The first time I was on the Napa Valley Wine Train, I was about eighteen. A friend worked on the train, and he snuck me and another friend onto the caboose. We spent the day drinking beers (which were also snuck on) and waving to tourists. Though I think this is the best way to ride, the wine train has many other options. Unfortunately, they all require purchasing a ticket.
Four dining cars offer varying levels of investment. The gourmet express has two seatings, one on the way up to St. Helena, and one on the way back. A three-course lunch will run you $89 and a four-course dinner $97, both excluding wine. In the Vista Dome car, there is only one seating (meaning you get to keep your seat for the entire journey); a four-course lunch with a glass of sparkling wine is $119, and dinner with sparkling wine is $127. I have eaten on the train once and the food was great.
A more casual option is the Silverado Grill Car, which allows people to choose from an à la carte menu. Alternatively, you can ride the train ($49.50 for round trip ticket) and just drink. The wine tasting bar has over one hundred types of wine; five dollars will buy you four tastes. There are four parlor cars for lounging and a full bar in back.
In addition to a Friday Vintner’s Luncheons, there are a host of other themed dining excursions. Murder on the Wine Train Express includes a four-act play and four-course dinner for $135 per person. The Varietal Voyage focuses on one particular wine—say Merlot, Zinfandel, or Pinot Noir—and pairs this with a four course meal ($140 including wine). Alternatively, the Appellation Dinner pairs wine from a particular grape growing region, like Spain, Stags Leap, or France, with a four course meal ($150 including wine).
During the holidays, the wine train offers special events; a turkey dinner for Thanksgiving, a chance to see Yountville’s Fourth of July fireworks from your railcar. Since DUI’s are plentiful in the valley (“come to Napa on vacation; leave Napa on probation” is a favorite saying among the police) the wine train has a “Don’t Drink and Drive” New Year’s Eve celebration.
Although you are not confined to your seat during the three-hour journey, you are pretty much confined to the train. The wine train currently does not allow passengers to disembark except for the Yountville station (there has been a nineteen-year court battle between the city of St. Helena and the train company, which wants to set up a station in the small town). This drop off, however, is only allowed for those who have chosen the Grgich Hill Winery Tour (three course lunch and private tour and tasting $113) or the Domain Chandon Sparkling Winery Tour (three course lunch, private tour, and tasting $128). If you really want to get out and visit wineries, you may want to have your own wheels; a car or bike is a better bet than the train.
The train is owned by Vince DeDeminico, who also owns Golden Grain Macaroni Company and Ghiradelli Chocolate Company in San Francisco. He purchased the line from Southern Pacific Railroad Company in 1987 and salvaged nine Pullman cars, restoring them to mimic the “bygone days of fine dining on an elegant rail.” The gourmet express cars are decorated in a 1915 “Orient Express” style, while the Vista Dome car is circa 1950s. The Silverado Car has casual wooden décor; some of the wall hangings include a collection of “Hollywood Western Movie Star” photos donated by Robert Redford.
Although the train is a unique way to see the valley, and the food is great, I would say that price and the somewhat confining environment limit this railway to an older, wealthier crowd. Plus, a three-hour journey is a bit long for lunch, so you may end up spending more time, and money, in the wine tasting car than you had originally planned. Perhaps that is not so bad after all.