Wine Rides the Rails

Historic routes tap wineries coast to coast

by Jane Firstenfeld
train wine
Stewards on the Niles Canyon Railroad serve wine on select Sundays.
Vallejo, Calif.—Napa’s long-running Wine Train may have trademarked the name, but that hasn’t dimmed the popularity of wine-themed trains across the United States. The season is just starting for trains from California to New Jersey, bringing people to the wine, and wine to the people.

Niles Canyon Railroad
A 90-minute round-trip takes passengers through an obscure part of Bay Area history, and on selected Sundays it includes wine tastings hosted by wineries from Livermore Valley in the East Bay. With antique depots in Sunol and Niles, Niles Canyon Railroad runs on century-old tracks following the original terminus of the Southern Pacific Railway, which operated on this route until 1879.

Local wineries participate by donating wine and pourers/educators on Sundays (except Mothers’ Day) for wildflower runs in April and May. Little Valley Winery, a 2,300-case operation in Pleasanton, Calif., was featured May 1. Co-owner Sandi Bohner poured with her husband, as they have done for more than 10 years. “People are having a good time,” she said. “We hand out maps and brochures, and we get to ride the train.” The couple adds to the winery email list each year and often gets feedback a few months later, when people they’ve chatted with on board come into the winery.

On May 15, 3,500-case Chouinard Vineyards will be pouring. Co-owner Caroline Chouinard told Wines & Vines that her family’s winery has been pouring on the train for about five years, donating approximately four cases per trip. Perhaps Livermore’s best-known winery, 480,000-case Wente Vineyard is scheduled to pour from among its many offerings May 22. The railroad is run by the nonprofit volunteer organization, the Pacific Locomotive Association.

The Sunol depot is about six miles from the winery, and the Chouinards have found this a worthwhile cause and a marketing tool that introduces their wines to avid new customers. Chouinard estimated attendance on each trip at 150 people, who are free to visit the train’s snack bar, sample wines, talk to winery staff and carry their glasses back to their seats in antique coaches. General admission is $10; tastings are complimentary.

Beginning the last Sunday of July each year, and continuing on Sundays through August, uniformed stewards bring featured wines and hors d' oeuvres to seated guests in open enclosed cars; these excursions are $37.50, according to commissary manager Bob Bradley.

For the past two years, the train has taken a Valentine’s Day run, with a formal wine tasting for 38 passengers in the refurbished 1940s lounge car, with a wine professional speaking about each wine. For this $75-per-head event, guests are invited to dress in vintage costume, and many do.

Bradley said the railway is best known for its Train of Lights, which runs Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from the day after Thanksgiving through and beyond Christmas. With the train cars decorated inside and out, “It now supports about 1 million lights,” he said. “It’s created some mean traffic jams through the canyon,” and is the association’s largest annual fundraiser.

Each train with wine service requires a special permit, and Bradley said the association is working to get a year-round license to serve alcohol and hopes soon to start a Train to Dinner program serving drinks and stopping for dinner in Sunol. Members are also in the last stages of completing a 1920-vintage dining car to include on a full dinner-service train.

Bradley said that he’d welcome more interest from local wineries. For more information, visit ncry.org.

Warren County Winery Train
The Warren County Winery Train boasts the newest steam engine in the world.
Warren County, N.J.
Like the Niles Canyon Railway, The Warren County Winery Train is a labor of love by volunteers. For about five years it has run a short excursion on summer weekends from its home station in Phillipsburg, N.J. to 1,000-case Villa Milagro Vineyards in Finesville, N.J.

The half-hour scenic train trek along the Delaware River now terminates about 2 miles from the winery, where passengers transfer to a bus. Volunteers are “adding track every year,” said general manager Chris Cotty, and, at a cost of $150,000 per mile and countless hours of sweat equity, by next year, the train may actually reach the winery. The train is pulled by the “newest steam engine in the world,” commissioned by Delaware River Railroad Excursions from a Chinese manufacturer in 1989, using 1932 American blueprints. “It was the last passenger steam locomotive made in the world,” Cotty said.

Once at the winery, Villa Milagro owners Steve and Audrey Gambino host a vineyard and winery tour and tasting with snacks. Refreshments, but not wine, are served on the train, but picnics are encouraged. Travelers can combine the winery trip with a “Mine Trip” which visits a genuine gem mine (the largest stone unearthed there was a 5-carat ruby, according to Cotty). The Winery Excursion is $33 per adult. For details, visit warrencountywinerytrain.com/index-1.html.

New route in Colorado
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The Royal Gorge Route Railroad plans to offer a five-course wine train dinner featuring Colorado wines.
Wines & Vines first wrote about a Colorado Wine Train excursion in 2009, originally organized by the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau and then being run in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain AAA. With just two scheduled runs on Amtrak per year, reservations were sold out long in advance.

The Royal Gorge Route Railroad is, in contrast, a private endeavor, owned by Mark and Lia Grekas for the past 11 years. It runs junkets during the summer through the Royal Gorge of the Arkansas River using renovated, mid-century rail cars, including a Vista Dome. Royal Gorge now offers 2-hour lunch ($65-$95/adults) and 3-hour dinner ($79-$109) round-trip excursions. Wines, which are not included in the ticket price, are selected by the owners from around the country. After May 14, both will be available daily.

According to publicist Kelly Pascal Gould, a new five-course wine train dinner will focus on all Colorado wines. For details, visit royalgorgeroute.com.

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