SIP + Things to do
The Extraordinary Napa Valley Wine Train


Published On: August 16, 2023
Picture of Train on tracks with reflecting sun

The history of the famous Napa Valley Wine Train is as old as the Napa Valley itself. It was conceived and built in 1864 by California’s first millionaire and visionary, Samuel Brannen, to transport guests to the healing spa he’d recently built in Calistoga, which he also founded.

A few years later, after losing many of his holdings, including the train, in a divorce, it was taken over by The California Pacific Railroad. Two decades later, the Southern Pacific Railroad bought it and ran it successfully until automobiles largely replaced train travel during the 1930s, and passenger service was discontinued. When the property went up for sale in 1984, local residents were adamant about preserving the tracks, attracting the attention of San Francisco millionaire Vincent DiDomenico, owner of Rice-A-Roni, Ghirardelli Chocolate, and Golden Grain pasta. A visionary akin to Brannen, DiDomenico purchased and remodeled the train cars to the elegant, vintage perfection they are today.

The 3-hour Gourmet Express Lunch Experience departs the Napa station at 11:30 am. The spacious, modern train station feels more like an upscale, vintage lounge where passengers check in at a long wooden counter. A half dozen ticket sellers stand behind what originally would have been windows, and instead of institutional rows of benches, passengers sit chatting at tables or on comfortable couches. Unlike an airport boarding area, boarding groups are called out quietly, and the general feeling is relaxed and elegant. This is the train travel of old, and no one is in a rush.

Interior of Napa Wine Train with chairs, tables with tablecloths, glass partitions

Once on board, passengers are greeted by a courteous staff of young men and women with big, friendly smiles. The elegant, vintage dining cars are beautifully appointed with linen-covered tables, comfortable velvet chairs, and champagne flutes of sparkling wine.

As the train travels north, the two modern kitchen cars come to life. The chrome sparkles as the grills hiss with cooking meats and sauté pans. Chef de Cuisine Chano has been on board for thirty years, as have many of the kitchen staff, who take great pride in the food they create. In fact, they were featured on Top Chefs (Season 8, Episode 13, “The Train Kitchen.”) On weekends, these long, slim kitchens on wheels produce four different, freshly made menus.

Five main course choices are accompanied by soup or salad and mouthwatering desserts. The local wine list is impressive and will not disappoint. Grilled tenderloin of beef arrived perfectly cooked, tender, and juicy, with a Bordelaise reduction sauce, wild mushrooms, broccoli, and an astounding pureed cauliflower mousseline. Crème Brule and Lava Cake desserts arrived warm from the oven.

There is no better way to spend a perfect afternoon with wine, food, and leisurely sightseeing in the Napa Valley. The wide variety of experiences offered includes Afternoon Tea, Tasting on the Rails, Murder Mystery Dinner, and Vista Dome – something to fit every budget.