What could be a better way to enjoy wine than to travel through the gorgeous terrain that produces it with other people who love the grape?
The idea of enjoying wine country by rail has evolved into enormously popular tours from coast to coast over the last 20 years. One of the biggest attractions was started in 1990 by the late Vincent DeDomenico, the inventor of Rice-A-Roni. DeDomenico was looking to preserve old rail lines in northern California, and he came up with the concept of the Napa Valley Wine Train, which leaves downtown Napa daily from March through December.
The Napa Valley Wine Train now hosts 100,000 guests per year, and lunch and dinner trains are often sold out two months in advance for the harvest season in September and October. Wine lovers book the Vista Dome car, which offers nearly 180-degree views, well in advance for fall trips. "They want to see the whole experience," says Andrea Guzman, promotions and partnerships manager for the Napa Valley Wine Train.
Depending on the tour, the rail excursions can include lunch or dinner, stops at wineries, picnics or overnight stops at small hotels. For many visitors, the tours provide a site for proposals, a treat for Mother's Day or a venue for a small destination wedding. The Napa train is host to about half a dozen weddings a year. "We always get destination niche weddings of four to six people," Guzman says.
The Napa company has actually trademarked the term "Wine Train," but this style of rail tour is not confined to California. Travelers in New Jersey, Colorado and Missouri can tour wine country by train, too, either by Amtrak or by small, dedicated rail lines.
Read on for a rundown of what they offer and where to embark.
Top Wine Country Trains
Napa Valley Wine Train
Founded in 1990 in an effort to preserve rail lines, the Napa train runs for three hours on a 36-mile (58-kilometer) round trip from Napa to St. Helena, Calif. Guests travel on vintage Pullman cars that date from 1915 to 1917.
The restaurant offers lunch tours, dinner tours and vintner's lunches with tips from local winemakers. Lunch trains have four-course meals, during which guests can eat two courses, stop at a winery for tasting, and board the train on its return for the final two courses.
If Napa is not on your itinerary but San Francisco is, you can take a ferry across the bay with shuttle service to Napa to try the train.
Warren County Winery Train
This train is pulled by a steam engine and departs from Phillipsburg, N.J., every Saturday and Sunday from early May through Labor Day. It runs for about 7 miles (11.3 kilometers) along the Delaware River and stops at the end of the line. That ride takes about 90 minutes. Then you board a bus and take a short jaunt to the Villa Milagro Vineyards, where you're invited to enjoy a picnic lunch and learn about the art and science of making wine.
Colorado Wine Train
If your journey is as much about the train and the scenery as it is about the wine, then this is the trip for you.
Wine country tourists embark on a reserved car on the California Zephyr through Amtrak at Union Station in Denver, Colo. During the trip over the Rockies to Grand Junction, the group is treated to wine tasting and the company of a Colorado historian. When they get to Grand Junction, they stay at the Wine Country Inn, where they can enjoy guided vineyard tours and more wine tasting.
Santa Barbara Daylight Vino Train
This occasional tour gives riders the chance to step onto the Overland Trail, a historic rail car built in the 1940s with the curved surfaces and gleaming wood that defined that era of design. Guests travel from Los Angeles Union Station up the coast to Santa Barbara, Calif., for a guided wine tasting tour downtown. The Vino Train's Web site shows that harvest period trains sell out quickly for the harvest months of September and October.
So, what should you take along on your wine train trip? Read on to find out.
What to Bring on a Wine Country Train
But if you're the sort who likes to plan out the details, there are some great accessories for this novel activity. Here are a few.
Your mother: The Warren County Winery Train advertises special events for Mother's Day. Here's your chance to make good on that emotionally charged holiday for more than just the first hour of the day.
A notebook: If you book a trip that includes winemaking tips from a real vintner (like Richard Miami of the Robert Mondavi Winery in Napa), you might want to jot a few things down. Winemaking is a little bit science and a lot of artistry. You might find something you like on the trip, and the winemakers can tell you exactly why you like it.
Your oldest jeans: The folks who maintain the steam engine in Warren County advise that there's just no way to keep the coal dust off the seats. Whatever you do, don't wear white pants. On the other hand, the dinner trains in Napa are black tie or better.
Baby wipes: You definitely want to take these along if you're taking children on board a moving vehicle that serves food. And if you're worried about your own ability to get a glass to your mouth, baby wipes can serve as a great frontline stain remover.
An engagement ring: Without question, this is the most common of the extraordinary props to bring on board the Napa Valley Wine Train. People have asked for rings to be attached to wine bottles, for flowers to be brought in, for a guitarist to play the song from "The Wedding Singer" and for dessert menus to be rewritten to include proposals.
Your wedding party: The romantic trains can be great sites for small weddings or renewals of vows. Many of the trains head for small, well-appointed inns as destinations, too.
For more information on wine country trains, check out the links on the next page.
- Colorado Wine Train. (July 25, 2011) https://www.royalgorgeroute.com/content/classesofservice/coloradowinetrain.aspx
- Napa Valley Wine Train. (July 25, 2011) http://winetrain.com
- Santa Barbara Daylight Vino Train. (July 25, 2011) http://www.overlandtrail.com/ride/sb_wine_t_page.htm
- Talk Colorado Wine & Colorado's Wine Country. "New Colorado Wine Train Announced." April 30, 2009. (July 25, 2011) http://coloradowinecountryinn.blogspot.com/2009/04/new-colorado-wine-train-announced.html
- The Warren County Winery Train. (July 25, 2011) http://www.warrencountywinetrain.com