This is the fifth post in the Quick Weekend Getaway to Napa / Sonoma Series. Other posts in this series include: Benzinger Family Winery, Jack London State Park, Mayo Family Winery, and Crisp Bake Shop.
The year was 1859.
Samuel Brannan, California’s first millionaire, had just discovered the amazing hot springs in the area of Napa valley now called Calistoga. He built a resort there, named the area Calistoga, and in 1864, built a railroad to bring people from San Francisco to the resort.
The railroad had a rocky and unstable history. It was sold at a foreclosure sale, bounced around different owners, and hobbled along serving a variety of purposes until 1987, when it was petitioned for abandonment. A company called Napa Valley Railroad decided to acquire rights to use the railway as a tourist wine train.
The Napa Wine Train, which leaves from the city of Napa, has been operating since then. It runs up and down the heart of Napa Valley, passing through the towns of Yountville (Hello Thomas Keller!), Oakville, Rutherford, and ending in St. Helena.
Bridge you walk down as you board the train.
The company has set up various types of “tours” which typically consist of a gourmet multi-course meal on the train and then a wine tasting, a winery visit, a castle tour, or some other fun excursion. These tours are done inside different types of restored antique railcars from the turn of the century.
Bryan and I had a chance to check out the Napa Wine Train during our visit to Napa a couple months ago. The train station was conveniently located right across the street from our hotel, the Westin Verasa in Napa, and thus it was a cinch to just roll out of bed and walk over to the train in the morning.
We enjoyed a Champagne Vista Dome Lunch ($149). The Vista Dome is one of the more private rail cars that offers a special multi-course meal prepared by a separate kitchen dedicated just to this car.
Here’s the special kitchen that just serves the Vista Dome car. You can see they are working on the first appetizer.
There are many different types of cars that each have different themes. This fancy dining car is part of the “Gourmet Express Package” ($119), which involves having part of your meal in this car, and then switching to the more interactive “lounge car” (pictured below) for dessert.
The comfy chairs in the middle swivel around so it’s quite interactive. If you were here with a bunch of friends, it would be a cool place to just hang out and chat.
There’s also a dedicated wine tasting car, where you can taste a flight of four different wines (out of their collection of over 30 wines) for $10. Here’s our wine educator, Miyuki, who ran the wine bar on our ride.
There’s a the more casual Silverado Car, which has open windows and tons of light. I love light, so I was personally drawn to this car even though it was more casual.
The windows open, so it’s really refreshing when the weather’s good. During the summer the Silverado Car also serves fun themed meals, such as barbecue or other summer-inspired menus.
Here’s the large kitchen that serves the Petit Gourmet and the Gourmet Express cars.
They decided to put a window along the entire hallway so that diners could walk by and watch the chefs at work.
We started our Champagne Vista Dome Lunch with a glass of “champagne”. I put that in quotes because they mostly feature California wines (for obvious reasons!), which are technically not champagnes since they don’t come from Champagne, France. For this meal, we started with a Domaine Chandon Brut from Yountville, one of the cities that the train passes through.
Our first appetizer was a Smoked Salmon Crepe which came with creme fraiche, American caviar, and a honey onion marmalade. he crepes were nice and soft, and the classic combination of smoked salmon, creme fraiche, and caviar was delicious. Overall, the balance of flavors and textures was quite nice.
We then had a Red and Green Apple Endive Salad which was tossed with Gorgonzola cheese and hazelnuts in a mustard vinaigrette. I’m not a huge fan of Gorgonzola, so I didn’t love it, but Bryan thought it was pretty good.
The Soup du Jour was a cream of asparagus soup with cheese and croutons. The flavor reminded me of cream of broccoli, but made instead with asparagus.
I got the Special of the Day, which was a white fish (halibut maybe?) served with shrimp, fresh avocado, spinach, asparagus, and carrots. This dish was well executed – perfectly seasoned and cooked just enough that it was done but still very soft. The portion size was generous and the flavors were very enjoyable. In fact, Bryan actually liked it better than his own dish.
Bryan got the Roasted Beef Tenderloin (aka filet mignon) because it was highly recommended by our server. It came on a vegetable-potato saute served in a Zinfandel reduction and topped with horseradish cream. Bryan asked for his beef rare but received what he thought was medium rare (pictured above). It’s possible he should have asked for “blue”, because the second tenderloin that they sent out was still cooked a bit more than he preferred. Overall the dish was OK. It’s not the most interesting preparation, but it is reasonably safe and would appeal to a wide audience.
We tried two desserts. The Classic Creme Brulee came with an assortment of berries. I’ve always been a fan of creme brulee, so I really enjoyed it.
The second dessert, Chocolate Tiramisu, is one of the most popular desserts.
Imagine a normal tiramisu covered in chocolate and then served with a mound of thinly sliced almonds and a dusting of cocoa powder. I thought it was pretty good and we easily finished off both desserts.
The train ride is about three hours long, but seemed to go by much more quickly because of the multi-course meal.
The scenery is gorgeous.
Essentially, the train follows Route 29, which is lined with beautiful vineyards and cute towns along the way. The day we went, the weather was perfect, and thus we enjoyed beautiful views for miles. The Vista Dome Car is nice because there are a ton of windows but they are just slightly tinted, allowing you to enjoy the vast views without having to wear sunglasses. The servers were friendly, and often would point out landmarks or tell us historical tidbits.
Bryan and I had picked up a really nice bottle of wine from a local wine shop in Napa to enjoy on the train. There’s a corkage fee, but it’s only $15 a bottle, which isn’t too bad. The wine train itself offers a small collection of 30-40 bottles they sell on the train as well.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was really surprised how much I enjoyed the train ride and meal. Iwas afraid the experience would feel touristy, but it wasn’t really like that. Instead, it felt like a long and relaxing lunch with good wine, enjoyable food, and stunning scenery around us.
We ended up having some really good, solid conversation during those three hours. The Vista Dome Car is especially good for conversation because it is a bit quieter and more private than the other cars. Unlike the other cars (which encourage visitation), the Vista Dome car is roped off and can only be accessed by the people dining there. This means you won’t have random people walking up and down your car as much.
I didn’t get a chance to try any of the tours, but they sound like fun. There are tours that include a nice multi-course meal and a stop at winery like Domaine Chandon (gorgeous winery by the way – $169), Grgich Hills Winery ($149), or Raymond Vineyards ($169). There’s another tour that includes a visit to a castle, Castello di Amorosa ($209). One of the most popular dinners during the summer is one that’s served during the sunset.
The food is not the primary reason to take this train. It’s fine, but it’s not that interesting. Napa Valley is one of the best food destinations in the country. There are plenty of better restaurants to visit if incredible food is your primary goal.
You come here for the overall experience. I think it would be a great venue for a large group of friends or an extended family gathering. The food is fine, not super adventurous, and reasonably safe, which means your parents, grandparents, and kids should all find something to enjoy.
It could even be nice for a couple who just wants to have a few hours alone – away from everyone else – in order to enjoy wine, stunning scenery in a unique setting, and great conversation.
Disclaimer: This trip was set up for me by the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau. Bryan and I did not pay for the dinner. All opinions are my own.
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