Second Date on the Napa Valley Wine Train

Back when Mr. TWS and I first got married in September, 1991 we were given a wedding gift certificate for a ride and lunch on the Napa Valley Wine Train. At that time, the Wine Train had been in operation for only two years. We were thrilled because we’d heard so much about it as the new must-do experience in Napa wine country. So the following summer, we boarded the train in Napa for our three-hour ride and gourmet lunch. It was a great time, and we’ve often recommended the trip to others. Finally, after all these years, we had our second date on the Napa Valley Wine Train and enjoyed it just as much. In fact, with the added bit of nostalgia it was even more special.

"Napa Valley Wine Train at the Napa McKinstry Street Station"

Napa Valley Wine Train at the Napa Station

A bit of history

I think the history of the Wine Train is interesting so I’ll share a little of it here. The train travels on a rail line built in 1864 by Samuel Brannan, San Francisco’s first millionaire, for transporting visitors to his spa resort of Calistoga (the town he founded, now a popular Napa destination). It was important transportation connecting Napa Valley communities to San Francisco (via train and ferry) and in 1885 was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which later extended the line to connect with their main line in Suisun, California. Passenger service was discontinued in 1930, but the railroad continued freight service on the line until 1987. A group wanting to preserve the Napa railroad and restore passenger service with the present concept began operations (after some significant legal hurdles). The company was headed by President and CEO Vincent DeDomenico, who was the inventor of Rice-A-Roni and former owner of Ghirardelli Chocolate (brands with which you’re probably familiar). DeDomenico was CEO until his death in 2007. Members of his family are still directly involved with the Wine Train and active as investors and board members.

Aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train for a second time

Had things changed? Not that we could tell, although we toured more of the train this time and also had a different car and meal option. One thing hadn’t changed — the train is beautifully maintained and still has the same charm of days gone by that we really liked the first time.

"Lounge car on Napa Valley Wine Train"

Lounge car

The cars that make up the Napa Valley Wine Train (some named for wines — Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) came from various sources. Two were originally built for the Southern Pacific Railroad as passenger coaches and purchased from a railroad museum in South Carolina; the Gourmet Express Dining car in the photo above was a Pullman Sleeper car built in 1917 and purchased from a private party in the late 1980s; six cars were purchased from the Denver and Rio Grande used on the Denver Ski Train which was updating its cars with modern lightweight cars; and the Dome Car, one of 10 built by the Pullman Standard in 1952, was used on various railroads before being acquired by the Wine Train. When the cars were restored for use on the Napa Valley Wine Train, the elegant coaches of luxury railroads such as the Orient Express were used as models.

"From bottom left: Le Gourmet Express dining car, table for two in Le Gourmet, Lounge car, corridor on Napa Valley Wine Train"

From bottom left: Le Gourmet Express dining car, table for two in Le Gourmet, Lounge car, corridor with kitchen views

The latest addition to the wine train, the Power Car, began its first runs in June 2013, and is aptly named “Grappa” ( a strong spirit made from grapes). It ensures that there is always power on the train even during the locomotive turnaround in St. Helena where the train begins its journey back to Napa.

The Vista Dome and Napa Valley Scenery

"Our table in the Vista Dome car on the Napa Wine Train"

Our table in the Vista Dome car

This time, we were riding in the Vista Dome, the most private car with an elevated observation style to provide awesome scenic views while enjoying our lunch. The road between Napa and St. Helena is a pretty drive at all times of year and this was a pleasant way to see the scenery and some of our favorite wineries such as Long Meadow Ranch. The picture above shows the visibility in the car and also the train paralleling Highway 29. It also shows the setting for our delicious and romantic “second date” meal which began with a glass of Chandon sparkling wine and was followed by a selection of premium Napa Valley wines.

"On the Napa Valley Wine Train with a welcome glass of Chandon sparkling wine"

Starting the journey with a welcome glass of Chandon sparkling wine

The Wine Train’s route from Napa takes you through the towns of Yountville, Oakville, and Rutherford on its way to St. Helena. Most guests make a round trip, but those who have purchased guided winery tour packages disembark at the appropriate station along the way.

"Scenery of the Napa Valley in winter as seen from the Wine Train"

Scenery of Napa Valley from the Wine Train

We’ve spent a lot of time in Napa wine country over the years, but never get tired of the area’s beauty. In the summer, the grapevines are in full growth and full of hanging bunches of grapes. In the fall, the leaves turn to gold, giving the region a touch of autumn colors that we don’t see in many other areas of California. To me, the winter gives Napa its own special ambiance, vast areas of other types of agriculture are more visible, the hills that line the valley are normally a lush green (though not so far in our drought year), and the area is dramatically quieter and more peaceful than in peak tourist seasons.

From the on-board kitchen

Passengers are allowed to walk through the cars, including the three kitchen cars overseen by Chef Kelly Macdonald where all meals are prepared to order. We were impressed by how the cooks and other kitchen staff were working effectively and efficiently together in such close quarters preparing dishes without missing a beat as the train travels along the tracks.

"In the kitchen on board the Napa Valley Wine Train"

In the kitchen on board the Napa Valley Wine Train

All of the seasonal menu selections are made based on sustainability and high quality standards using locally sourced ingredients. Produce on the train comes from local farmers’ markets or is sourced from local farms.  The goat cheese is from Skyhill Farms in Napa where the Wine Train actually chooses which goat gives the milk for the cheese they buy.

"Flourless Yam Ravioli, Smoked Salmon Crepe and Red and Green Apple Endive Salad on the Napa Wine Train"

Getting started: Flourless Yam Ravioli, Smoked Salmon Crepe and Red and Green Apple Endive Salad

We started with hors d’oeuvres of  Flourless Yam Ravioli with the house-smoked goat cheese and Smoked Salmon Crepes with American caviar.  That was followed by the Red and Green Apple Endive Salad.

"Sea Bass and Roasted Beef Tenderloin entrees, Chocolate Pot Pie for dessert on the Napa Wine Train"

Sea Bass and Roasted Beef Tenderloin entrees, Chocolate Pot Pie for dessert

For our entrées, it was Sea Bass for Mr. TWS and Roasted Beef Tenderloin for me. The beef served on board comes from Five Dot Ranch in Napa where the cattle are raised in “low-stress” environments, 100% free of antibiotics or additional hormones. I was totally full after the main course, but I couldn’t resist the warm Chocolate Pot Pie for dessert.

"Car Captain Andrea in the Vista Dome dining car on the Napa Valley Wine Train"

Our server Andrea in the Vista Dome dining car

Each course was pleasantly served by Andrea who has been with the Wine Train for several years. She really helped make the experience even more special. I particularly liked that she was still excited about the views she sees every day and expressed a sentiment consistent with ours — that these scenes are captivating in all kinds of weather, not just on warm, sunny days like this one. She mentioned that the previous day was cold and rainy, but the passing scenery was still beautiful in her eyes.

It was interesting to meet several staff members who have been with the train for many years. For some, working with the Wine Train runs in the family. Such is the case with Nicholas Giaccio, a Wine Train marketing representative who gave us a tour of the train before we left the station at Napa. His father, Anthony Giaccio, started with the train when it first started running, and is currently CEO. Nick showed a clear enthusiasm for his work and the history of the train. He enjoys telling the story of the train to others, saying, “It’s so much fun to talk about it.” We saw that same enthusiasm with others such as the conductor and customer service people we met when we boarded, during the ride, and as we disembarked.

"Napa Valle Wine Train Engine as seen from the train's platform"

Napa Valle Wine Train Engine as seen from the observation platform

When we reached St. Helena between the main course and dessert, we took a stroll through the other compartments. From the observation deck at the back of the train, we breathed in the fresh air of Napa Valley and enjoyed the sunshine on our faces. It’s in St. Helena where they switch the locomotive from one end to the other. So Mr. TWS took a walk to the front of the train to catch the shot above. What had been the last car on the train was now the first and the locomotive was facing the platform.

Who are these people?

"Traveling with Sweeney on the Napa Valley Wine Train in 2014 and 1992"

On the Napa Wine Train 2014 and 1992 (Mr. TWS’s eyeglasses were actually somewhat in style in 1992)

If you are visiting the Napa Valley for the first time or a return visitor, this is an experience that you should consider including on your itinerary. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Wine Train offers a unique dining experience on a Napa getaway. As we’ll attest, it’s also an alternative for a romantic date or special event.  It is a scenic, easy-going tour along Napa’s vineyards that for three hours takes you back in time amid the ambiance of a golden age when luxury trains like the Orient Express were the main ways to get to far away places.

There are several packages for dining options, winery tours, special events and holiday trains. For more information about the packages, reservations, and directions: Napa Valley Wine Train

Disclosure: Our second date was hosted by the Napa Valley Wine Train, but our opinions and perspectives are totally our own — as always.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

64 thoughts on “Second Date on the Napa Valley Wine Train

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I’m a big fan of train travel (even for short distances). It’s especially nice to be enjoying a great meal while watching the scenery pass by.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      It was a super nice wedding present. I think the Wine Train is a great idea for gifts — it’s a fun ride and unique experience.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I highly recommend the Vista Dome based on our experience. But there’s something for everyone with the variety of packages and dining cars.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I like to repeat great experiences, too — especially when the second time around ends up being just as or more enjoyable.

  1. Patti

    Your “hint” on your FB page – that episode was so funny, the Big Bang Theory is one of our favorite shows. Years ago when our son was still at home the 3 of us spent an afternoon on the wine train, it’s makes for a lovely afternoon. Great pics of the two of you!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      It was such a coincidence that the Big Bang Theory aired the “Double Date” episode as I had already written, but not published, this article. Fun to hint about it on FB that way.

  2. Marcia

    Now that’s a wine train! How luxurious, a lovely wedding present. Glad you went back for a second date, Cathy. You missed one thing in the second photo: your glasses of wine.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Haha about the wine glasses. Actually, we’re often seen in pics with a glass of wine, so it was a nice change of pace. 🙂

  3. Leigh

    Love the second time round photos – and the glasses on Mr. TWS. It’s one of the trips I’d like to take in Napa when I get a chance to revisit. I didn’t appreciate that their was a dome car – good to know.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Although all of the cars are lovely and have their own character, I really enjoyed being up in the Dome Car — wonderful views.

  4. Jennifer

    I loved the Napa Valley Wine Train! It’s a really fun experience and when I did it, I also had one of the tours to get off for a tasting at Grgich Estates. What a great way to spend date night!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I’d like to do that next time. The Grgich Estates tour looked like lots of fun. I think it’s nice for first time riders to do the round trip and enjoy the leisurely meal, but wine tasting in Napa is always a good time.

  5. Freya

    What a wonderful experience. I totally love those 2 pictures compared !
    Looks like a great trip and wow the food looks delicious, not something you would expect on a train but this train looks really amazing

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      It’s really a first-class meal experience. You’re right — not the typical fare found on a train. That’s what makes this so special.

  6. Suzanne Fluhr

    Sounds like fun and a way to be able to enjoy some wine while leaving the driving to someone else — not to mention that the food looked scrumptious. I think I might have gone with all appetizers — and dessert, of course!

    I recently did a post about our honeymoon in Peru in 1982 — my glasses definitely dated the photos — and the fact that I was 28 — 32 years ago. It’s fun to revisit places when the memories are good ones.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      I saw that Peru post! When I pulled this pic from the archives, Mr. TWS and I were startled by the glasses. We didn’t remember them being that big!

      About the meal — It’s served in 3 course, you have choices within each. There are two choices in hors d’oeuvres and the first course, and dessert. There are 5 entree choices.

  7. noel

    What a fun trip and tour and wow, the food looks really amazing for train food, but I’m sure it was quite spectacular along with the tour of the valley. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Neva Fels

    This wine trip has been on our “must do” list for sometime. Now we know how much fun it will be. Love his glasses and I noticed you have a hair style that never goes out of style!

  9. Lisa Goodmurphy

    The Napa Wine train looks like a wonderful way to spend the day but I particularly like the sentimentality of repeating a date from the early days of your marriage. We returned to the village in France where we spent part of our honeymoon 15 years later and loved reminiscing about the first time that we had been there and how things had changed/stayed the same. Your photos are lovely – I hope to visit Napa some day!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      We were thrilled to get the chance to take another ride. It was nice to see that the ambiance and quality of the experience has stayed the same.

  10. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    I love the then and now photos and the sentimental value of the wine train. It’s always fun to recreate those special moments and reminisce. I have always been curious about the wine train and have always wanted to try it. I can never get my husband to do it since he just wants to go winery hopping in Napa. What a special ride and the Vista Dome car looks like is the way to go.

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Well, I can’t blame your husband for wanting to go winery hopping — one of my favorite things, too. But … the train is only a 3-hour ride (plus about a 1/2 check-in time) leaving plenty of winery opportunities. In fact, there are Wine Train packages available that include winery tours (only take the train part way in those cases.)

  11. Mike

    Last year for fun I did some research on all of the different train routes that you used to run near the Central Valley. Being fascinated with trains in general all of my life I was stunned to find how how MANY used to be active from the Central Valley, Sacramento on into San Francisco. I’m so jazzed you included some history here! The cars are absolutely beautiful and I have a girlfriend at work who is planning a bachelorette party in Napa. I’m sending this to her! Loved the past/present picture of you and Mr TWS 🙂

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Thanks for passing the post along to your friend. This is definitely something she might want to consider for the party. They could rent out one of the cars! With your interest in trains and history (and good food), you’d love this ride, Mike.

  12. Lucy

    This sounds just fabulous. Wine is a huge interest of mine so I try and fit in a trip to a wine region when I can but have a lot more to see in the US, and Napa is one of them. I love train travel too so this sounds like my perfect trip!

    1. Catherine Sweeney Post author

      Napa would be perfect for you — take the train, then spend time visiting wineries for a couple of days. The train has a very nice selection of regional wines (not included with the meal in the ticket price, but welcome glass of sparkling wine comes with the Vista Dome package).

  13. Clare

    Oh wow Cathy – this looks amazing. I love the romance of trains – so timeless and leisurely. This just looks like a wonderful way to travel and enjoy food and wine in a gorgeous part of the world. Throw my husband into the equation for the romance side of things and that’s basically all of my favourite things in life covered!

  14. Life Images by Jill

    This absolutely looks like a train trip for me! I love food and wine and touring. What a great combination. Of course we are spoilt where we live only an hour or so from our SW wine region.
    Have a great week. I am joining you through Foodie Tuesday.

  15. Michele Peterson

    Oh, that Wine Train looks wonderful and is perfect because you don’t have to worry about sipping and driving. You two look much as you did in your youth – if not better – like fine wine improving with age! 🙂

  16. Sophie

    I’d love to try this wine train. Really need to get get to California soon, for so many reasons. This is such a sweet story, Cathy – and so adorable, the two photos of you two.

  17. Pingback: Bay Area Getaway at the Napa River Inn » Traveling with Sweeney

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