It's in the Napa Valley. It's a train, and it does serve wine; nearly 40 varieties. What it doesn't say is that it's also a gourmet dining destination. The wine train has been around since 1989, but the Napa Valley Railroad was built in 1864, taking tourists from nearby San Francisco to the Napa town of Calistoga. The current cars, nine in all, are vintage 1915 with the later addition of a glass-domed car from the 40s.
There are two trips a day: a lunch journey and a dinner excursion. It all begins at the McKinstry Street Station where you check in and get your boarding pass. You can explore the station and visit the wine store with more than five hundred selections. If you have any questions, the Director of Wines, Ryan Graham, will be happy to help. If not, he and his staff will provide an introductory lecture on wine tasting thirty minutes before boarding where you'll get to sample one or two...a taste of what's to come.
Enjoy, because it takes a while to board the more than 350 passengers the train accomodates. Once aboard you're whisked back to the beginning of the 20th Century. They've kept the flavor of the period, using the Orient Express and other luxury railroads as models. The cars are furnished with mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions, and velveteen armchairs. Casual attire is suggested for lunch, but a jacket is recommended for the dinner train.
The service is excellent and very attentive, despite the number of people on board. As soon as you're seated you're offered hors d'oeuvres and a glass of champagne, wine or a soft drink.
Or, if you prefer, you can wander into the tasting car, where, for ten dollars, you can sample four of that's day's selections, which are not, by the way, only from the Napa Valley. If there are any you'd like to buy, they'll have it ready for you at the wine emporium when you debark.
When lunch or dinner is served, you're asked to transport yourself to one of the dining cars, where you're shown to your table, elegantly set with white linen tablecloths, handsome silver and a candle. Be careful if you pick up your glass of wine to toast your friends....it's a train, and it rocks. One waitress confessed they lose a good number of plates and glasses on each trip.
The Wine Train prides itself on using only environmentally responsible ingredients, humanely raised, hormone free meats and fresh, line caught fish. You can even watch the chefs prepare your meal in the 'Chef de Cuisine' car, where you can see all the action from the windows of a mahogany-paneled passageway outside the onboard kitchen.
The food is quite good, considering it's prepared en route and served to so many guests at once. They make a conscientious effort to keep it personalized. The selections are limited, as you might imagine. First course: baby lettuce salad with candied walnuts and smoked goat cheese in a honey cider vinaigrette, followed by a palate cleansing sorbet. There are four entree choices, including Roasted Beef Tenderloin with gorgonzola cheese and cabernet red onion marmalade in a red wine shiitake mushroom sauce.
There's also a moist halibut filet with a mango-orange beurre blanc, served with mango slices and fried plantains on a bed of julienne vegetables.
The desserts are scruptuous too, like the vanilla bean crème brulee with fresh berries and the chocolate bourbon cake with chantilly cream and caramel sauce. Sound rich? Well, the cake is surprisingly light, and the crème brulee is creamy but not too sweet. Perhaps I'm trying to justify my indulging.
While dining or sipping wine, you're looking out the window at the various vineyards dotting the landscape from Napa to St. Helena, including the towns of Yountville, Oakville and Rutherford.
The dinner train ride, which boards at 6pm and returns to the station at 9:30, costs $97 per person or $127 if you choose to be seated in the Dome Car. The lunch ride, which boards at 11am and returns at 2:30 costs $89 and $119 respectively. There are also special events that seem fun, including a Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre experience ($135), and a Vintner's Lunch ($149) featuring a guest winemaker who shares his insights into his craft while chef Kelly Macdonald matches the food to the selections, and if you have kids there's occasionally a Family Fun Night Package.
Reservations for the Napa Valley Wine Train are a must. You can either visit their website www.winetrain.com or call 800.427-4124.