So when I got invited by Swanson Vineyards to ride the Napa Valley Wine Train, I was certain snarky hilarity would ensue. Especially when I found out that rolling lunch with Swanson winemaker Chris Phelps would normally cost $154. Wow, that seemed like low-hanging fruit.
Unfortunately, a little problem developed on my way to the one-liners.
I actually had a really good time. The Wine Train serves really good, locally sourced food. Their wine selection in the tasting bar (4 tastes for $10) has some hard-to-find gems if you know what you're looking at. Their wine shop in the train station is quite good, with plenty of small-production wines. Executive chef Kelly Macdonald has a wicked sense of humor and a great sense of balance, since he has to work around open flames in a tiny kitchen on a moving train.
And they didn't even know I was coming, so they hadn't spruced up for my benefit. It seems like, while pricey, the Wine Train is pretty fun on any ordinary day.
About the most hilarity I could get was the tiny tug-of-war that played out all day between Phelps, whose winery had invited me in the first place, and the Wine Train, which was very interested in me once they figured out who I was. "Let's talk about this Merlot," Phelps might say, while the train's wine director Ryan Graham would counter with, "Do you want to go look at the kitchen now?" Of course, with me and my wife on board for 3 1/2 hours, there was plenty of time for both to get their point across.
So here's what it's like to ride the Wine Train with Chris Phelps (left); I'll try to get off some lame one-liners anyway. All aboard!
10:45 a.m.: While waiting in the train station, we're all given tastes of two wines: a $12 Pinot Grigio and a $10 red blend. They're OK. There aren't any spittoons, but nobody spits while tasting on the Wine Train. The whole point is that you don't have to drive.
The Wine Train isn't really transportation, though. You go up to St. Helena, and then you turn around and come back; you get lunch (or dinner) along the way. There are a bewildering range of cruise-ship-like add-ons, such as winery tours by van. But I don't see why you would take them. It's pretty expensive to be on the Wine Train, and the view of the vineyards is good. So why take away from your time on board?
The crowd taking the train on a Friday morning is multiracial and multinational with a wide age range; the median is about 40. A Japanese bus tour takes the train; so does a video game company celebrating a product launch. Some people are talking about how they generally drink beer, but I overhear others talking about their previous visits to Napa Valley. I don't think this is a wine-geek party, but some people know more about wine than I expected.
Phelps tells the crowd about Swanson ("a small family-owned winery," neglecting to point out that the family made its money in frozen dinners) and talks about the crazy weather of 2010 ("It's a very Bordeaux year. I think we'll be able to pick at phenological ripeness at lower sugar. We'll have lower alcohol. In general I'm pretty excited.")
Phelps says his winery specializes in Pinot Grigio, unusual for Napa Valley, and Merlot. "Everybody loves Merlot, that's why you're here, right?"
A young game programmer says loudly, "Nobody loves Merlot."
When Phelps says they also make Cabernet, the programmer says, "Yay, Cabernet."
Graham tells us about the train, which train geeks will hate me for not knowing the details of. I know the track was laid in the 1850s, and the dining cars are restored Pullmans from the World War I era, and they're beautiful. One reason the train can't run lunch and dinner 7 days a week is that it needs a lot of down time for maintenance. "She needs to be treated like a dowager," he says.
11 a.m.: We board. This takes a while, as it's sort of like airplane boarding, by section. People on the train get their lunches at different times, have different tours, get on and off at different points. Continental Airlines would never be able to successfully manage all these agendas.
Graham says the well-oiled machine his organization has become results from treating its employees well. The captain of our car has been there since the beginning; 21 years now. Our server has worked there for 14 1/2 years.
I quickly see why they want longevity in employees, because carrying bowls of soup in a moving train is a skill.
11:30 a.m.: Lunch starts for us. Some people eat their apps in one car and move to another for their main. We're sitting with Phelps so we stay in one place the whole time.
Here's our menu:
The tuna poke's good, and the Pinot Grigio is good with it. Macdonald had about a month to play around with the wines, and he says, "The Pinot Grigio was very straightforward. That's why I went with the wild flavors on the plate. If the wine is wild and busy, I have a little fat. I have the beef."
Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Pinot Grigio 2008
Watermelon and Mango Tuna Poke
Swanson Vineyards Oakville Chardonnay 2009
Fresh Monterey Bay Shrimp and Local Sweet Corn Soup
Swanson Vineyards Oakville Merlot 2006
Grilled Filet Mignon of Beef and Seared Foie Gras with a Zucchini Carpaccio
Chocolate Strawberry Cake
The second course is the highlight; the corn soup is amazing. Macdonald used some complicated technique wherein he milked the corn kernels and then soaked the cobs in the milk to extract more corn flavor, but I didn't get all the details because I was greedily eating it up. I hadn't even known Swanson made Chardonnay, and in fact it's only 300 cases for the tasting room. Very nice wine; good lemon fruit and balance.
Phelps had never made white wines before landing at Swanson in 2003. He's one of the foremost Merlot specialists in California, having interned at Chateau Petrus in Bordeaux before becoming winemaker at Dominus and then Caymus in Napa Valley, where he made only reds. He said whites were a challenge: "I thought it would be easy. There's a lot of subtlety involved. It took me a couple years." In fact, I've been tasting Swanson's Pinot Grigio for several years and have noticed an improvement; if you haven't tried it in awhile, give it another whirl.
The very rare filet seemed the biggest challenge in the kitchen, what with cooks trying to work beside each other in a space not much wider than a doorway, and all the usual physical hazards of a high-volume kitchen. Macdonald (right) told me Top Chef did an elimination challenge on the Wine Train, and that seems cruel, though if you can cook in that kitchen, you can cook anywhere.
While we're eating, we keep on rollin'. The train starts in an ugly industrial part of the city of Napa but soon enough you're right beside Highway 29, and the 10 feet or so elevation of the train gives you a great view in all directions. Phelps points out that beautiful red leaves in vineyards actually indicate a virus problem (and there's no Santa Claus either, spoilsport.) He's relieved when we pass Swanson that none of his coworkers is holding an embarrassing sign, as apparently happened on several of his other annual voyages.
I really enjoyed the '06 Swanson Merlot; well-balanced, good fruit, and a good match for the meat. After finishing my glass, I take a tour of the train and spot the young programmer who spoke out against Merlot. Phelps had earlier told me a story of converting a woman in a coffee shop by bringing her a glass, so I instigate -- why don't you bring this guy a glass? He goes to get one.
Meanwhile, I check out the tasting bar. Among your four tastes for $10, you could settle for Buehler White Zinfandel, but you could also have Heidi Peterson Barrett's 2009 La Sirena Moscato Real, Morgan Twain-Peterson's Bedrock Stellwagon Vineyard Zinfandel, or 2004 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay, and some other nuggets.
I like riding on the back of the train; passengers in cars on the neighboring Highway 29 wave at you and some take your photo. However, I wouldn't have enjoyed taking the cheap $49.50 ride-only fare, because that's in an open-air car, which is always risky with Napa Valley weather; hot in summer, cold in winter. It's better to have open air when you want it, and be able to go indoors when you need to. Also, if you're not going to eat, drink and luxuriate, why wouldn't you just drive up and down Highway 29 in your own car?
Here's my big finish: Phelps showed up in front of the programmer's group of friends with a glass of Merlot, which he dared him to try. Happy ending? Nope: the wine was "too sour," the programmer said.
One of his friends said, "I'll take it. I like Merlot." And he sipped it happily as the train chugged southward. Happy ending after all.