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Riding the Gourmet Express on Napa's Wine Train

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The Napa Valley Wine Train is one of the biggest and best-known attractions in wine country, with thousands of people riding and dining on it every year. Even so, I had never been on it until the other day when I rode it for the first time. Since the Wine Train is, after all, a train, and like all trains it runs according to a timetable, here is a minute-by-minute account of what it is like to take a trip on “Napa’s most unique restaurant:”

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10:42 a.m.

We check in at the downtown Napa station at 1275 McKinstry Street. First surprise: There are lots more people here than we expect. Second surprise: This is a real train station, with everyone milling around a lobby and gift shop listening to a voice on a loudspeaker instruct us on what to do. When the call comes to board my wife and I go out some doors and cross “Love Lock Bridge” where some 3,000 padlocks are hanging, placed there by couples as a symbol of how their hearts are sealed or locked in love for each other. Prior to boarding we get our picture taken—available for purchase, starting at $25—while posing in front of the train next to a wine barrel with plastic grapes.

11:06 a.m.

We take our seats in the Gourmet Express, an old-time Pullman dining car, and introduce ourselves to our tablemates Rich and Colleen, who are visiting wine country from Philadelphia. Some of the special events and all of the winery trips on the train, I learn, are "seated with others"—meaning, you may sit with people you don't know. But if you come in a party of four or if you take the standard lunch or dinner trip on the Silverado, Vista Dome or Gourmet Express cars, you will not have to share a table with strangers. As for us, we enjoyed chatting with people from out of town. The train is a social experience, with food and drink.

11:14 a.m.

Kayla, our server and “Car Captain” as it says on her Wine Train badge, makes her second appearance at our table. The first was to bring menus, take our wine orders and—nice touch—deliver warm moist towels for us to wipe our hands. Another nice touch is the basket of fresh bread that arrives warm to our table. After taking our orders Kayla explains how we will eat our first two courses here and then move to a different car for dessert. This is one of the hallmarks of the trip—Kayla or another Wine Train staffer keeping us posted on what is happening and what we can expect next.

11:28 a.m.

Two minutes ahead of our scheduled departure time, we start to move. Backwards! It is, to be honest, a little disconcerting—to be eating a salad (our first course had arrived by this time) while rocking gently on a moving train, which, of course, is going forward. It only feels like it’s going backwards due to my seat at the table. But the train’s movements barely phase Kayla, who reaches across the table to fill our water glasses and spills nary a drop.

11:37 a.m.

As we pass by homes, warehouses and empty lots on the outskirts of Napa, I notice something: more laughter in the car, voices rising, everyone more animated. Maybe the wine is just kicking in and people are relaxing. Here’s my theory: The release of the train from the station releases some of our inhibitions, as if unmooring us from our routine daily lives. We’re on holiday! (Although I’m told that the Wine Train has its own security staff that escorts every train in an automobile. They’re there just in case a passenger gets a little too unmoored.)

11:44 a.m.

Talk about timing. Our lunches arrive—I’m not making this up—at the exact moment Napa Valley vineyards begin to roll past us out the window. I start with a noontime glass of Raymond Chardonnay, as does Jennifer. My entrée is roasted beef tenderloin on a vegetable-potato sauté in a Zinfandel reduction topped with horseradish cream, hers is grilled yellowtail with wilted spinach, fingerling potatoes, baby carrots and sliced avocado. “I don’t what I’m cooking for dinner tonight,” she says. “But whatever it is, it’s going to be pretty pedestrian after this.”

12:11 p.m.

Lunch is over and it is now time for us to move to the Merlot Car for dessert. “It’s a good thing I didn’t have much to drink,” I think to myself as we set off—a tad wobbly at times, I’ll admit, due to the rocking rhythms of the train—down the center aisle of the Gourmet Express, through an almost galley-style kitchen car and along a narrow corridor past the steps leading up to the glass-ceiling Vista Dome car. Twice we cross over the enclosed spaces where the rail cars are coupled together, finally plopping down in our comfy swivel chairs in the Merlot. These fine old refurbished Pullmans are rolling antiques, working relics from another era. In automobile terms, riding the Wine Train is like taking an afternoon spin on St. Helena Highway in a reconditioned Jazz Age Duesenberg.

12:16 p.m.

My favorite moment—and a romantic one at that. Standing with my wife in the Grappa power car, whose windows are open. We breathe in the fresh air and drink in the sights of this luscious wine landscape.

12:41 p.m.

Back in the Merlot for dessert. Mine is a crème brulee with four blueberries on top while Jennifer is having a tiramisu encased in a thin chocolate domed shell. Outside the window are grapevines and blue skies. As Edith Piaf sings “La Vie en Rose” over the sound system, life does indeed seem a little rosy at the moment.

12:55 p.m.

Ah, but time waits for no one—not on the Wine Train or anywhere else. Nicole, our new server and host, steps up to explain what is about to happen next. It’s time for us to grab our stuff, leave the train and head off to the next stage in our adventure.

The Napa Valley Wine Train offers a variety of packages and tours for day and evening trips. A lunch or dinner trip for the three-hour, 36-mile round-trip between Napa and St. Helena is $109-$149. Tours of wineries such as Grgich Hills ($149) or Domaine Chandon ($169) can be added to the package. There are many special events too. Our trip is the Castle Winery Tour ($209-$249), which includes tastings and a tour of the epic Castello Di Amorosa in Calistoga. That is where we are headed.

To read the second part of Kevin Nelson's journey—"Exploring the fantasy adventure of Castello di Amorosa"—please click here.

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