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Rights of Passage : Since beginning limited schedule runs last September, the Wine Train has brought tourists and controversy to the Napa Valley

February 22, 1990|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

NAPA, Calif. — As the waitress poured the Champagne into the glass, she proudly noted that it was from Paul Masson. To many residents of the Napa Valley, serving a non-local sparkling wine, as much as anything, seems to sum up what the Napa Valley Wine Train is all about.

The excursion train that runs through the famed wine country is a handsome throwback to an earlier, more relaxed time, when travel meant relaxation, excellent food and a break from the pressures of the world.

But since it began running last September, the Wine Train has been under siege from just about every entity in the area. The reasons are many, but most opponents say the train interferes with the way of life.

During the past few years, the Napa Valley has wrestled with the question of exactly what a winery is. Residents compare excessive traffic with the desire for tourist dollars, and conflict between the Mammon of development with the desire to keep the county agriculture-rural.

Into that charged atmosphere roars the Wine Train, representing to many locals the worst of evils: development, tourism, noise and hype. Not to mention higher taxes. And thus the decision of the Wine Train to serve a non-Napa Valley sparkling wine at brunch smacks of arrogance, said one Napa Valley winery executive.

"In a nutshell, that sums them up," said the executive, who asked for anonymity. "They claim they're here to help the Napa Valley preserve agricultural integrity and yet when it comes time to pour a wine of their choice, it's something cheap from another wine-growing region. They have no one's best interests at heart except their own."

"They've just come in here and thrown salt in our wounds," said Norm Manzer, head of a group trying to legally derail the Wine Train. "To threaten someone with the type of project like they have is bad enough, but then they did it without so much as talking with us. From day one it was full steam ahead, 'catch us if you can.' "

Manzer, a State Farm Insurance agent whose office is "within spitting distance" of the train tracks in St. Helena, and many others are sure they can catch the train and stop it dead in its tracks. They feel an Environmental Impact Report will show that the train would destroy the way of life in the Napa Valley.

The Wine Train started Sept. 16 on a temporary schedule, running the 21 miles from the city of Napa to St. Helena, in the heart of the valley, then back again. The original idea was to permit visitors to see the vines and wineries without clogging the roads with cars. Visitors would be able to disembark en route to visit wineries.

The idea of an idyllic, turn-of-the-century excursion immediately met resistence from residents in a rare show of unity. It's been said that no two wine makers can ever agree on so much as the time of day, so the Wine Train is being seen as unique: the first subject on which almost everyone agrees.

Protesting the smoke from the 1954 Diesel engines, the clatter of the steel wheels on rails, the whine of the engine's mournful horns, the danger at dozens of track crossings, the cost to taxpayers and other irritants, locals rebelled.

The winery executive said matters were exacerbated when Wine Train officials "never talked to us. They just decided to ram this down our throats, whether we liked it or not." He said Wine Train officials have been arrogant and distant.

"If anyone ever wanted to write a book on how to do bad community relations, these guys already wrote the book," said one winery owner, who asked for anonymity because he didn't want to create animosity with neighbors.

John C. (Jack) McCormack, president and chief executive of the Wine Train, acknowledges the opposition by groups such as Manzer's Friends of the Napa Valley, which was formed expressly to oppose him. He says the company's timing was simply wrong.

"Some of the wineries took opposition to the Wine Train to take the heat off the winery definition question," said McCormack, noting that when the Wine Train project began in 1985, the winery definition issue was just heating up. "If we had started a couple of years earlier . . . ," said McCormack, implying that the train would have been widely accepted.

"Even now you don't find as much opposition (to the train) when you talk to wine makers individually as when you talk to them as a group," he said.

There is no guarantee the Wine Train will ever run a full schedule, and faces the possibility its present limited schedule will also be terminated. Local and state groups are challenging Wine Train's existence in both the State Supreme Court and in a federal court in Washington.

In a case already extremely complex, the State Supreme Court is to rule soon over whether the state has the authority to require an environmental review of the train. And the Interstate Commerce Commission is reconsidering its original ruling that it has jurisdiction over the train.

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