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What it’s like to ride the Napa Valley wine train

We report on the slow route from downtown Napa to St-Helena, taking in many of the valley's most famous vineyards...

Many locals look slightly perplexed when the Napa Valley wine train is mentioned, as if the 155-year-old railroad running through their area’s major wineries only exists in a distant part of their consciousness.

But don’t let that cloud your judgement. In a place where driving is often a necessity, the wine train is a fun and picturesque ‘slow travel’ option for taking in the heartland of the Napa Valley and its rich history.

Taking the wine train isn’t a cheap day out and – as the relatively new owners have acknowledged – the departure lounge in downtown Napa could do with a lick of paint.

The train itself, though, feels surprisingly spacious and has a great blend of comfort and antiquity.

Once clear of downtown Napa, you can sit back on red, cushioned seats and gaze at historic names like To Kalon vineyard, Robert Mondavi, Grgich Hills and Charles Krug as you roll gently up towards St-Helena. All servers know their stuff and can help point out landmarks along the way.

For the more wine-obsessed in your party, this is also good way to take in the contours of the landscape and observe the different methods employed to train vineyards in the area.

Some tours include stop-offs and winery tours en-route, while others allow you to wine and dine your way through an afternoon or evening. One couple on this journey were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary.

If you can, it’s well worth paying a bit extra for the Vista Dome experience, which offers better views from a higher vantage point.

Excellent ventilation means that it doesn’t get too stuffy, given the amount of food served on-board.

And the food was generally very impressive. Several gourmet courses with a couple of options for starter and mains were offered. A highlight was perfectly-cooked scallops served with butternut squash purée, which paired well with a bottle of Stag’s Leap ‘Hands of Time’ Chardonnay 2016.

The wine list is relatively small but you’ll find classics from the likes Grgich, Stag’s Leap and Inglenook mixed with Silverado Vineyards’ Sangiovese plus Sonoma Pinot and extras such as a Coppola Riesling and Mondavi Muscat. There is, naturally, white Zinfandel for those who want it.

One thing to watch out for is that, aside from a welcome glass of Domaine Chandon sparkling, wine is not always included in the ticket price.

Once you’re done and back in Napa, you can also head to nearby Oxbow market for a glass of wine or a craft beer, or cross the bridge into Napa and visit Bounty Hunter, which has one of the best wine lists in the area.

Wine train history

Napa’s railroad has come full circle. Originally the brainchild of millionaire Samuel Brannan, who wanted to help visitors get to his spa resort in Calistoga, the route later became the property of Southern Pacific and was a transport route for the rising wine and agriculture industries in the area.

When it was repurchased by a group of Napa citizens in 1984, the idea was partly to use the train as a commuter line. However, since its first passenger trip in 1989, the new-look Napa wine train has returned to its original tourism roots.

At the end of 2015, the train was bought by Scott Goldie’s Brooks Street firm and Noble House Hotels and Resorts.

Practical information

It’s hard to find pricing information on the wine train’s website until you’re quite far into the booking process, in our experience, but a three-hour Vista Dome trip, including a three-course lunch, costs $250 per person. A package that includes lunch, the Vista Dome and a two-hour stop at Castello di Amorosa winery costs $345 per person. There is also a ‘Murder Mystery’ tour running on certain days in 2019. Several trips run daily, although it’s best to book in advance, especially for specific stop-off tours.

A photo service is offered and shots are available to buy at the end of the trip. While the photos were great quality, we went for the DIY option and used our iPhones.

Disclosure: The trip and lunch, excluding wine, that enabled this review were paid for by Napa Valley Wine Train. 

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