We’re going to kick off Backroads Insider with a guest podcast Forks and Corks. Click on the title to access the audio player and access the rest of this post.
Buckle up. We’re about to travel through time. We will step back in time on the Napa Valley Wine Train, step off the train in real time and taste our way through the Valley. Scott Goldie, co-chief executive officer, says this is the new train. The Napa Valley Wine Train changed ownership and vision two years ago after an ownership change.
Not only can you ride the rails from Napa up to Yountville, but you can taste fine wines and have small courses as you get on and off the train. The station is located at 1275 McKinstry Street in the Oxbow District of Napa.
Chef Donny Young is the executive chef. The silver-haired, blue-eyed executive chef is sporting a white chef shirt and a royal blue apron. As we board the train, he says, “This the 1013. It came online June 25th of this year. It’s a hundred-year-old Pullman car that’s been completely refitted. State of the art interior, keeping the nostalgic preservation.”
“So we’re trying to hit a design aesthetic from like the 1940s, 1950s,” Goldie says. “So the car might be 100 years old, but it’s really taking you back to the glamour day of the railroad, which hit its heyday in the 50s.”
Each car is different. “So if you’re on our 1052 car. It’s mohair. It’s leather. It’s brass. It’s mahogany,” he explains. “The 1013. We wanted to go a different direction. In the past, that was called the barbecue car. And the windows come out. It’s way more informal. So we kept the oak. Stained it ebony. We went with a train station type seat with green velvet, marble tables.”
Overhead there are old-fashioned brass luggage racks and high-gloss Cabernet ceilings.
We walk toward the end of the car, past the full bar. Chef Donny excitedly explains, “This is where it all happens. Here. This is the kitchen. That’s Marc. That’s Nellie. This is the first course when the guests get on. It’s a homemade cinnamon streusel muffin, we have fresh fruit Greek yogurt smoothie, mason jar poached egg with Anson Mills grits and smoky bacon.”
Chef Donny is from Miami, and he infuses the cuisine with southern and Cuban flavors, as well as locally grown ingredients. After the first course, guests disembark the train and taste at Robert Mondavi Winery or St. Supery Estate Vineyards and Winery.
Once the guests finish their first tasting, they have a choice of honey fennel, cracked mustard glazed Pacific salmon, carmelized shallots, marble potatoes, smoky bacon and asparagus or our rosemary garlic marinated grilled flat iron steak. That is accompanied by a grilled portobello mushroom sun-dried tomato faro. Faro is an ancient grain, and that’s with arugula pesto.
Chef Donny sources local ingredients, so the menus change with the seasons.
Scott Goldie, like many of us, is nostalgic for trains and train travel. His grandfather worked on the railroad, so he got to spend a lot of time traveling the rails. The tracks were established in 1864 by Samuel Brannon who was a real estate developer from San Francisco. He built the tracks to bring people to Calistoga to buy land he had prospected. He eventually went broke and the tracks were used by Cal Northern and Southern Pacific. In the 80s, the railroad was all but abandoned, and then Vincent DeDomenico, the creator of Rice A Roni, decided to step in and buy right of way. DeDomenico bought 102 year old Pullman cars, and Alcos locomotives.
“It was his vision to start the Napa Valley Wine Train,” Goldie explains. “The vision was to create an iconic railroad, modeled a little bit after the Orient Express. He did all the renovation of the cars from the ground up. When we purchased the train. 1052, the 1013, these are new cars, that are doing our wine tasting excursions, and they were stripped to the bare metal and built back up.
Now guests can take a six-hour wine tasting tour and stop at three wineries along the way, charter a car or two and have a private party at a winery or on the train, or enjoy special events like Rock the Rails where you’re transported via train to a winery to a concert.
Goldie’s got big plans for the Napa Valley Wine Train. “We just recently announced a hotel where the train station is today on McKinstry Street. There’d be 148 room five-star hotel. It’s a train station hotel. And to my knowledge there’s only two others in the United States, one in Denver and one in Nashville. So you enter into the hotel, it’s a 65 foot atrium, steel and glass.
Ultimately, up valley we’d like to look at other opportunities for smaller versions of that. Traffic is such a big issue in the Valley, that you can spend the weekend in Napa Valley and never drive your car.
“For people that are interested in the train or people that’ve known the train in the past. We have new things happening. We’ve probably launched 15 things this year. So check back with us. Check the website. Keep the old. But have the new. That’s what we’re looking to do.”
The wine train is for tourists and locals alike. There are talks about creating a commuter service to get employees up to St. Helena and Yountville by train. Last summer, the wine train kicked off their summer concert series Rock the Rails where you board the train in Napa and go to the winery that’s hosting the concert, and when it’s over enjoy a leisurely ride home. Like Goldie said, keep an eye on the website winetrain.com to plan your next adventure.
Forks and Corks is a production of Napa Valley Life Magazine.