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Trying to Make Tracks in Napa's Wine Country : Excursions: Travelers on the Napa Valley Wine Train are treated to a host of luxuries. But the drawbacks include the fact that the train starts and stops in the same place.

February 22, 1990|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

NAPA, Calif. — The gorgeously outfitted interiors, calming music and black-tie service aboard the dining car of the Napa Valley Wine Train give no clue to the hurricane of controversy swirling outside over its very existence.

Outside of its controversial image among locals, the Wine Train has already succeeded in terms of ambience. Travelers step into a time gone by, an idyllic setting of elegance and style, good manners and taste.

In the leisurely excursion from the city of Napa north to St. Helena and back again, travelers are treated to well-prepared food, fine service, elegant dinnerware and luxurious furniture.

As a dining experience, the train is unique. Meals are creatively conceived by chef Ken Schloss, a protege of Jeremiah Tower of San Francisco. Menus include cannelloni in buckwheat crepes, duck terrine, Norwegian salmon, filet mignon and espresso flan for dessert.

A wide selection of wines from top Napa Valley wineries are offered, by the glass or bottle, at reasonable prices.

The trappings include china, silver and crystal glassware atop white tablecloths. A warm towel is presented as you sit down, to refresh the face before dining.

The 1915-era cars, refurbished with new interiors, include mahogany woodwork, brightly colored fabric on newly designed chairs and couches, velvet draperies, wool beige carpeting, brass fixtures, oval glass partitions etched with grapes and marble countertops in the restrooms. The colors are cream, green and Burgundy.

There are even small heaters at foot level for cold days.

After meals are completed, dessert is served in the lounge car as diners sit in plush, oversized swivel chairs or at tables for four.

Still, there are drawbacks, including the fact that you go nowhere. You start and end in the same place, and until a legal squabble over the train is settled, that's not going to change.

Also, some passengers never see the sights of the Napa Valley. During late fall and winter, the dinner train runs in darkness, after the sun has set.

Moreover, passengers float past some of the most famous vineyards in the world, but have no clue as to which is what. They sail past the famed Napanook Vineyard that produces Dominus, past the road leading to Martha's Vineyard, past the vineyard that produces the BV Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and there's no one to tell what's here.

In addition, although this attraction should appeal to wine collectors, Wine Train prohibits patrons from bringing a bottle of wine on board and consuming it--not even for a corkage charge. That means that if you buy an older vintage of a great Napa Valley wine at one of the tasting rooms, you'll have to sip it elsewhere.

And if a party of five or more wants to enjoy the train together, they'll have to dine at separate tables. The maximum number that can fit at a table is four.

Napa Valley Wine Train Inc. was formed in 1984 as a limited partnership of seven investors. Today the company has 13 shareholders headed by Vincent DeDominico, former chairman of Golden Grain Macaroni Products, the Rice-a-Roni folks. Jack McCormack was hired as president and chief operating officer.

The partnership bought the right-of-way on the 21 1/4-mile line from Southern Pacific Railroad in April of 1987. Included in the deal was about 125 acres of land, including a parking area in downtown St. Helena.

Since then, the company says, it has spent $14 million on acquiring and refurbishing 20 Pullman coaches used to haul passengers, including installation of a modern kitchen and serving facilities.

The Wine Train depot in north Napa has two gift shops, one of which carries wine and, ironically, aprons and T-shirts--items that were among the disputes in the winery definition controversy that erupted passions throughout the valley in the last three years.

The Wine Train now runs three times a day on a Preliminary Limited Service agreement with local groups that prohibits passengers from getting on or off the train except at the depot. And all riders on most runs now must purchase lunch or dinner tickets, making the round trip a $45 to $57.50 excursion.

If Wine Train is permitted to run six round-trip trains per day, as McCormack's wall chart shows, the company would also run shuttle buses to various wineries from stops at Yountville, Rutherford, and St. Helena. Buses also would run as far east as the Silverado Trail. The train's current lunch/dinner requirement would be waived.

"We could operate and make money on our present (temporary) schedule," said McCormack. "We can make a profit, though not as much. We're booked through April right now."

The train winds north through the north end of Napa with vistas as grand and glorious as laundry on a line in a back yard, garbage bins and an industrial park's parking lot.

The train crosses to the west of State Highway 29 at Trancas Street, then slowly chugs north past Newlan, Trefethen and Lakespring wineries before it gets to Yountville, where Domaine Chandon is located.

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