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Wine Lover's Day Trip: The Napa Valley Wine Train

What could be a better solo travel experience than spending a full day enjoying a ferry ride on San Francisco Bay, a luxury vintage train ride, an amazing gourmet lunch, AND a visit to a unique winery? The Napa Valley Wine Train is an upscale excursion, but if you've got room in your travel budget for a splurge, this is an amazing day.

There are many different Wine Train tours offered by different vendors. Some will pick up travellers at their hotels in San Francisco and arrange everything. Others will start at the train station in Napa. A more budget-friendly option is to make your own way to Napa and pick up the train there. Depending on your experience (lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, murder mysteries, how many wineries, train & hotel etc) the tour will cost at least several hundred dollars and go up to absolutely eye-watering prices. I chose a lower-priced tour through Viator that included the ferry ride from San Francisco to Vallejo, a shuttle to one winery with an excellent tasting experience, before boarding the train for a 3-course gourmet, and a return shuttle to the ferry in Vallejo. I always enjoy a ferry ride. The route to Vallejo passes by Mare Island, formerly a Navy ship building center. Mare Island was officially closed during the Clinton administration, which devastated the surrounding community and the city of Vallejo needed to declare bankruptcy in 2008. Mare Island is now abandoned and deteriorating.

Once the ferry docked, I easily located my shuttle which transported me to the Napa Valley Train station where travellers were divided into groups with some taking the train north and the coach south and some travelling first by coach to the winery and returning by train. I was in the latter group.

We went to the Raymond Winery. The Raymond family married into the Beringer family. The Beringer daughter married a cellar rat who was groomed to be a vintner and much more suitable partner. The cellar rat son-in-law and his sons began this winery in 1970.

Today the winery is part of Jean-Charles Boisset's Boisset Collection. Boisset has a history of elevating wineries to new heights. Under winemaker, Stephanie Putnam, and Vineyard Manager, Sophie Drucker, the winery uses organic and Biodynamic® farming practices.

I visited in mid-March. The vines were just at the "bud break" stage -- meaning the first new shoots were breaking through the bark of the vines. Spring plants made the winery gardens lovely with the scent of orange blossom in the air.

The outside area is arranged with seating and fun activities for visitors to enjoy on a beautiful day, including this fun set that just screams for silly group photos.

The tour took us around the grounds and explained the process that the winery uses for ensuring good growth. The outdoor area also includes some peacocks and other farm animals.

Weird but true. In the fall, they fill cow horns with manure and bury them near the vines for slow-release organic fertilizer. This is all part of their organic focus.

At the patio tasting center, we tasted, sniffed, swirled, and slurped several different types of wine including whites, reds, and rosés.

The current owner is modern and extravagant. The sommelier said he was brilliant but very atypical for the valley. One of the things he did that shook up the Valley folk was his industry opening party. The guests walked through the gardens to enter the fermenting room, where the not-yet-wine was stored in large, shiny stainless steel vats. The guests thought they knew what to expect.

However, this area is unlike any other fermenting room I've ever visited. Neon lights, mirrors, scantily dressed mannequins, and nightclub lighting turn the working rooms into entertainment rooms where events are often held.

Amongst all that garish display are multiple stunning Baccarat crystal chandeliers. Following the winery tour, it is time to board the Napa Valley Wine train. Stepping into the carefully refurbished antique train immediately wraps the traveller in an embrace of old-world charm and luxury.

Some visitors choose not to have the meal and instead enjoy the views of the valley while relaxing in comfortable upholstered chairs.

Other travellers choose seating in the bar area at the end of the train.

Even the bathroom is pretty. I may be too good for regular gross train travel from now on.

I was travelling solo, and was led to my seat in the dining car and brought a glass of sparkling wine as the train started its very slow journey back to the station. It was a drizzly day so being inside the train was warm and cozy. The slow pace of the train allowed plenty of time to look out the window as it passes by many wineries.

The service is exemplary. The servers are attentive and personable. My meal was truly spectacular. The menu changes throughout the year to take advantage of seasonal items including fresh ingredients, sustainable produce, humanely raised meats and line-caught or farmed fish.

The driver was waiting at the Napa station and transferred me back to the Vallejo ferry terminal for the return to San Francisco. It was a long day (about 8.5 hours) and I felt I had chosen well. I encourage all wine-lovers and foodies to take the train. If you have more time in your schedule, consider a couple of days in the valley to visit more wineries.


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