Exploring: Napa Valley Wine Train
California wine country passing by out the window. An amazing gourmet meal served to our table and paired with fine wine. A vintage 1920’s train with stunning period details. Life doesn’t get much better. On a recent weekend, late in the summer, some friends and I boarded the famous Napa Wine Train. I was expecting a tourist-type experience. But this was far better than that. And history was everywhere around us. It started as we boarded the train in Napa across from the famous foodie Oxbow market. The train has been both preserved and restored. Seats with vintage upholstery, hardwoods with rich patinas, gleaming brass hardware all echoed a long gone era when train travel could be the epitome of wealth and leisure.
Just like decades ago, each car represents a different travel class and a different experience. The day we rode, one car held a group there just for the ride itself. They lounged on vintage swiveling barrel chairs designed to soak in the grapevine views. Another car had a casual BBQ meal served. Another car, influenced by 1940’s design with glass domed viewing windows held a group served a custom luxury meal and destined for one of the top sparkling wine makers in the world. Our car held a group that had just visited a historic winery that has been converted into a fully sustainable, organic wine producer.
For our meal, I was expecting something run of the mill. But it was fabulous. From the menu to the service, it reminded me of the famous Train Museum in Sacramento California. In that museum is a perfectly preserved dining car from decades ago. There are displays of vintage menus and very fancy custom designed china and silverware patterns used on luxury trains from the 1910s through the 1960’s. Our meal felt a lot like someone had studied that car and that dining history. Our waiter was from Belgium and very attentive. We each chose from four main gourmet dishes, in this case beef tenderloin with summer vegetables and the pork medallion with bacon. When I researched trains years ago I read stories of the chefs on those trains, crammed in small kitchens with few of the modern conveniences we have today. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned that on the Napa train too. We all ordered slight variations on our meals. When all three dishes came out perfectly rare, medium and well done as ordered (and absolutely delicious) we were impressed. When we finally did walk past one of the multiple kitchen cars, they appeared stocked with the very latest kitchen gear in every way…a far cry from the train chefs of yore.
After our meal, we explored the train. Each of the cars was a visual feast from an architecture perspective. And new memories were minted everywhere. In one car, a couple was just getting engaged. Down the corridor of another car a group from Japan was filming a commercial. Other cars exhibited groups of friends that hadn’t seen each other in years enjoying wine and conversation. The motion of the train even managed to put a newborn to sleep in her mother’s arms. Very few were texting on cell phones, a sure sign of a high quality experience! As we walked between coupled platforms on the swaying but slowly moving train, we thought we were aiming for the caboose. But in Calistoga, the train had reversed instead of turning around. Stepping outside onto a small platform, we found ourselves looking at the tail of the front engine. The combination of fresh Napa air and diesel fumes was quite heady.
Trains definitely remind us of a slower, more civilized time. I loved how even though this train goes by many times a day, the merchants and townspeople along the tracks always stopped to wave happily.
I encountered one of the most charming elements after we exited the train. All along the 20 foot length of the exit deck hung padlocks. Some brand new. Some very very old. One even looked to be nearly 90 years old. Each padlock had names and initials entwined; Andrew+Heidi, Christian+Kelly, Tad+Molly, etc. Hundreds and maybe thousands of declarations of love decorated the fencing. I heard that this was inspired by similar locks on bridges from China to Paris. What a memorable way to cap off a perfect train ride. (Update: turns out we left Napa Valley 5 hours before the earthquake hit. Our best wishes to all those recovering from that traumatic and damaging trembler. Be safe out there.)