The Napa Valley Wine Train marks a special occasion in one’s lifetime, offering must-see excursions to wineries with fine dining and vistas on board elegant cars from American history. The Vista Dome adventure to Castello di Amorosa, the castle tour via a double decker car with a glass roof, promises to be one of the most memorable and romantic if not ultimately dark and mysterious experiences defining San Francisco Bay Area arts and culture. A six foot eight inch Cal grad named Dario Sattui took twenty years to construct this Tuscan masterpiece, starting when he was 52 and had been at his Sattui Winery just down the tracks. Dario Sattui, says guide Mark, spent 35 million dollars on materials alone.
The train wined and dined my beau Mark Reid and me for the 25 mile leisurely cruise to the castle where we crossed the moat into the courtyard of a 13th century Tuscan-style castle. We explored the massive dining hall and chapel then descended into the dark caverns lit by lamps, with 18 underground bars, wine cellars, a dungeon and a torture chamber with authentic torture devices you have never even seen in horror films.
Castello di Amorosa with its perfect Disneyesque and sunny exterior enjoys a dark side lurking beneath where love seems to have gone wrong and Draconian. Positively medieval. Take a look at guide Mark introducing the torture chamber's Iron Maiden which Dario bought at a museum sale after it showed up out of Nazi Germany in 1947.
As for art work, Fabio Sanzogni painted the murals in the great dining hall and Mark talks about Fabio here.
See many informal videos on the Youtube channel.
Mark Reid and I would be pampered with first class service on the train with our imaginations and love of adventure indulged and satisfied, more so than either of us expected. Mark works at a popular restaurant in Fairfax and has been in food service management for many many years, including a resort at Mackinaw Island in Michigan.
Our happiness started when each of us were thrilled to see the Napa Wine Train connects with special bus, shuttle and ferry service from San Francisco as part of the tour, as each of us commute by bicycle. Mark and I left our bikes in the bike cage at Embarcadero BART and arrived on a beautiful Saturday morning at the San Francisco ferry building. Actually the wine train offers connections all over the Bay Area using public transportation with a BART connection and transfers from the SF and Oakland airports as well as downtown San Francisco. Visit www.winetrain.com/BART.
It would be more than a 10 hour adventure with an 8:30 departure from the ferry building on a comfortable tour bus to Vallejo. We relaxed for a half hour before departure with Blue Bottle coffee and a hot hand-held waffle held in a coffee filter. The ferry building has facilities and there are none on board the bus or shuttle.
The Wine Train station in downtown Napa sets the tone of old world elegance and romance immediately with a lobby full of antique furniture and a relaxed, rural and open air feel. It’s almost serene and we were invited to go wine tasting nearby after or before the journey. Our guide petiteYuri Soshizaki, a certified wine specialist and wine merchant, is a friendly and polite student from Japan who lives in Napa while she learns international marketing. She gave us some beautiful and vibrant prints of the photo the wine train photographer takes at the train before boarding.
Oxbow Public Market
The hall houses many venues from a spice shop and café to a chocolatier who spikes sauces and candy with wines. The hall opens at each end for outdoor dining and Hog Island Oysters are busy shucking at the back. Hog Island also participates at the Napa Valley Oscar Viewing Party and serves oysters shucked before your eyes and swallowed ice-cold with a squirt of lemon. One can taste the differences in oysters from different parts of Tomales Bay.
Our castle winery tour would go from 10:30 to 4:00. The platform to the train memorializes the many romances that have passed through, with hundreds if not thousands of love locks snapped forever to the chain link fence.
Travelers may enjoy the full length of the train, passing along the open kitchens, through a car with sailboat prints, the touring car with cushy upholstered chairs facing each window and even to outside the last car to an open-air platform.
Old jazz plays gently during lunch.
The train moves quietly through the Napa Valley for about 25 miles from downtown Napa toward Calistoga, past dozens of wineries including Domaine Chandon from which the welcome glass of champage comes. One of the most lovely services about the lunch tour would be the expert wine pairings with each course. Mark and I decided to share each course so ordered something different from each other for the first course, entrée and dessert. This isn’t airline food, everything gets prepared on board during the trip as visitors may observe with a stroll through the train. Domaine Chandon welcomes guests with a glass.
Mark and I shared the Flourless Yam Ravioli stuffed with House Smoked Goat Cheese and topped with a delicious grape relish.
The Smoked Salmon Crepe sparkled with bright gems of orange and golden caviar and accented with the traditional black. Executive chef Kelly MacDonald works on board five days a week and appeared in person last year at the Napa Valley Oscar Viewing Party held at Mondavi Vineyards. He made a point of using both domestic and imported caviar.
Mark and I for the first course shared the Red and Green Apple Endive Salad with Gorgonzola Cheese, delicious hazelnuts toasted lightly and served warm.
The soup du Jour, a chowder topped with a bit of salmon.
We indulged in a bottle of the wine paired with the first course, a chenin blanc from Pine Ridge which would have been $9 a glass.
Mark and I each looked at the Roasted Beef Tenderloin as a first choice and also ordered the Grilled Medallion of Pork. The Wine Train plates two pieces of each so the entrees seem made to share. The portions are good. The tenderloin was tender and juicy with a red onion marmalade in a red wine cabernet reduction and a touch of horseradish.
The Wine Train suggested a Jericho Canyon “Creek Block” Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 at $18 a glass.
Other choices were a surprise of the day, swordfish steaks, along with Porcini Encrusted Breast of Chicken, Salmon Hash Brown or Squash Polenta.
Mark and I still felt comfortable and had an appetite for dessert so we shared a slice of creamy cheesecake with a gingerbread crust and drizzled with a fig reduction. Mark chose the truffle instantly, a chocolate concoction the size of a muffin top and the plate sprinkled with sweet cocoa.
Coffee flows endlessly and it’s delicious and elegantly served.
The server Daniel in the Vista Dome also pointed out various points of interest including Sattui which maintains a picnic ground; and the winery owned by Francis Ford Coppola. A wedding progressed as the train passed. Sattui also employed the creator of the castle we were headed for. A Cal grad, he left Sattui at 52 and took twenty years to build the Tuscan style castle with all the features of a real 17th century structure complete with a moat, 18 bars in the cavernous underground, a dungeon and a torture chamber with real torture devices. And wine cellars.
Our young tour guide Mark from Utah proved to be an animated wild card full of charisma and personality who poured generously. He insisted on giving us whatever we wanted to taste including an $89 bottle of award winning dessert wine. We asked for things like sweet white stuff to something jammy and he humored us endlessly.
The tour concluded with twenty minutes to amble about the castle above ground and up winding stairways into the turrets where children frolicked in the enclosed plaza and couples held hands or stole away for an embrace in a turret overlooking the valley. We also saw from above the moat with the animated geese, ducks and swans; a yard where ostriches roamed next to pygmy goats and a gorgeous assortment of pedigreed and luxuriously plummed hens and a rooster. One pair got amorous as it was after all Castello di Amoroso. They have a tree house for a chicken coup with a winding wooden runway from the ground into the branches.
One absolute eye sore was a huge white scientific looking structure in the valley in the distance. It should at least have the santitary exterior painted to blend in with the green foothills and really spoils the ambiance of 13th century romance and elegance to which the Castello di Amorosa transports.
The best time to go the castle for a more spacious experience is mid-week as weekends during the summer get packed.
Ten cars connect to create this distinctive restaurant and many special and holiday events transpire. Easter will be the next holiday event along with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day following. The train also hosts its own events from moonlight escape dinners to vintners lunches and a “Big Gay Train”, as well as traditional Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years and Valentines dinners, with Santa trains in December multiple dates.
The wine train tour to Castello di Amorosa costs $219 - $249 per person.
The wine train photographer posts boarding shots at www.mywinetrainphotos.com and visitors may post their shot on Facebook.
Details and reservations, 1 800 427-4124
For more information: www.winetrain.com, winetrainstore.com
For more stories by this writer check out CBS San Francisco's website under Eye on the Bay, San Francisco arts & culture "Best Of"; and San Francisco Arts & Culture on Examiner.com. Subscribe by hitting the SUBSCRIBE button at the top of this article.
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Spa day: Meet CEO of L'Escape Jennifer PhamFor more stories by this writer check out CBS San Francisco's website under Eye on the Bay, San Francisco arts & culture "Best Of"; and San Francisco Arts & Culture on Examiner.com. Subscribe by hitting the SUBSCRIBE button at the top of this article.
https://www.facebook.com/CindyWarnerJournalist (America's Cup SF photos and links)