The glamorous Napa Valley Wine Train
I believe you all know I quit drinking alcohol more than 4 years ago and even before that I was never a big fan of both beer and wine. So going to San Francisco and listening to all the recommendations about taking time to visit Napa Valley famous for its wineries and wine tasting got a bit annoying to be honest. I kept refusing all of them with a simple answer:
”What would I do in a wine place if I don’t drink wine?”
But it was just one of a few things I was wrong about and I only found out when the time was right.
When I got an email from Ryan, the PR and Media Manager of the Napa Valley Wine Train inviting me to experience the train restaurant, my first question was ”Are you familiar with me being a non-drinker?”
I am not sure if it was him surprised more about me not drinking alcohol any more or then me after his reply saying there were a lot of other reasons why to hop on the Wine Train than the world known wine.
And as I’ve been doing things in San Francisco I don’t usually do, after Ryan’s ”a funny statistic about our Wine Train passengers is that nearly 50% of them do not drink wine”, I decided to give the wine train a chance, too.
San Francisco to Napa
At 8 am I was waiting outside of the beautiful light blue Ferry Building to get my SF BayLink Ferry to Vallejo town. To be honest, I was super tired after getting hardly any sleep the night before and was looking horrible as I could not wash my hair after hiking the Muir Woods because the water was off in the whole area where I was staying the previous evening due to a broken pipe.
But then the ferry put me in a better mood just because of the simple fact that I am a sucker for boats of all kinds and also because I got to see San Francisco and its bridges from a different point of view. It took us around an hour to cross 32 miles to Vallejo (it is not pronounced the Spanish way but the Americanized way which I found very funny).
Most of the time I spent on the outdoor deck observing the scenery, hills around us and the SF skyscrapers getting smaller and smaller.
But as everything has both advantages and disadvantages, when I was trying to sneak a snapshot of me with the SF downtown skyline behind me, it got so windy my hair got stuck around the left earring and made the earring fly away. I bought the earrings less than 15 hours earlier in Sausalito. Well, just a bad luck, right?
I could only hope for not a bad day …
I calmed down finding out there was free wifi on the ferry so I could reply to some work emails. Once we got to Vallejo, a luxury black California Wine Tours bus picked us up and drove another 30 minutes to Napa town.
And here I was, going to board my Napa Valley Wine Train still not having it very clear what I was really doing there.
I guess it all changed after meeting up with the manager who showed me around, explained the most important facts about the wine train and introduced me to the employees. All of a sudden I was ready to have a blast.
The manager walked me through the Love Lock Bridge where couples in love just lock their love and throw the key to the swale down the bridge hoping for the eternal connection of their souls. What makes this lock bridge different is that you could possibly look for the key back if your love just disappeared after a while as the keys all stay there. I mean, you never know, love is blind, right?
My Napa Valley Wine Train ride
After taking a photo with the train, I was seated in one of the dining cars in the middle of the train (car number 1100) to enjoy my Gourmet Express Package. There are different kinds of packages you can order – such as the most private 1952 Vista Dome Car, a Hollywood Western open air Silverado Car, or the one I got.
All of the glamour Wine Train cars are restored vintage rail cars that will easily take you back in time. Decorated in mostly red, brown and golden colors with beautiful portraits and antique stylish looking restrooms will make your experience unforgettable. I could not stop taking photos of the different cars and paintings! So impressive!
The wine train, originally connecting Vallejo and Calistoga since 1864, took us through the famous vineyards of the Napa Valley and already after my first minutes on the train I realized how much wrong I was about it. Of course, it is mostly about wine tasting you can do after lunch/dinner in a Lounge Car and the green views of the vineyards just outside of the windows when crossing the valley but that is NOT all.
The Napa Valley Wine Train has a lot more to it. As soon as we left Napa town going North 15 to 18 miles per hour, I realized why the train is one of Napa’s most distinctive restaurants. It was not only the professionalism of Melissa and Amethyst taking care of me, but also the exquisite cuisine on board.
I am very picky with food so when I say something was a finger-licking meal, it really means it was more than delicious (and trust me, my mum could tell you stories about my annoying food pickiness!)
For the first course I ordered a broccoli cream soup of the day, and then Salmon Hash Brown for the entree. I was starving as usual but had no idea how much food I was going to get. Just needed to get one of my 5 meals a day asap.
As I don’t drink alcohol, I was offered a fresh orange juice instead to go with my meals. Other guests sipped on a complimentary glass of wine of their choice while the train made its way to St. Helena.
I had a talk with the executive chef Kelly Macdonald who has been working on the train for more than 11 years making sure all the meals were perfect when it comes to both taste and looks. As I was sitting just behind the kitchen, I was able to sneak in and watch the cooks making around 150 meals in just 15 – 20 minutes.
”OMG!” I screamed! ”Timing is everything.” the chef told me after I made one of my surprised faces.
It was ridiculously crazy! I cannot even make one meal in that time so I admired them and also their passion for cooking.
It is no surprise – I love eating, but I don’t enjoy cooking at all.
So watching other people being wonderful at cooking put me in awe. Kelly was strict about how the meals had to look like and I was just wondering how they could keep up with vegan, vegetarian and normal variations of all the meals and not mess it up. Yes, believe it or not,there were more picky people on the train!
The broccoli cream soup I started with was really delicious, so was the salmon hash brown with sweet peas. The European techniques inserted into the American way of cooking were pretty visible in all the meals I tasted and it was one of the things I was grateful for on that day. Beside the fact that the chef was born in the sun-kissed California, he was raised in a very European way having Scottish, Portuguese and Irish grandparents. Kelly even looks way more Scottish/Irish than American.
I also learned that after studying a culinary school, Kelly has been cooking ever since and he can show off his techniques and great taste when changing the Wine Train menu every 3 or 4 months.
When I thought I finally won over the last piece of salmon, Kelly decided to make me taste other 2 meals – Squash Polenta with spinach-ricotta portabella and yam stuffed gypsy pepper in a tomato-basil coulis; and Coriander Mustard Encrusted Breast of Chicken topped with endive and radicchio-feta salad in a citrus beurre blanc.
I was stuffing my face with all these meals made of fresh local seasonal ingredients on which the Wine Train cuisine is strictly based. The quality of the ingredients was proved by the meals melting in my mouth and more facts the chef gave me while we chatted when I was struggling with the last bites.
As well, Kelly once again proved that traveling changes you (and I dare to say it does happen to all the other travelers too.) He went through a life changing and eye opening situation when he taught the American culture of cooking in Georgia and thus got to see the life of the poor there. I had goose bumps listening to one of Kelly’s stories making me realize once again how grateful we should be for having the life we got. Because not everyone is so lucky in life!
During our meals, Melissa was coming over to tell us more about the vineyards we passed on the way. I remembered some of them, such as:
- Dominus (owned by a French – Christian Moueix who fell in love with the Napa Valley already in the 1960s)
- Opus One (making just one kind of wine you can taste for $75),
- Far Niente (the owners live there on the vineyard in a 19th century house. It is $65 per wine tasting tour there.)
- Robert Mondavi (offering some of the best and cheapest wine tasting tours in the Napa Valley for just $25)
- Grgich Hills (with the Croatian owner who just celebrated his 90th birthday and was one of the first people who made Napa Valley famous for its wines when he won a wine tasting contest back in 1976.)
The French Laundry we spotted briefly from the train, a few times awarded the ”best restaurant in the world”, got stuck on my mind too. The restaurant offers a 10-course meal for just 25 people at the time and up to 6 months on the waiting list with dinners easily reaching $900 per 2. I mean, it had to make me remember it, right?
St. Helena back to Napa
Most of the guests stay on board the Wine Train for the entire 3-hour journey like I did. The locomotive disconnects in St. Helena, our last stop, and connects to the opposite end of the train to take us back to Napa the same way. There are also guided winery tour packages available when you can get off at one of the train stops to explore more of selected wineries.
One of the things I enjoyed about the Gourmet Express Package was the 2 different seatings we got. After the long lunch it was time for a dessert (you know, there is always a place for it!) and a cup of green tea with honey and lemon in the lounge car. The chairs in the Lounge car are facing out of the windows so you can enjoy the views of the vineyards in a more relaxing way.
As soon as we started to head back to Napa, Yvonne whose turn it was to make me feel like in seventh heaven, brought me a coconut panna cotta with berries – a vegan gluten-free dessert I chose as one of the few means of staying fit when traveling.
Afterwards, with a happy stomach I watched the nice couples I met on the train doing their $10 wine tasting.
I also walked to the back of the train to get the best shots from the observation deck and let the wind mess up with my hair.
The Napa Valley Wine Train was the best train experience I have ever had so far. I am used to take long train rides on the way to/from my home town, but they are never so relaxing even though they do have amazing views of the Slovak countryside and mountains. The trains I took in other European countries, Thailand, Bolivia or anywhere else in the world were far away from the glamorous Wine Train too.
I guess the French techniques in the Californian cuisine of the chef played its role in making my train ride so pleasant. So did the enriching conversations with a few older American couples curious about my travel blogging job. And I also think their cute commentaries about me being so pretty still on one of my bad days made the train ride even sweeter.
The last conversation I had on board the Wine Train was with 2 couples when one of them was explaining to the other one the story of the Australian eucalyptus trees in California and also why the roses are growing next to the grapes. I remember when the man from the Chicago couple stated looking at his wife:
”I didn’t know it was a science trip too.”
”Honey, everything is a learning trip” replied Therese with a smile on her face.
And the truth is, she was hell right.
I did learn a few things on board the Napa Valley Wine Train – even a super-picky person, a solo non-drinker who has spent uncountable hours on trains around the world still can have a fun train ride. And the same knowledgeable person can as well learn new things about vineyards, like using huge fans at cold nights so the grapes don’t freeze due to the air circulation.
You really do learn something every day, no matter how much of a cliche this might sound!
A few more tips about the Napa Valley Wine Train:
- you can win free Wine Train tickets texting ”WINE” to 99000.
- as I’ve heard, one of the most interesting wine tours is the Castle Winery Tour with a guided tour of the Castello di Amorosa – in case you would like to take a winery tour.
- each meal on board the Wine Train has suggested wineto compliment its taste.
- definitely take some time to walk around the train and get photos from the observation decks on both sides of the train.
- all the meals have vegetarian and vegan options. Please advise the Wine Train about any allergies ahead of time.
- both lunch and dinner Wine Train packages are available. Also be sure to check out special holidays, e.g. Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, NYE etc. and events, such as the Murder Mystery Dinners with a murder mystery drama played on board, Moonlight Escape Dinners with the views of the vineyards at full moon nights, Vintner’s lunches or even the Big Gay Train.
- if you are taking the ferry back to SF, you have around 90 minutes to stroll around Napa town, Main street and the famous Oxbow market after the Wine Train. The market has free wifi and together with the Main street also a few sample tastings that come along with the Wine Train (you will get the leaflets with all the information at the time of your Wine Train registration).
- you don’t need to get the ferry/bus from SF to get to the Wine Train, you can make your own way to Napa.
My Napa Valley Wine Train experience was a press trip. Thanks a million to all the other people who made my train ride absolutely amazing! For more information, please visit the Wine Train website, become fan on the Napa Valley Wine Train Facebook and follow the Wine Train Twitter.
I took the Wine Train when visiting San Francisco. For more information about what to do in San Francisco area, visit San Francisco travel.