Editorials

Keeping it classy on the Wine Train

The Napa Valley Wine Train makes its way through St. Helena. Members of a mostly black book club say they believe they were kicked off the train because of their race, which the train denies.
The Napa Valley Wine Train makes its way through St. Helena. Members of a mostly black book club say they believe they were kicked off the train because of their race, which the train denies. Associated Press file

A quarter century ago, when the Napa Valley Wine Train first chugged out of the station, California’s wine country establishment was aghast.

The attraction was loud. It was intrusive. Its major investor was, egad, the inventor of Rice-A-Roni. Almost from the moment its backers launched the gourmet sightseeing route between Napa and St. Helena, some high-falutin group or another was trying to stop it.

“The wine train could conceivably be the most damaging contributor toward the demise of the Napa Valley’s lifestyle,” the cabernet maestro Dick Grace told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, after a lawsuit failed to put the brakes on the project. Robert Mondavi and Jack Cakebread bristled with denial when told that a Wine Train waiter claimed them as supporters. Even the local train buffs were offended. One St. Helena burgher dismissed it as “a tourist trinket on wheels.”

So there’s an irony in this week’s furor over the Wine Train’s ejection of an Antioch book club for allegedly déclassé behavior. The Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club say they were singled out because they are African American; train officials say they had to go because other passengers complained.

It’s hard to know how much race fueled the set-to. But wine country snobbery? That has long come with the terroir.

The women say they were just “laughing while black,” a line that acquired hashtag status as the story went viral. Humiliated, the book club has recounted the episode to every media outlet that will listen.

Also upset, the Wine Train owners have offered apologies and refunds, but deny being racist. They say they just can’t tolerate loudness, intrusiveness, etc.; rowdy white passengers also get kicked off the train.

It’s hard to know how much race fueled the set-to. Rudeness does come in all colors. Then again, a group of UC Berkeley Latinas has a similar tale of hurtful Wine Train buzz kill. The Bay Area is one of the most tolerant regions of tolerant California. It would be disappointing if discrimination were tolerated there, too.

But wine country snobbery? That long has come with the terroir; putting on airs, after all, is part of a wine region’s fun. Pity, that an erudite book club couldn’t imagine the strain of a whole trainload of customers, paying to feel sophisticated and special. Pity, that the Wine Train so quickly forgot its rootstock. Classy is as classy does.

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