We have visited the Napa Valley numerous times, and on almost every trip, we have watched the vintage Napa Valley Wine Train cruise past along tracks that roughly parallel Highway 29. Composed of restored 100-year-old Pullman rail cars once used as first-class coaches by the Northern Pacific Railway, the train runs for 36 miles from downtown Napa to St. Helena and is now pulled by restored 1950s-era locomotives. The tracks were originally laid in 1864 by Samuel Brannan, one of San Francisco’s first millionaires, with the aim of bringing people to his spas in Calistoga.
In the past, we have dismissed this experience as being a mere tourist attraction. But on this recent trip, we decided to give it a shot. Napa’s McKinstry Street Station is conveniently located in the center of town near the Oxbow Public Market, but as we entered, it seemed that our worst fears had been confirmed. The large open lobby was swarming with noisy children, and the shop was stocked with flashy paraphernalia and generic souvenirs. The train itself, however, was more reassuring. We had reserved a seat in the Vista Dome car, and our booking included a multicourse meal. The plush red booths, white tablecloths, mahogany paneling and domed window ceilings created an atmosphere strongly evocative of the glory days of lavish railroad travel.
The first 10 minutes of the trip were through Napa’s relatively unattractive back streets, but the remainder of the three-hour journey ran through picturesque vineyards. A charming server presented us with a menu of appealing options, though we were skeptical as to their likely caliber. We were pleasantly surprised. Four onboard kitchens under the supervision of chef Donald Young produce food of commendable quality. Our starters included a beef tenderloin carpaccio topped with fresh arugula, drizzled with Arbequina olive oil and paired with Parmesan crisps, and a salmon crudo accompanied by a roasted-fennel jam and quince. Both were attractively presented and delicious. Our main courses were also excellent. Seared diver scallops were set atop a coffee-roasted carrot purée and sided by a parsley gremolata, while sliced tenderloin was glazed in a ruby Port reduction and dusted with porcini mushrooms. Dessert was a triple-chocolate tartlet with a feuilletine crunch and creamy almond butter mousse filling.
Of course, we were on a wine train, so each dish had a suggested pairing. The wine list was surprisingly limited, but it included selections from top wineries, including Charles Krug, Beran, Mondavi and Stag’s Leap. We opted for the “Napa Valley Wine Train” flight of signature wines from Raymond Vineyards. Afterward, we roamed the train to explore the other rail cars. Each is like a time machine, with polished brass accents and etched-glass partitions. As we were traveling out of peak season, the train was not full, which allowed us to linger and admire the scenery from a succession of plush armchairs.
It is possible to combine the rail journey with tours to famous wineries. For example, the Estate Tour features stops at Domaine Chandon, Louis M. Martini and Inglenook. As well as preserving a piece of Napa Valley history, the wine train is a surprisingly worthwhile and enjoyable experience.