Napa Valley Wine Train – May 1, 2013

Nothing like spending a lazy day chugging through the Napa Valley, on the Napa Valley Wine Train. Just kicking back, and enjoying the great food and breathtaking scenery out the window, makes me want to do this as much as possible. Now this is the kind of life style I could get used to.

You are given single glass of complementary wine in the beginning of your travels, however there is a gift store in the building that has wine so you can get some before you board the train. And the prices were surprisingly cheap, no serious price gouging here.

Executive Chef Kelly MacDonald is a very hard working guy. He has to prepare a lot of his menu items off the train, and then do some other prep in his 3 kitchens on board. The main kitchen has windows so guests can watch the grill fire from 3 feet away! He prides himself on using only fresh and sustainable foods; which guarantees that they are getting the best produce ripened at its peak, or in the case of meat and fish, at its freshest. Kelly has practiced for years to be able to present a fabulous gourmet meal, the equal of any at Napa’s other great restaurants, on a moving train. How he can maintain this kind of quality and consistency I have no idea, but he does. Chef Kelly MacDonald has asked me to come back and join him in the kitchen for one of my cooking segments, stay tuned for that. The Napa Valley Wine train offers guests great regional food and fabulous, hard-to-find wines. The Napa Valley Wine Train is one of the most unique restaurants that you will have the pleasure of experiencing.

You have many choices on the menu, but this is what I went for:

An Appetizer platter, of cheese, shrimps, and fruit is just simple and a perfect way to start you lunch.

Their bread is delightful; it comes from a local Napa bakery Sciambra-Passini, and is baked daily.

Baby Lettuce with Candied Walnuts and smoked goat cheese on a honey cider vinaigrette. The ideal grouping, with great freshness.

Roasted Beef Tenderloin on black truffle potato cake, with parsnip and cambozola cheese. For meat eaters this is the entrée to order, the preparation is nicely executed.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin on rosemary polenta topped with pork pate toast in a port reduction sauce. I saw the pork tenderloin being grilled earlier in the main kitchen onboard. It is cooked exactly the way it should be cooked and the reduction sauce is excellent.

I was also able to sample baby back ribs from the new BBQ car, which was moist and succulent. These ribs could stand up to any major BBQ chef or restaurant. This train package, a BBQ menu, is a cheaper way to go, if you just want to be able to ride the rails here in Napa Valley.

Crème Brulee – light, creamy, totally delicious.
The Napa Valley Wine Train is rich with history. San Francisco’s first millionaire, Samuel Brannan, to transport visitors to his spa resort of “Calistoga”, built the rail line in 1864. Eventually though, Brannan had some financial issues and had to sell the train to California Pacific Railroad. In1885, Southern Pacific bought the Napa Valley Railroad. The railroad played a vital role in the economic and agricultural development of the Napa Valley, and provided regular passenger service to the communities of the valley.

When the automobile became popular the train became less traveled, and passenger service was discontinued in the 1930s. In 1960, Southern Pacific abandoned the right of way between St. Helena and Calistoga, and eventually, Southern Pacific was running only one freight train a week on the remaining tracks. In an effort to make a profit on the faltering rail line, Southern Pacific decided to abandon the line and sell the property in 1984. Most folks in Napa Valley did not want the train to be lost, so Lou Schuyler formed a group called, “The Society for the Preservation of the Napa Valley Railroad,” and went on a quest to put a rail saving measure on the Napa county ballot.

The intuitive failed to pass, but the overwhelming public support of the railroad peaked the interest of a group of concerned Napa citizens. This group, founded by Dr. Alvin Lee Block was known as the Napa Valley Wine Train Inc. Their goal was to create a railroad that would preserve the transportation corridor for future use and reduce traffic congestion in the Valley. After looking for investors, San Francisco resident, Vincent De Domenico, inventor of Rice-A-Roni and former owner of Ghirardelli Chocolate and Golden Grain Pasta stepped up to the plate. De Domenico bought the whole operation and became the Wine Train’s President and CEO. With De Domenico involved, the Napa Valley Wine Train was finally able to buy the line from Southern Pacific and begin the transformation into the company that it is today. On September 16, 1989, the Napa Valley Wine Train took its inaugural passenger trip and has been steadily running through the Valley ever since.

In 2007, De Domenico lost his loving wife Mildred but the company is still run by his family. His son-in-Law, Greg McManus, took over as CEO until August 2012, when the family appointed Napa native and Wine Train employee of more than 20 years, Tony Giaccio, as the new CEO. The Napa Valley Wine Train has been improving their antique equipment for the last 22 years.

There is so much history to talk about with these fantastic antique cars, I took all of this info straight off The Napa Valley Wine Trains website:

1915-17 Pullman Cars: In 1915 the Northern Pacific Railway (NP) bought 33 new First Class Coaches from the Pullman Company. These cars, numbers 1200 through 1232, were put into service on the Northern Pacific’s premiere trains, the North Coast Limited and the Northern Pacific Express/Atlantic Express. The new cars were around 83 feet long and were built entirely out of steel. An all steel car offered significant improvements in safety to rail travelers. Wood cars were more likely to break up, burn, or be telescoped in an accident. The trade-off was that these newly built steel cars were heavy. Each weighed about 141,100 pounds and rode on six-wheel trucks. Other amenities of the newly built cars included electric lights, steam heat, and arched windows. Originally, a single car contained seating for up to eighty-four passengers.

In 1935, after 20 years of service that included the heavy traffic loads of World War I, the railroad began rebuilding the cars. The United States was in the middle of the Great Depression, and passenger traffic was down significantly from 20 years earlier. Competition among the railroads was great, each trying to outdo the others to attract a larger number of travelers. In order to remain competitive, the NP decided to install better seats, to give the passengers more room, and more significantly, to add air conditioning equipment. This was the general state of the cars in 1960, when the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad purchased eight of these cars for its Ski Train service from Denver to Winter Park. NP 1214, 1217, 1225, 1227, 1216, 1213,1210, and 1218 became D&RGW 1011-1018. In 1987, the Denver Ski Train began looking to update their train with modern lightweight cars. Around same time, the Wine Train began searching for vintage heavyweight cars. They contacted the Denver and Rio Grande, and were able to purchase 1011-1018. Today, we have 6 of the Denver and Rio Grande cars on our consist. 1011 is the Cabernet Sauvignon Lounge Car, 1013 is the Silverado Dining Car, 1014 is the Zinfandel Dessert and Wine Tasting Car, 1015 is the Le Petite Gourmet Dining Car, 1017 is the Merlot Dessert Car and 1018 is the Chardonnay Lounge Car.

The Napa Valley Wine Train began an extensive restoration project to restore and recreate the cars. Using the Orient Express, Andalusian Express, and other luxury railroads as a model, the train was furnished with Honduran mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions, and velveteen fabric armchairs. Great effort was exerted to ensure that the interior of the railcars evoked the spirit of luxury rail travel at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Two of the Wine Train’s other 1915 Pullman Cars were originally built for the Southern Pacific Railroad and were used as heavyweight passenger coaches. They were purchased from the South Carolina Railroad museum. Today, car 1090 serves as the Napa Valley Wine Train’s ‘Chef de Cuisine’ kitchen car. Guests are invited to observe the chefs in action from the windows of a mahogany-paneled passageway that passes by our onboard kitchen.

Car 1052, is the Deli Car and is not attached to the main Wine Train. Instead, it is attached to Engine 62 and used for special trains like the Cheers Train during Cheers St Helena.

Car number 1100, or the Gourmet Express Dining car, was purchased from a private citizen in the late 1980s. This car, built in 1917, was originally a Pullman Sleeper Car, and was one of the first dining cars.

Vista Dome Car: Ten Dome Cars, numbered 50 through 59, were built in 1952 by Pullman Standard. These were the first “full domes” built and the first Pullman Standard domes with curved glass. They seated 68 above and 28 in a cafe downstairs and needed 16 tons of air to cool the cars. A 70hp diesel generator was included. The Dome car, number 52, went into service on the Olympian Hiawatha. It was then transferred and renamed several times, becoming Columbia and numbered CN 2405 by Columbia National, then named Mt. McKinley by Princess/Tour Alaska. Next used on the Princess California Express, it became Amtrak Auto Train number 9311 before finding its home at the Napa Valley Wine Train as the Champagne Vista Dome. This car’s exterior was rebuilt in the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus train yard.

FPA-4 Diesel Locomotives, What does FPA-4 mean? ‘F’ for Freight, ‘P’ for Steam Generator, and ‘A’ for Cab Unit. Diesel locomotive means that diesel engines drive an electric generator, which provides electricity to the traction motors that turn all four sets of wheels on the locomotives. The ALCO FA was a family of B-B (two identical trucks, or wheel assemblies under the locomotive) diesel locomotives designed to haul freight trains. The wine trains locomotives were built in Montreal Canada at Montreal Locomotive Works, the Canadian equivalent to the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). NVR70 was built in 1958 and 71,72 & 73 were built in 1959. They are dual passenger-freight versions of a Cab Unit design. Geared to operate at more than 90 mph, they were originally equipped with steam generators for heating passenger cars. The steam has been replaced by the Head End Power (HEP) units that provide electricity for the passenger cars. Newer mechanical design and models manufactured by General Motors Electro-Motive Division (EMD) and General Electric (GE) ultimately led to the retirement of the locomotive model from service. Several FPAs still exist in a preserved state in railroad museums. In addition to the operating FPAs, a few are in operational status for the Grand Canyon Railway.

Our four ALCO FA4 diesel locomotives were purchased from the Canadian National Railroad. Locomotive 73 (Compressed Natural Gas) The Napa Valley Wine Train started a program for the experimental conversion of a Napa Valley Wine Train ALCO locomotive to 60% natural gas and 40% diesel fuel mixture. In 1999 the conversion became permanent. A total conversion of locomotive 73 was completed and it was put into service using 100% Compressed Natural Gas on 5/14/08.

The train itself has so many unique nuances, from the history of the cars. To the trains route; there is just so much to learn. This amazing collection of early 20th century railcars are pure Americana, at its best. At the end of this extraordinary experience you feel like this 25-miles of track in the heart of the Napa Valley just is not enough, you are left wanting more.

Next time you want to create some out of this world memories, book a lunch on The Napa Valley Wine train, and you too will be able to hear the engines, feel the subtle swaying motion, and yell All Aboard!

Napa Valley Wine Train
1275 McKinstry St.
Napa, CA 94559
(707) 253-2111


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