The History of the Napa Valley Wine Train

Founded in 1864 by Samuel Brannan, the Napa Valley Wine Train is a privately operated railcar that runs between the town of Napa and St. Helena, California. The 36 mile round trip train journey offers meals prepared on-site, romantic rendezvous, and a variety of local wines. Overall, it is a fine dining experience that thrives on elegance, luxury, and antique charm. However, the history behind the train is full of ups and downs, as briefly narrated below.

Did You Know: The Napa Valley Wine Train also offers murder mystery dinner rides, Christmas themed rides, and an afternoon tea ride.

A Ride to Calistoga

In 1864 San Francisco’s pioneer millionaire, Samuel Brannan built a train with a unique concept. Unlike the conventional trains used to transport goods and people to individual destinations, Brannan’s train exclusively transported tourists to his Calistoga resort. However, Brannan’s luxury concept was short-lived due to his divorce and financial crisis. To finance his divorce, he had to sell off a large percentage of his assets, including the railroad. The railroad was bought by the California Pacific Railroad in 1869.

In 1885, Southern Pacific Railroad acquired ownership of the train and significantly enhanced the passenger service operation. During the period, Napa Valley witnessed a significant surge in economic and agricultural profit. However, the train’s popularity came to a sudden end with the introduction of automobiles. Despite the owners’ efforts, the train service became non-operational in the 1930s.

Saving the Railroad

Due to the train’s declining popularity, Southern Pacific had neglected the route between St. Helena and Calistoga. They abandoned the passenger train and used the lines for running a freight train once a week. However, discouraged by the meager profits, Southern Pacific decided to put the rail lines for sale in 1984. Napa Valley residents who acknowledged the relevance of the train were displeased by the decision. Lou Schuyler, a Retired Southern Pacific Engineer who had worked with the railroad, decided to try to halt the sale and restore the passenger services on the railroad.

Schuyler launched a group called “The Society for the Preservation of the Napa Country Railroad.” The group filed a rail-saving plea on the Napa County ballot but failed. However, while the group’s mission did not succeed, their campaign had attracted widespread public support, including the interest of a group of Napa citizens, and created “The Napa Valley Wine Train Inc.” Dr. Alvin Lee Block chaired the group, and their sole mission was to establish a sustainable railroad that would grow into the future and minimize traffic congestion in Napa Valley County.

A Battle of Rights and Opinions

In 1987, Napa Valley Wine Train Inc. started looking for investors to reinitiate the wine train operation. When Vincent DeDomenico took an interest in their train they ran into luck and he offered to buy the company. DeDomenico was a prominent business magnate in Napa Valley and was able to buy most of the company’s shares, which landed him the position of President and CEO.

DeDomenico was a veteran food entrepreneur and the former president of Golden Grain and Ghirardelli Chocolate Company. He took the company into his leadership and subsequently renamed its operations the Napa Valley Rail Road (NVRR) operating company. The NVRR bought Brannan’s raidroad from Southern Pacific in 1985 for 2.5 million dollars.

With the ownership of the railroad, the NVRR planned to launch a tourist-centered Wine Train, but local community activists and several city government officials opposed the idea. They had different reasons for displeasure; some citizens cited noise and pollution as causes for disapproval, while others feared tourist overflow and the influx into the already-saturated Napa Valley region.

The disapproving parties persuaded the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to serve the NVRR the California Environment Quality Act (CEQA), demanding compliance with the stringent requirements therein.

Triumph at Last

Finally, the Supreme Court of California made a 4-3 decision on March 19, 1990. The ruling confirmed that the PUC had no right to demand CEQA certification from NVRR because the train was subject to CEQA exemption criteria for “the institution or increase of passenger or commuter service on rail lines already in use.” Thus NVRR got approval to carry on with its original plan.

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The Napa Valley Wine Train debuted on September 16, 1989, and has been taking rides through the valley ever since. It has witnessed several developments that culminated in today’s luxurious train service and have conveyed more than two million passengers since its establishment.

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