There is no easier way to put a damper on one’s libationary adventures than to ask who exactly is willing to take the mantle of designated driver.
Enter the Napa Valley Wine Train, a service that promises to deliver Californian vineyard adventures in refurbished, turn-of-the-century style. It’s difficult to resist the historic charm of 19th century transportation joined with Napa’s historic vineyards.
The Napa Valley train station sets the mood for the journey to come, with a set of romantic lockets hitched to the fencing on the way to the boarding platform, where riders will be greeted by a sparkling bar, rows of cozy leather seats next to polished wood tables, and period-dressed staff.
Food and drinks are staggered along the journey’s stops: Since 1987, the Wine Train experience has served as a gustatory experience as much as a wine-tasting tour. Dessert options range from the cinnamon-crusted tart au citron to warm flourless chocolate cake highlighting brandied cherries. Main courses include grilled duck sausages or seared halibut with a lentil and white bean saffron ragout. The appetizers are no less alluring: ciabatta served with arugula, pesto, caramelized onions, and Manchego cheese, or a lighter steel-cut oatmeal brulé option. As for libations, drinkers can go beyond the effeminizing power of grapes thanks to a full slate of hard liquors and mixed drinks available for purchase to supplement the journey.
By the time I reached Robert Mondavi Winery, the early morning mist had parted to allow the sunlight to stream in. Given that Napa’s viticulture is divided into more than 200 “microclimates,” there is no shortage of diversity found in specific blends. The Mondavi Winery undoubtedly has the most modern edge of the stops on the Quattro Vino tour—a journey covering the Robert Mondavi, Charles Krug, Merryvale, and V. Sattui wineries-and its architectural detail evokes the Franciscan monasteries to which the region ultimately owes its heritage.
Indeed, in the world of vineyard prestige, Napa Valley is a New World riposte to the French Bordeaux and Spanish Roija winemaking regions. California wine-making boasts 200 years of history under its belt; prior to that, Spanish missionaries used the region for the local production of communion wines. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Napa began to develop into a proper wine-growing center, driven by pioneers such Charles Krug, a Prussian winemaker who saw vast opportunity in the nascent Californian wine industry, developing the valley’s first major commercial winery on land inherited from his late wife Caroline Bale, child of prominent Napa Valley miller Edward Turner Bale.
The Mondavi winery began as an offshoot of this legacy; it was founded in 1966 after tensions with his brother Peter led Robert Mondavi to split with the family-controlled Krug Winery. While it is Krug who is generally credited with the development of Napa’s commercial wine industry, Robert’s extensive trips to Europe cultivated the technical and commercial savvy to market Napa as a world-class viticulture region. Today, with verdant hills undulating in the Napa Valley sun, it’s easy to appreciate just how successful Mondavi’s efforts proved to be.
This is evident on the Wine Train itself, where the Mondavi winery tour is the most comprehensive on display, featuring an introduction to proper tasting techniques. From the smooth adobe walls to the Franciscan statues that keep vigil over its barrels, the aesthetics of the Mondavi winery showcase a scrupulous attention to detail. And the story of the winery’s success is no less enthralling: after the Abolition period, the U.S. was largely awash in cheap, sweet white wines. When Mondavi realized that the French Bordeaux region was offering dry, elegant red wines, it became clear that America had a taste gap that would require a complete overhaul in production. He was hopeful about the American outcome, since the vines in Napa had a similar appearance to the vines in Bordeaux. When he returned to the U.S., he employed French wine-making techniques to rejuvenate the industry, and he even established a house of education to widen the public’s understanding.
Visitors to Mondavi will notice that the winery is flanked by two mountains – the temperatures never get too cold or hot, and the channel allows fog to sweep in overnight, allowing acidity and flavor a to build in the grapes. Since high sugar is necessary for good alcohol, the winery benefits from ideal conditions to allow winemaking to flourish. The grape-pickers on site all use their hands, and the seed provides a dry, bitter, astringent taste from the tannin; it preserves for decades.
By contrast, Charles Krug winery—the next stop on the Quattro Vino tour—was established in the 1800s and styles itself as the oldest winery in the Napa Valley region.
Extensive wood-work in the establishment’s tasting floor and lounge give the establishment a cozy, 19th century feel that recalls the pioneering aesthetic one might more commonly associate with the whiskey-swilling westward expansion of the United States. The immediate sensation is of having stepped back in time to an era in which the very idea of Napa as a commercial center of wine-growing (high-end or otherwise) required a certain brazen audacity. Rest assured, however, that the Krug winery has remained every bit as formidable as its competitors—indeed, there are no more pleasurable experience than drinking the establishment’s port under the smoky feeling of its interior.
This rustic elegance is also found in the cask room of Merryvale winery, whose massive wooden barrels and vaulted ceiling create an almost cathedral atmosphere. The pale yellow Sauvignon Blanc and a deep-ruby Pinot Noir are particularly memorable tastings at this stop. The latter offers red cherry and orange rind notes, while the former plunges the imbiber into a medley of grapefruit and melon notes. Initially referred to as Sunnyvale when it opened in 1933, the winery’s early history was jointly overseen by Ceasare Mondavi (father of Peter and Robert) and Jack Riorda. After changing hands several times, the establishment eventually came under the ownership of the Schlatter family in 1991, who rebranded it and expanded its exports into Europe and Asia.
If Mondavi, Krug, and Merryvale are all marked by different flavors of New World flair, the final stop on the Quattro Vino tour—V. Sattui winery—harkens firmly back to the Old Country. Founded by a titular Genoese immigrant in 1885, the V. Sattui features spacious lawns offset by the exterior of the winery’s stone villa. The tasting floor has an intimate, communal feel. It’s a stop that travelers should be sure to appreciate: V. Sattui is unusual among Napa wineries in that it only retails directly to customers, bypassing brick-and-mortar sales at local shops. It’s also a perfect conclusion to a day on the rails—there are few places better to appreciate the final rays of a setting sun before settling back into the cushioned seats for the final leg of a journey home.