Happy Wanderer: Train great way to ‘drink in’ Napa wine country

HILLS NEWSPAPERS: September 15, 2011

When I was a child, I was lulled to sleep each night by the mournful horn and low rumble of the Great Northern freight train as it passed through the valley below.

In college, one of my most vivid memories was of taking the train from Montana to Minneapolis, past pastoral scenes of elk grazing in wildflower meadows and fishermen casting their flies in a rhythmic 10 and 2 pattern.

The train has been such a part of my youth that it took me aback when I realized my 18-year-old son had never experienced this romantic mode of travel. This was something I needed to show him before he went off to college.

The train ride we chose was the Napa Valley Wine Train, an elegant way to “drink in” the wine country — especially during harvest time.

“Think of this train as a time machine,” I told Anthony. “We’re going back almost one hundred years when we step inside this vintage Pullman dining car.” I could see his gaze draw toward the richly set tables — fine china and silver on white linen — cast in the romantic glow of individual lamps.

“Mmmmm. They’ve got bread,” he cooed, as if food superseded any attempt toward a history lesson. I will admit, the bread was near perfect — warm and aromatic with just the right crunch in the crust. And it paired perfectly with my delicate Napa Valley pinot noir and my son’s sparkling water.

As the train rolled gently through dark green valleys and rows of amber vines, a sense of pure joy washedover me. Around us, couples were engaged in soft chatter as they swirled their precious liquid — filling the room with seductive scents of peppers and clove. My son and I were talking, too — having one of those rare conversations uninterrupted by cell phones and other distractions.

“Do you want to share salads?” he asked, staring longingly at my dish of crisp greens, tossed gently with goat cheese and beets. His plate was now empty, which meant “sharing” was a one-sided proposition.

I could have said no, thinking “what woman wants to share her baby greens?’ But with three more courses coming, my motherly instincts took over and I passed the plate — and a second basket of bread.

Outside our private window, brooding hills were rising to meet a blue-gray sky. The vines were turning golden with splashes of crimson as the sun set on the first signs of autumn. With each town we passed, children on bikes stopped to wave at the champagne and Bordeaux-colored cars.

Through Yountville and Oakville we drank in the site of dozens of exquisite wineries, as well as homes and cafes and mom-and-pop stores, rumbling along the same tracks that took guests to Calistoga in the mid-1800s.

After dinner and two heavenly desserts, which we also “shared,” I said “I want to show you something.” My son followed me through the dining room and out to the wobbling metal deck between cars. “Let’s stand here and watch the world go by for awhile,” I said.

The cool breeze on a warm August evening added something surreal to the trip that I’m sure my son felt. As we stood side-by-side looking over the rail, the wind whipping our hair, he put his arm around me. “Pretty neat, huh?” I asked. “Yep,” he replied. “Thank you, mom — you’re the best.”

What are your favorite adventures? Drop me a line, and I’ll share them with readers. You can reach me at ginnyprior@hotmail.com or online at www.ginnyprior.com.

If you go:

The Napa Valley Wine Train has a free app you can download for your phone that details the wineries and attractions you’ll see along the way. For overnight guests, the Hilton Garden Inn in Napa has special wine train packages.


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