Sunday, November 08, 2009

My Favorite Kind of Train: A Wine Train!

The Napa Valley Wine Train has been on its tracks serving three-course gourmet meals with wine pairings, and offering a unique way to travel through the Napa Valley since its first voyage on September 16, 1989.

In October, the Napa Valley Wine Train was given the "Best of Wine Tourism Restaurant" award in the 2010 San Francisco/Napa Valley "Best of" Wine Tourism Awards at a ceremony held at étoile Restaurant in Yountville.

I've wanted to ride the Napa Valley Wine Train since I moved here, but never made a point to do so. I've always headed to Napa (25 or so times now maybe?) to visit other wineries or take part in other events. Admittedly, I also kind of thought it was a little high in price and even was afraid I would be let down by the experience--(I will debunk those silly notions later in the post). I have always enjoyed rail travel (first rolled into Sacramento on an Amtrak from the Bay area) and if you've read this blog for any amount of time, you're aware of my fondness for wine.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to finally have the chance last week to come aboard. Here's a bit of my experience and a little more about the Napa Valley Wine Train:

Before we boarded, we met the executive chef for the Napa Valley Wine Train, Kelly MacDonald. He and Melodie (marketing director for the Wine Train) discussed our journey and our tour of the layout of the train. Other patrons of the train not on our media tour, were given an orientation, wine tasting, and something that sounded to me like a quick wine tasting class.

Waiting to board, I took this pic of the train, which is complete with nine rail cars and a double-sided Alco Diesel Engine.

Just before departing on our journey, we were poured a Mumm Napa sparkling wine. This set the tone for the delicious appetizers that were about to come through the car door!

See? Right after the sparkling was poured, one of our servers for the 3 hour journey came in with a plate of appetizers. On each plate there was a small piece of pork, some salmon, crostinis, olives, and a sizeable piece of cheese.

Before we were served lunch, we toured the train while it was in motion. No, I did not use a stunt double. Here is a shot of one of the kitchens. It really is tight quarters in there!

A few of us cornered Chef Macdonald and asked him a few questions about working on the wine train. Above is a paparazzi photo I took! I was pretty much fascinated with this portion of the tour. The menu on the train is cleverly built around the wines instead of the other way around as it is done in most restaurants. All the meals on the wine train are made to order. Of course, there is a prep for the day done at the culinary arts center at the station, but everything is actually cooked on the train. That can be up to 300 covers every time the train leaves!

We also asked the chef about celebrities who have ridden the train. He mentioned Richard Dreyfuss and Rachael Ray (who has recently filmed segments for her travel shows on the train). He said there were more famous people, but we kind of put him on the spot with all the questions so he was drawing a blank. Oops! I am hoping to interview the chef in a follow-up post a little later this month.

Another shot of the kitchen. This one is the main kitchen in the center.

Wine* being poured was from Goosecross Cellars.
*Wine is not included in the price of regular lunch or dinner packages.

Here is the salad that came with my lunch, topped with candied walnuts & smoked goat cheese, honey cider vinaigrette on the side. I managed to stop eating the bread at one and a half pieces. I am not sure how. It was addictive.

There were many eyecatching choices on the menu we were given: Beef Tenderloin in a Syrah Sauce, Grilled Pork Chops in Truffle Jus, Roasted Coriander Breast of Chicken on Sundried Tomato Polenta & Mozzarella Cheese, Local Petrale Sole with Tangerine Vinaigrette... but it was the vegetarian dish that really grabbed my attention.

The meal I had above proves to me that the food served on the Napa Valley Wine Train is parallel to almost any restaurant in the region. I am not a vegetarian, but the Eggplant Wellington was something by which I was intrigued. Many vegetarian meals on restaurant menus are just an afterthought--a mess of pasta, or a lifeless gardenburger. I am delighted to report Wellington was smashingly good, and didn't make me say "oh, I wish I had ordered something with meat." It was served with roasted polenta (the yummy cake textured kind!!) and grilled zucchini. On the side was a little disc of peppered goat cheese. The pastry was flaky and almost sweet. It was like having lunch and dessert in one. I was very pleased and satiated, and was able to pass on dessert and watch as my table mates happily enjoyed their creme brulees and tiramisu. I do want to mention the tiramisu and attach a picture of it, notable because it is enrobed in a dome of chocolate (a Chef MacDonald innovation).

The Green Train
The Napa Valley Wine Train diverts 24 cubic yards of waste each week through reduction and recycling efforts. During the winter of 2009, they adopted a cork recycling program through ReCork America. The corks that are recycled are reborn as flooring, building insulation, and various other materials. Here is a link to an article on the cork program.

In 2001, the Napa Valley Wine Train became the first locomotive in the nation to convert to compressed natural gas (CNG). CNG is a natural gas that is compressed to pressures above 3,100 pounds per square inch. It is smokeless, non-corrosive, and efficient fuel source. Continued enhancements to the engine have seen a computer-controlled fuel injection system that fires only a few of the engine's 12 cylinders at a time. This also results in an overall energy savings through waste reduction.

Wine Train Weddings!
The Napa Valley Wine Train can be your venue for an elopement to a complete vineyard estate ceremony. There are packages available to suit most any budget. The wedding coordinator, Diane Fennikoh, sat with me during lunch and told me about some of the ceremonies that have taken place, even on the observation deck while the train was in motion. If you are looking for a place to hold your wedding, the Wine Train is currently taking $1,000 off package prices of weddings (booked for November 1st 2009-March 31, 2010) with 50 guests or more. If you are interested in planning your wedding on the Napa Valley Wine Train, you can contact Diane at (707) 253-2160 extension 202.

Here are some upcoming special events on the Napa Valley Wine Train:
Thanksgiving: November 26th, serving traditional lunch and dinner courses-- Lunch: $99, $134 Vista Dome, Dinner: $104, $139 Vista Dome

Moonlight Escape: December 4th, $154
Dine by the light of the full moon in the 1952 Vista Dome Rail Car. Price includes train fare, a 5-course meal, 2 glasses of selected wine, a glass of sparkling wine, service charge, sales tax.

7 Courses of Christmas Menu: December 10th & 17th
(There are many excursions on the wine train you can choose to take, but this one sounds the best to me!)
Course 1: California Dungeness Crab and Halibut ceviche on Caviar Toast
Course 2: Smoked Acorn Soup with a Chiffonade of Serrano Ham and Candy Cane Butter
Course 3: Baby Turnip and Beet Ragout with Foie Gras Brioche
Course 4: Salmon Wrapped Quail Eggs with Avocado and Red Onion Ribbons
Course 5: Mini Cassoulet with Grilled Apple
Course 6: Grilled Lamb Lollipop on Honey Coriander Baby Carrots w Mustard Crème Fraiche
Course 7: Cabernet Poached Pear on Pistachio Baklava and St. Mary’s Anglaise Coffee

Reserve Seats in the Gourmet Car -- $172
Reserve Seats in the Vista Dome -- $192

Santa Trains: December 19th-24th 8:00am-10:30am
Ride the express train with our special guest, Santa! Ole' Saint Nick is going to bring some friends (including one with a nose that glows so bright) and carolers on board. $20 per person Silverado, $25 per person Gourmet and Lounge, $40 per person Vista Dome

New Year's Eve: December 31st
Reception, dinner, & dancing.
I don't have all the details or cost on this one, but you can contact (707) 253-2111 for more information and to reserve your space.

The Napa Valley Wine Train is not the most affordable thing you can do in Napa Valley, but I do want to stress that it is definitely worth the money should you decide to spend it. The cost of your ticket covers your meal and a fabulous 3 hour scenic ride. Your dining experience and meal will be on par with any other restaurant in the area, and even more unique because of the setting. The Wine Train also sells gift certificates (in denominations starting at $25), perfect for the upcoming holidays. You can also purchase full lunch or dinner package certificates.

Speaking of gifts, there are two new little bottles of sparkling wine available in the Wine Train station's gift shop. One comes on a braclet ($15, shown below) and one -- Bitch Bubbly -- is a tasty sparkling grenache from Oz ($5).

For updates on the Napa Valley Wine Train, you can follow them on twitter here, or check out their Facebook page here.

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