No whining on the Wine Train
A gourmet gift for Fomites and five-year-olds
In mid-November, one day past a beaver moon, the 1,600- horsepower Alco-engined diesel locomotive was idling in a faint drizzle at the platform of the Napa Valley Wine Train when Kate, a 5-year-old girl with a plastic plumeria-flower beret lodged in her hair, pointed at the moon-sized headlight aimed up the track and said, “Wow, that’s a big train.”
An hour earlier, the same 5-year-old, whose toy train set occupies a strategic plot in her father’s home office and whose interest in iron horses spontaneously emerged at the age of 2, had said in a mild spasm of petulant protest, “I don’t want to go. I don’t want to ride a whine train.”
It would not have registered had anyone tried to explain to her that the authentic, nearly 100-year-old Pullman cars, lined nine-deep behind the locomotive, had been lavishly refinished in Honduran mahogany, etched glass, lace curtains and velveteen armchairs. We made no effort to explain that we would have our own table, next to a window, and that soon a lavish sit-down-dinner would be set before us while the train rolled up the valley under that almost-full moon. And it certainly didn’t matter to the formerly skeptical child that we had a rather expensive bottle of 2006 syrah in hand.
What mattered was the sheer metal mass of the mechanical behemoth, the idling hiss of the locomotive engine, the glimpse of the engineer who waved from the engine room window high above us, the impossibly large wheels that married the train to the track.
Standing on the platform waiting to board, with a uniformed attendant offering a hand to climb the iron steps into the looming car, the child’s face was illuminated by an inner glow. She mounted the stairwell first and alone, like an astronaut stepping into the space shuttle for her inaugural flight.
As with a lot of good ideas born slightly before their time, the Napa Valley Wine Train had a prolonged gestation and a challenging birth before it found its feet. It has now matured into a remarkably well-managed adventure, carting tourists and locals alike up and down a scant 18-mile route from the city of Napa to St. Helena and back.
The linear distance may be modest but the length of the experience, for both adults and 5-year-olds, is significant. While opposing camps argue over a SMART commuter train nearby, Bay Area railroad enthusiasts–some self-identified as FOMITEs (an acronym we are told stands for “Feeble Old Mentally Incompetent Train Enthusiasts”)–have the opportunity to ride a classic diesel locomotive with real Pullman cars, virtually in their backyard. What could be better?
Well, maybe the food.
The Wine Train has its own kitchen car, where a squad of chefs labor in full view of passengers, who can watch a culinary miracle unfold through the windows in a mahogany-paneled passageway. It’s a miracle because, from the time you board to the time you reach St. Helena–90 minutes and 18 miles away–the Wine Train staff serve up a first-class meal, orchestrated precisely but with no sense of urgency, so that you’re ready for dessert before the train begins the return trip.
Executive Chef Kelly Macdonald oversees the preparation of hundreds of meals at once, but it’s far from fast food. Macdonald’s rolling kitchen puts out individually cooked, hand-assembled dishes for every diner, from a menu that changes frequently, with daily specials, all sourced fresh from local growers with humanely raised, hormone-free meats and line-caught fish.
Kelly is committed to a green kitchen with sustainable foods and has initiated an award-winning recycling program. All of which is more than I expected from a train trip I figured would be heavy on wine with the food as an afterthought. Wrong.
Our menu started with a hors d’oeuvre plate that even the 5-year-old nibbled on (baby corn, artisan cheeses, prosciutto), followed by a baby lettuce salad with candied walnuts.
Next, to the 5-year-old’s delight, came a glass of three-sorbets that she, unfamiliar with the term “intermezzo,” figured was the end of the meal.
Instead the entrees arrived, the special rack of lamb for two of us and the achiote pork tenderloin for Kate, who seemed more interested in the accompanying garlic mashed potatoes and honey-thyme baby carrots.
The entrees were excellent, delivered quickly and graciously by a server named Meredith who confessed she has gotten so used to the motion of the train that she continues swaying when she’s on solid ground.
And right on time, we were ready for dessert when the train pulled into St. Helena and a fresh horde of diners came aboard and took our place.
Juggling the north-south seating switch is handled seamlessly by train staff, who escorted us to the plush club car where coffee was served along with our dessert choices of crème brûlée and chocolate mousse. Kate road-tested both and gave them her approval as the nighttime valley rolled slowly by.
The food was great but what made the trip for Kate was the observation deck, where we stood in the faint glow of the locomotive’s lights watching that beaver moon flirt with the clouds and cheering whenever the train approached a crossing and sounded its lonely horn.
“Whooo-woooo,” said Kate each time in response, and then announced, as she clutched the rail of that rollicking platform, “Hey Daddy, I could live a life here.”
From the Winter 2011 issue of SONOMA magazine