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Cork express

NAPA -- Here in the Napa Valley, they drink no wine before it's time.

And right now, it's time -- even though it's just 10:45 in the morning, and on a weekday no less.

So onto a short stage bounds Brent Trojan, cigarette smoke hanging from his breath, a stout glass of William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay 1998 held in his hand.

Peering at the group assembled at the Napa Valley Wine Train's modest downtown depot, Trojan gives his glass a vigorous swirl and takes a quick sniff of its contents.

He decides the straw-colored wine is redolent of golden delicious apples and pears and citrus.

Then, he decides it's time for a brief bit of levity.

"I apologize for being behind everybody's routine," says Trojan, the train's wine host. "Typically, I know you've already had a glass or two by now."

The crowd chortles. But the real joke is that Trojan doesn't seem to have slowed anybody down: Already, most of the 100-plus people sitting on the floral-print couches scattered about the station have hurried through their own glasses of the wine.

Though the next train through California's celebrated wine country doesn't leave for 45 more minutes, the ride has, in effect, already begun.

Toasts Trojan: "I wish you a delicious day."

The Napa Valley Wine Train's 36-mile, three-hour ride does not necessarily begin with the promise of splendor.

Pushing out of the southern Napa station just after 11:30, it immediately begins rolling through an industrial area loaded with auto-body shops and junkyards, where walls are covered with graffiti and the weeds appear to have been given free rein for decades.

It's a strange setting, for sure, given the train's upscale interior.

With its white, grape-motif linens, burnished-silver place settings, fresh Hawaiian orchids and marble-countertop bathrooms, the Napa Valley Wine Train is actually a throwback to an earlier era, when rail rides could be legendarily luxurious. Emphasizing gourmet dining, it's also a concept whose time has come only recently, now that Napa's newly celebrated cuisine is finally catching up in quality to the region's world-class wines.

And the newly rediscovered notion of traveling up and down the valley without paying much attention to pace also stands in stark contrast to the maddening traffic congestion that's increasingly clogging Highway 29, the area's main artery.

But none of that seems to be on anybody's mind once the train starts bobbing and weaving up the tracks.

Instead, the riders are thirsty, and many of those who aren't already seated for food (only half of the passengers dine on the northbound leg) are beginning to accumulate in the tasting car, where Trojan is removing bottle after bottle of wine from a cardboard box.

But it's not wine in a cardboard box, even though Trojan estimates that 85 percent of the Napa Valley Wine Train's riders are "novices" -- people who drink wine on special occasions or never at all.

"It's a fun challenge," he says. "It's more fun to introduce people to wine than to sit here and swap wine-geekspeak."

With that in mind, Trojan gleefully begins turning the tasters on to viogniers and sauvignon blancs and such -- all the while eschewing the wine-geek speak for layman's terms like, well, "tastes good" and "isn't that nice?"

And as the train begins the slow roll through Yountville -- past terraced vineyards and stacked smudgepots, through fields filled with colorful wildflowers and by the iron gate at Dominus, one of 26 wineries along the route -- a man and a woman raise their glasses and offer a toast to one another.

To lazy days, they say. To lazy days.

This being a lazy day in the land of California casual, riders are dressed for comfort and look not unlike a cruise-ship crowd. There are golf shirts and chinos and jeans and jumpsuits, and there are also plenty of Rockports, the apparent Wine Train shoe of choice, coming in a multitude of colors: solid cream, basic brown, white with gray trim.

A chunk of the Rockport-sporting riders is from Roseville, as the city's parks and recreation department is leading a "field trip." There are 44 Roseville retirees on board today, and they're having a hoot of a time.

Sort of.

"It's ... different," says Janet Broyles.

Broyles isn't used to the movement of the train.

And how could she be? Though she's 57, this is the first time she's actually been on one aside from those rides at Disneyland.

"It was a challenge eating the food," she says. "But it's not too bad. There's actually one person in our group who's wearing a motion-sickness bracelet today."

She chuckles. She's really feeling fine, if full.

"The meal was like lunch and dinner combined."

And what of the quality?

Here is the review from Evelyn Jansen, who's sitting next to Broyles in a cushioned swivel chair.

"It's not like food you can get in a regular restaurant, unless it's a high-class restaurant," she says. "This was more like cruise-line food."

Where lunch brings out the cruise-line and tour-bus bunch, dinner is markedly different, with diners often arriving in limousines and wearing far more formal attire.

There's an age shift in the evening, too, as the audience for executive chef Patrick Finney's food gets significantly younger.

Yet there is no night-and-day difference in the food.

There is still the roasted Angus beef tenderloin marinated in cabernet sauvignon, olive oil and fresh herbs and served with a cabernet-veal demi-glace and sauteed mushrooms, and there is also a grilled, citrus-marinated half Cornish game hen with citrus verjus and creamy sun-dried tomato and roasted garlic polenta.

And always, there is seared fois gras and Finney's award-winning "California crab stack," which features meaty, tender crab cakes over sweet, lightly pickled cucumbers and Maui onions.

While it may not be quite on par with the food of Yountville's famed French Laundry, the Wine Train's cuisine still comes as a pleasant surprise to those thinking this is simply a tour with food. What they get is a meal prepared entirely from scratch in one of the train's three full-service kitchens -- a meal that ultimately stacks up favorably against the fine food of such Napa Valley stalwarts as Mustard's and Pinot Blanc.

"People expect pre-prepared food that we just warm up," says Finney. "But as people who come through the kitchen can see, it's an a la minute situation. It's a genuine restaurant that just happens to be on public motor transportation."

Cooking and serving under such conditions provides its own set of problems for Finney's cooking and serving crew. Cutting while moving is a particular challenge, and so is pouring coffee.

Food has slipped completely off of plates before. And there's no room for error in stocking: Forget a particular ingredient, and it's a long walk back to Napa.

But the greatest challenge of all lies in the wide range of riders.

"We get the sophisticated palate that expects a demi-glace to be just so," Finney says. "And then we get grandma and grandpa from Indiana who want a no-frills meat-and-potato dish. I have to make them all happy, and I think we do.

"We make food that runs with any other food in this valley."

Though the Napa Valley Wine Train has only been offering its elegant epicurial excursions since 1989, railroads actually played a significant part in the history of the valley.

In 1859, well before the world knew Napa as a vaunted viticultural appellation, an affluent Bay Area businessman named Samuel Brannan bought 2,000 acres of land in the northern reaches of the region, where he hoped to build a mineral-springs resort that he'd call Calistoga.

At the time, Brannan figured he'd need a railroad to transport guests to the property from San Francisco -- lest they spend so much time traveling by horse-drawn wagon that their stays would need to be brief.

By 1868, Brannan had his wish -- 35 miles of rail extending from Soscol Landing to Calistoga -- and a new tourist destination was born.

But in 1929, the Southern Pacific Railroad Co. discontinued passenger service on the eucalyptus-lined Napa Valley Railroad route. Eventually, it was reduced to once-a-week freight service, and in 1984, Southern Pacific filed a request with a federal agency to totally abandon the line.

This is when another wealthy Bay Area businessman came chugging to the rescue.

With a group of private investors, Vincent DeDomenico -- who'd made millions in the macaroni market -- purchased 125 acres of right-of-way and 21 miles of track from Southern Pacific for $2 million in April 1987.

Almost immediately, Napa Valley Wine Train Inc. began rehabilitating the tracks between Napa and St. Helena, spending $1.7 million on repairs and upgrades, and by December 1987, freight service along the route was resumed.

In the meantime, Mr. Rice-a-Roni -- as the former Golden Grain Macaroni Co. chief DeDomenico is sometimes called -- was busy searching rail lots around North America for 1915 Pullman parlor cars and 1950s Streamliner locomotives.

A fleet eventually was cobbled together and restoration soon commenced, with the dilapidated parlor cars, for instance, taking Honduras mahogany panels, wool carpeting, etched glass partitions and brass accents that give them an elegance meant to emulate the legendary likes of the Orient Express.

The total price tag for the cars quickly topped $10 million.

But the cost could not temper the celebration: Amid much fanfare, the Napa Valley Wine Train officially opened for business on Sept. 16, 1989.

Since then, it's carried more than 1 million paid passengers.

And it's also created all manner of controversy.

Almost immediately upon the train's launch, locals complained about yet another increase in visitors to an area already bursting at the seams with out-of-towners.

There were also angry words about traffic delays in the two spots where the train crosses Highway 29 -- first in Napa and again in Rutherford.

Taxes to maintain the roadbed also became an issue, and along the rail route, residents and wineries were enraged over the bills they were forced to pay for repair work done to those crossings that couldn't quite support the weight of the 80-ton cars.

The protestations came in any number of forms, but one of the most notable was a string of signs posted along the tracks, each featuring the words "WINE TRAIN" with a bold, red stripe through the center.

Now, all but one of those signs have been taken down -- just one indication that the Napa Valley Wine Train's days of tumult are, for the most part, but a bitter memory.

Even so, not all the bumps have been smoothed: After years of requesting permission to disembark its passengers in St. Helena, the Wine Train is still only allowed to stop in the city just long enough for coupling before it heads back down the valley.

As it stands now, then, the only place passengers are allowed off the train is at the Grgich Hills, where a small group disembarks for a private tour and tasting and is picked up on the return.

A second stop, in Yountville, will likely be added later this year.

Still, it's not St. Helena, which DeDomenico desperately wants.

Here is what this demographic-skewing foursome of twentysomethings from Louisiana wants right now:

Another drink.

They are in Trojan's tasting car, putting off lunch as long as possible while apparently sampling as much wine as they can.

In between sips, they're talking, in that inimitable Louisiana drawl, about how much they like this train, this concept -- this cabernet!

"This is my first time to Napa," says Nichol Pecoraro.

She's the southern belle from Morgan City with the newly emptied glass, which she's trying to get Trojan to fill with something, anything

"This is definitely the way to see it."

Says Amity Smith: "It's a very unique experience. Louisiana has nothing like this."

She laughs. Of course Louisiana has nothing like this. It's not like they're suddenly growing great wine grapes there or anything.

But they do drink wine, says Smith, who hails from Monroe.

"I prefer wine over a lot of things," she says. "But, you know, in Louisiana, we'll drink just about anything."

Yet they have to eat at some point, especially since they've already paid for their food.

So the group is summoned by a server to one of the dining cars.

There, they will eat while tasting just a little bit more wine.

They will talk about how they wish their carrots weren't so darn al dente, and they will praise the soup to no end.

They will work through their entrees, and they will eat their desserts, and then they will finish the ride in perhaps the only way they know how: By having a smoke and then heading into the wine shop at the depot to buy a couple of bottles -- including at least one for the bus ride back to San Francisco.

"Definitely a worthwhile trip," says Smith.


Napa Valley Wine Train

When, how much: The Napa Valley Wine Train offers lunch and dinner rides daily and early-morning brunch rides on weekends and holidays. Additional offerings include monthly murder mystery dinners and, on most Fridays, winemaker lunches in the dome car. Prices range from $59.50 per person (for weekend brunch) to $99 (for the murder mystery dinner). Train fare is included in the cost; most wine is extra.

Getting there: The three-hour, 36-mile train ride begins and ends at a station in downtown Napa, at 1275 McKinstry St. From Sacramento, take Interstate 80 west to the Highway 12/Napa exit. Where Highway 12 dead-ends, turn right onto Highway 221 north. Continue north toward Lake Berryessa, as 221 becomes Soscol Avenue through downtown Napa. From Soscol, turn right on First Street, then left on McKinstry Street. The station will be on the left.

For more information: Call (800) 427-4124.On the Internet: www.winetrain.com.



About the Reporter

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Bee Pop Culture Writer J. Freedom du Lac can be reached at jdulac@sacbee.com.

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