Travel

Fresh-air winery tour rolls through the Napa Valley

Stacy Wagner pours wine and tells the story of the beginnings of Dahl Vineyards, one of four stops on the Napa Valley Wine Trolley’s six-hour journey through wine country.
Stacy Wagner pours wine and tells the story of the beginnings of Dahl Vineyards, one of four stops on the Napa Valley Wine Trolley’s six-hour journey through wine country. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Chauffeur-tour guide Phil Boland wheeled the Napa Valley Wine Trolley into the parking lot next to the Oxbow Public Market, braked to a halt and shut ’er down.

Had a San Francisco cable car jumped its tracks and somehow made its way to wine country? Well, no. The 28-passenger trolley was hand-built in 1988 from the original 1900s cable car blueprints, but it’s welded to a truck frame and powered by a Ford V-8 engine. The doppelganger effect is striking, from the all-wood carriage to the brass rails.

It was Aug. 28, early in the grape harvest and only four days after the magnitude 6.0 earthquake had struck parts of the Napa Valley. The heavily damaged town of Napa was off-limits to traffic, altering the trolley’s usual route, but in general the mood in the valley seemed to be “business as usual.” Later reports would estimate the overall quake damage to top $400 million, much of it to the wine industry.

On this blue-sky day, though, the 11 eager wine trolley passengers queuing up to board weren’t thinking about the quake, but about their upcoming six-hour adventure.

The trolley alternates between two routes in Napa Valley, one to wineries “up-valley” (north) and one “down valley” (south). Each year, 2,500 passengers board the trolley, while 1,500 more ride a second trolley in Sonoma Valley.

It’s easy to see what brings them here. The Napa Valley is an international travel destination only a 70-mile hop from Sacramento. Though it’s just 30 miles long and 5 miles across at its widest, the valley is an idyll of sprawling vineyards and heralded wineries, four-star restaurants and small markets stuffed with artisanal treasures.

The fun elements of the wine trolley tour are obvious: stretching out in a chauffeured, open-air vehicle, seeing gorgeous scenery, strolling through vineyards and wineries, sipping wines and sharpening one’s wine knowledge, and temporarily bonding with fellow travelers from all parts of the world.

“I have a blast doing this,” said Boland. “There are so many people coming here from different cultures. They either know a lot about wine, or very little. It’s fun to educate them.”

Boland’s background includes wine warehousing and environmental consultation with wineries. During the tour, he will deliver a running commentary of wine-centric information peppered with humorous asides. “My shtick changes daily, there’s so much to know,” he said.

“It’s a different way of wine touring,” said wine trolley manager Craig Haskell. “You’re not sitting in a motor coach looking out through glass windows. There’s nothing between you and the vineyards.”

Boland rang the “all aboard” bell, and the passengers climbed on, taking a minute to figure out their seating. Some chose bench seats in the semi-protected interior, others chose to face the full breeze on the shaded outside benches.

Once on the road, Boland started his spiel. “On our left are the Mayacamas Mountains, and on our right are the Vaca Mountains,” he said over the PA system. The trolley gently bounced past acres of vineyards en route to our first stop, the Andretti Winery. “At each winery, we’ll taste wines with the same names – cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and others – but those same (varietals) will taste different at each winery. As we go along, you will learn why.”

The Andretti Winery resembles a village in Tuscany – weathered stone and faded-wood doors with antique-looking spear hinges, wrought-iron balconies and a courtyard fountain. Winery co-owner and legendary race car driver Mario Andretti was there the previous weekend, we were told, but not on this day.

Inside the small tasting room, Roger de Lorimier and Jeff Yates poured flights of reds and whites, answered questions (“How is rosé made?”) and loosened up the crowd with cheerful banter. Soon, the group was mingling, chatting and laughing, demonstrating the magic of vino. Eventually, we were led into the vineyard, where Boland explained what the harvest and the crush are all about. The group sipped, took photos and videos with smartphones, and tasted plump purple grapes from bunches hanging on the vines.

Among the trolley passengers were honeymooners Kyle and Rachelle McTavish from Atlanta. She’s a legal assistant in a law firm; he’s a regional marketing manager for a restaurant chain.

“We figured the trolley was the best way to get somebody who knows what they’re doing to show us where to go and what to do,” Kyle said.

The “all aboard” bell rang, destination Monticello Vineyards. Wine educator Jerry Miller greeted us in the parking lot there and led us into the vineyard. As part of his role, he was dressed as a harvester, in a wide-brimmed hat and a neckerchief, and spoke about the physical labor and timing of the harvest.

“There are reasons why grapes are picked at 3 in the morning,” he said, explaining how the daytime heat can adversely alter the sugar and acid levels in grapes. Also, he added, it keeps workers out of the sun, which can be brutal. We plucked chardonnay and cabernet franc grapes from bunches, the white much sweeter than the red.

On the property is Jefferson House, a one-third-size replica of the neoclassical structure at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Virginia. As founder Jay Corley explains on the winery’s website, “As Mr. Jefferson was a great wine and food enthusiast, which have also been my interests, I decided to honor him.”

Miller led us through the barrel room underneath Jefferson House and into the Reserve Room, where the group sat at a boardroom-size table lit by chandeliers. “I was raised with wine and drank it every day, so you’re going to get my opinions, good, bad or indifferent,” he began. He talked as he circled the table and poured, explaining how to read a label, the correct way to open a wine bottle, how to hold a wine glass and how to properly taste wine. Then he moved on to tannins, sugars, soil, grape-sourcing and the like. The group was rapt.

After the sit-down Wine 101 talk and tasting, Miller led the way to the public wine tasting room. The conversation grew more animated as the group sipped more wine, some buying bottles and souvenirs, others signing up for the wine club.

“We get a lot of novices, so I like to think I’m educating people about wine,” Miller said. “When they leave, they take a certain amount of knowledge with them, so they’ll be less shy when they order wine in a restaurant.”

Miller must have fielded some strange questions during his six years at Monticello. “Yes, one I always get is, ‘How many harvests do you get per year?’ And, ‘Do you put sugar in the wine?’ Or if a wine has blueberry or vanilla notes, they ask if we use blueberries or vanilla extract in the process.”

Soon we were back aboard the trolley, cruising on a two-lane road along the northern outskirts of Napa. Boland pointed out an earthquake-damaged three-story wood structure at Trefethen Family Vineyards, which was a wine trolley stop until the quake hit. The building, dating to 1886, was used as the visitor center and tasting room, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s listing by about 20 degrees,” he pointed out. “It’s the oldest wooden winery building in Napa, and it took a direct hit. We’re all devastated by the devastation. We know the people, they’re friends. Not a happy time, but they’ll survive. It’s what we do here.”

(Trefethen has since opened a temporary tasting area by appointment only, a spokeswoman said, but it cannot accommodate the trolley tour. The wood building has been stabilized and repairs are “being evaluated.”)

We crossed Highway 29, clipping along at 40 mph, passing residential neighborhoods, bouncing and creaking our way to an informal lunch on the patio of celebrity chef Michael Chiarello’s NapaStyle cafe in the gourmet gulch of Yountville. There, we helped ourselves to sandwiches, salads, cookies and iced tea, and then took seats at picnic tables to eat and watch the passing scene.

Recently retired couple Gary and Joanne Kroph from Canton, Ohio, were on an extended road trip in their new motor home. She’s a former high school teacher, he worked for a cutting-tool company.

“We belong to a wine club back home, but we’re not wine specialists. We saw an ad for the trolley in a magazine. The tour has been very educational,” offered Joanne, who also noted that they wouldn’t have known to make appointments for tasting at some of the wineries. “We’d waste time driving around.”

The respite ended, and we were on our way to Napa Cellars in Oakville. Sitting on an outside trolley bench were Brendan Kerwick and Marie Corcoran, from New Zealand. They’d been in Silicon Valley for a computer-technology conference. He’s in IT, she’s in quality control.

“The tourist-information people recommended this tour,” Marie explained. “It’s convenient, because we wouldn’t be visiting wineries and then driving.”

The tasting room at Napa Cellars is less homey than those at Andretti and Monticello, and we were pretty much left on our own, unless we made it a point to chat with the folks pouring the wine. We could buy a flight or buy a bottle and take it outside, they said. The “backyard” faces a vineyard and is landscaped with shade trees, a stone fountain, Adirondack and wicker chairs, and picnic tables with umbrellas.

After three rounds of wine tasting, plus lunch, yawns were prevalent and conversations more subdued among the group. A breeze rustled the treetops, sending a lulling “whoosh” sweeping over the sun-dappled grounds. Was that snoring we heard?

Among those taking it easy were Neil Raju, a biomedical engineering student at Rutgers University, and his father, Dr. Ramesh Raju, both from New Jersey.

“This is great for people without a lot of wine experience,” said Neil.

Added Ramesh, “I ... had heard from some of my patients that there is something great about the Napa Valley. I like wine, so we made this (side trip). The program is very informative for tourists, without going into too much detail.”

Examining the shelves of merchandise for sale in the tasting room were Andy and Hollie Scott, honeymooning from their home near Sydney, Australia. She’s a speech pathologist, he’s a construction-project manager.

“The trolley’s nothing like a tour bus,” noted Andy. “The open sides let you get the feel and smell of wine country.”

The “all aboard” bell roused the group and soon the trolley was carrying us to the last of the tour’s wineries, Dahl Vineyards, which had opened a month earlier. It has a sister craft brewery, Napa Point Brewing.

We were greeted by Stacy Wagner, the “assistant” to founders Robert and Janelle Dahl. She narrated the story of how the couple from Minnesota fell in love with the Napa Valley and ended up buying the winery in 2013. Before that, Robert Dahl owned California Shiners, a giant contract-bottling winery in Napa.

As for Dahl Vineyards’ current inventory, Robert Dahl knew from ongoing negotiations that he would eventually purchase Chateau de Napa, remodel it and make it his own. Planning ahead, he began buying fruit and making wine in 2011, bottling it under the Dahl label.

Wagner led us through 15-foot-high wood doors with iron handles and into a handsome barrel room, dark with wood walls and exposed ceiling beams, where the group gathered around a long table. Oak barrels lined one wall, steel fermenting tanks crowded against another.

The group paid close attention as Wagner demonstrated how to use an aerator in a wine bottle, and explained how a decanter helps get oxygen to the wine and what effect that has. She pointed out that Dahl produces only 1,500 cases a year, and began pouring a seven-taste flight.

We went outside to chat with Chad Alexander, the consulting winemaker who was in the middle of mixing yeast with water and pouring it into fermenting tanks. He consults for 10 wineries, and this would be his 29th harvest.

“I prefer to make wines that are approachable, with the fruit out front and not with the hard tannins (that require) laying down the wine for a long time,” he said. “It’s important to source really good grapes and treat the wine like your child all the way through. This vintage will be my first with Dahl, so I’m looking forward to seeing how my personal touch works out.”

Inside the barrel room, the tasting was winding down. A little while later, back in the Oxbow Public Market parking lot, the 11 tasters said their goodbyes to each other as they scattered to their cars, leaving tips for chauffeur Boland and hauling bags full of wine bottles.

After a day of watching wines being poured and sipped, while abstaining ourselves, we agreed it was time for a pour.

Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.

Napa Valley Wine Trolley

Two narrated tours operate year-round (except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Easter), visiting a rotating selection of wineries. Lunch is included, but tasting-room fees are extra ($10 to $30).

The six-hour Classic Tour visits four wineries north of the town of Napa for $99 per person.

The Premium Up-Valley Castle Tour stops at three wineries in St. Helena and Calistoga for $129 a person. It includes a two-hour tour and tasting at Castello di Amorosa, a 107-room, medieval-style Tuscan castle with four levels of cellars below ground.

The Holiday Lights Tour will visit historic downtown Napa and surrounding neighborhoods Fridays-Sundays in December. The 90-minute evening ride is $25 adults, $15 children ages 3 to 10. It includes hot chocolate and caroling.

A trolley tour also is offered in Sonoma Valley for $99, visiting four wineries.

For reservations and more information: (877) 946-3876, www.napavalleywinetrolley.com.

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