As a general rule, I'm an off-the-beaten path kind of woman. When touring friends around the Napa Valley, we'll skip Mondavi and Silver Oak and for Ancien and Covert Estate, and at lunch choose Yountville's Redd Wood over Bottega. When it comes to non-drinking activities, which in wine county translates to 'things to do that include wine plus something else', we'll hit trails around Napa and Yountville instead of a hot air balloon ride or a roundtrip journey on the Napa Valley Wine Train.
But, I've recently learned that the Wine Train has new management and they've begun mixing it up with crazy things like driving the train to nighttime concerts at some of Napa Valley's grand dame wineries. So, for the first time maybe ever, I chose the road most traveled - far from the hidden gems on that less beaten path - and set my GPS to Napa's number one tourist attraction to check out the new Wine Train and celebrate a friend's birthday.
After an easy drive north from SF, we queued up for our 5pm boarding time with a group of visitors from all over, dressed in a wide interpretation of Wine Train Chic. Lesson 1 of the day: don't stress about the dress code - nobody else knows what to wear either and it's hard to go wrong. There were stilettos and bandage dresses (okay those actually did seem a little out of place), there were Tommy Bahama shirts, some cowboy boots and plenty of business casual.
Once we boarded and found our seats in the Wine Train's version of the VIP room, the Vista Dome, servers poured glasses of bon voyage sparkling for the entire train, and we got to know our table-mates. The Vista Dome is a beautifully restored vintage train car with an extended domed glass ceiling for uninterrupted views of our 18 mile journey up to Charles Krug. Lesson 2: the train is great but the Vista Dome is the place to book if you really want to soak in the views. It's about a $50 upgrade from standard seating but it's worth it to have the full experience.
We had complicated-ish dietary restrictions that were shared with the train's team in advance: vegan for me and vegan-ish ketogenic for my birthday-celebrating friend. We had three courses and an additional glass of wine during the 90-minute journey north. Lesson 3: the food is better than the off-the-beaten path crew gives it credit for. The vegan, gluten-free option was lovely and thoughtful, though because it was pretty much straight up roasted vegetables, I definitely ate a protein bar alongside my entree.
At Krug, we disembarked to total darkness and mini-festival setup. Artisan pizza truck here, wine stations there and white lights strung from tree to tree. We found a 50th birthday celebration, loads of boomer-age fans of the bands playing who followed them when they toured the first time around and something I never thought I would see at a wine train shindig: LOCALS. We made new friends, enjoyed some throwback tunes and went in with a 'when in Rome' attitude to wine drinking. The pours were large and we were so thankful that the train was driving us home. The bands: someone from the Eagles, another from Flock of Seagulls and the lead singer from Kansas to name a few - were stoked to be there. After a couple of hours of drinking and dancing at Napa Valley's oldest winery, we boarded the train for our return trip to the station while sipping espresso and talking about our dream for a yoga train day (Vinyasa yoga on one car, healthy vegan eats in another and DJ-d yoga at a beautiful winery... note to Wine Train team, lmk if you need any help planning!).
The ride back seemed longer (we were more buzzed than we'd anticipated), and also quieter because the locals who had taken the train up had cleverly called ride share services to take them home. Lesson 4: You can totally take the train up and call a car to get to any of the hotels up-valley.
After returning to the station, we checked into our downtown hotel, passed out, and slept right through our early morning hiking alarm. Whoopsie! Instead, we grabbed a couple of expertly made almond lattes from Miminashi's new counter service window and headed back to the city.
Next time you're pouring over Google and group email threads about cool things to do in Napa, consider going off the beaten path all day and then topping it off with an evening on the Wine Train for a touristy-fun way to celebrate with friends.