeses wedges, fresh cherries, and bread to nibble while we waited for our lunch. We arrived into the vineyards soon enough, where the landscape of the valley was framed by the antique windows of our lounge car.
Our dining experience happened during the second seating of the Gourmet Express Lunch, on the return from Saint Helena. I was pleasantly surprised to find vegetarian fare on the menu. My only real complaint about that was that I wish there had been more than one vegetarian option. All of the meat groups were well represented on the menu.
My meal – Winter Squash Polenta with Spinach-Ricotta Portabella and Yam Stuffed Gypsy Pepper in a Tomato-Basil Coulis – was delicious, and filling. But the highlight was the Tiramisu Truffle at the end of the meal for dessert. No, wait, actually the highlight of the meal was witnessing an engagement between the couple sitting next to us and soon after, a table at the other end of the car bursting into their version of Happy Birthday. Everyone seemed to enjoy their food and Chef Macdonald does a mighty fine job as chef – not only cooking well on a moving train, but as a chef who is devoted to using fresh local ingredients in his menu.
I realized after the day’s journey, that the Napa Valley Wine Train isn’t, and isn’t even meant to be, a substitute for exploring the wine culture of the Napa Valley. Nor is it a tour. It is, rather, an experience in and of itself, all about food and wine, meant to be a celebration, an extension, of the Napa Valley experience.
My advice about the Napa Valley Wine Train would be – absolutely don’t make it your only Napa Valley experience and go with a large group of people so that you have a lot of opportunity for conversation and creating a party atmosphere. Think of it as a going out to lunch or dinner experience rather than a tour experience. Train buffs who are into restoration just might really love it. With the train’s beautiful restoration, Sci-Fi fans might find themselves expecting that Captain Mal or Brisco County, Jr. will bust through the door any minute. Most importantly, how entertained you are will really depend on the people that you go with.
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Most of the images below were taken while the train was stationary, before the passengers came on board. After the fact I realized that I had not taken any wine images! The food images were a little too shaky, given that the train was moving while I was shooting them – so you will just have to go to experience the food and take your own images!
The Napa Valley Wine Train
1275 McKinstry Street
Napa, California 94559
To get there by using BART:
– Call the Wine Train and make your reservation at least 24 hours in advance.
– Get to the N.Concord/Martinez BART station before 9am.
– The Wine Train shuttle will be waiting for you in the pick up area of the N.Concord/Martinez BART station between 9am and 9:15am.
– Board the shuttle and you’re all set!
– The shuttle leaves the train station parking lot at 4pm.
– This gives you about one and half hours to explore the town of Napa between the end of the train ride and the departure of the BART shuttle.
– Arrive N.Concord/Martinez BART station around 5pm (depending on traffic).
– Take BART back to your hotel or home!
Cost for taking the shuttle service (in 2013): Your BART ticket plus $30 for the shuttle, which is above the price of the Napa Valley Wine Train package.