I’m a bit of a transport nerd and I love wine, so what better way to celebrate my birthday than an afternoon aboard the Napa Valley Wine Train?
We chose the ‘Gourmet Express’ tour which includes a 3-course lunch on the train, a tour of Grigch Hills vineyard and return transport to and from the Vallejo ferry terminal. This is just one of 5 options offered.
Disembarking the ferry at Vallejo, we noticed a massive change in temperature. It’s much warmer in wine country than in the city, which is worth bearing in mind. We were picked up in an air-conditioned minibus and driven to the train station in Napa, where we boarded the train at around 11am.
The train itself is worth seeing. Vintage Pullman railcars have been restored beautifully and maintain traditional features. The dining tables are set up complete with white tablecloths and stepping aboard feels like stepping back in time (and up a few social grades!).
On arrival, we were served a complimentary glass of wine. I admit that it was only 11.20am at this point, but it was my birthday so I think I can be excused!
We were then able to choose from several items on a set menu or the special of the day. We both chose specials and were very impressed that the food actually tastes very good, despite being cooked on a train.
Of course, we had a glass of wine with lunch, this was the wine train after all.
After enjoying our starter and main course while whizzing through vineyards, we arrived at the Grgich Hills vineyard just after 12:30pm. This seemed a little early for lunch, but in order to offer 5 different packages, I guess that they need to stick to a set schedule.
Getting off the train at the vineyard fills you with a sense of abandonment, there is no platform so you really feel as if you’re being left in the countryside (and you are). This was my first ever vineyard ‘tour’ (as opposed to dropping in or doing a tasting) and I enjoyed the experience.
We got to see behind the scenes while enjoying tastings of the wine in beautiful surroundings. The founder of Grgich Hills vineyard is most famous for winning at the celebrated “Paris Tasting” of 1976. Judges in Paris picked the Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena, (where Mike Grgich was the winemaker) as the finest in the world after a blind tasting and were mortified to discover they had picked a Californian wine. He started Grgich Hills the following year.
Miljenko “Mike” Grgich, the 93-year-old winemaker who established the vineyard, apparently still visits to this day and talks to visitors, although he didn’t make an appearance while we were there.
After a tour of the vineyard, the Napa Valley Wine Train arrived like clockwork and we boarded a different carriage to enjoy our dessert.
The trip back into Napa offers a great opportunity to drink more (wine or cocktails) or to do as we did and tour the train front to back. Again, the food was great and the train was not too busy, meaning it was easy to explore all of the carriages including the kitchen carriage where all of the food is cooked.
Arriving back in Napa, we spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering around the town and the Oxbow Public Market. This did feel slightly like wasted time and I wish we had done a little more research into how we could have made the most of being in Napa town for a couple of hours.
We returned back to the Vallejo ferry terminal in time for the boat back to San Francisco, ending the day with one final treat.
I’d definitely recommend taking a trip on a Friday, as you can get a ferry from San Francisco Ferry Building to Vallejo (that service doesn’t run on weekends).
A trip on the wine train is also a brilliant way to start a long weekend in San Francisco. If you are on a short trip and don’t have time to spend a night or two in wine country, this is a good compromise.
Napa is definitely more touristy than Sonoma Valley, however, I enjoyed visiting both and don’t have a preference (yet). Sonoma takes a little more planning, whereas on the Napa Valley Wine Train tour (booked through Viator) we didn’t have to think about a thing.