We were watching television one night when a commercial came on offering a “Recession-Blues Buster” weekend package that included a couple of nights at the Hilton Garden Inn in Napa, a gourmet lunch on The Napa Valley Wine Train, and a tasting at Domaine Chandon in Yountville.
We both turned to look at the other trying to mask our interest with the disdain that we knew we should have felt toward the encouragement to spend so freely during the depths of the recession that followed the crash of 2008. But we were too gluttonous to let the opportunity pass by. So we booked it.
Not much can be said about the Hilton Garden Inn. It was plain and uninteresting but served its purpose as a base of operations.
On the morning of our journey, we gathered with all the other passengers collecting in the waiting area unsure of what would happen next. After a short briefing explaining how we were supposed to segregate ourselves according to the car to which we were assigned, we headed off to board the train. We didn’t know it then, but different cars featured different menus and different ambience. That would have seemed to explain the variability in fashion and etiquette that we witnessed.
Our package put us in the Gourmet Express Dining Car, which was built in 1917. It is one of the two cars that feature the “Gourmet Express Dining Journey,” but there are other cars, including the Silverado Car that features a western theme with open windows and the train’s California grill menu.
After lunch, we were sent through the Silverado Car to the Merlot Lounge Car for dessert and coffee as we watched the valley pass by.
At the end of the line, the train reverses and goes back down the same track, making stops at various locations to let people disembark depending on the particular package. We disembarked at Domaine Chandon, waiting impatiently for the van to come and ferry us up to the tasting room from the “train station.”
The next day, armed with free-tasting coupons, we set out on our own, largely avoiding the places for which we had coupons. We headed north trying to find August Briggs Winery with the handicap of not exactly remembering the name, making it challenging to engage any local with questions about it. We had breakfast in St. Helena at Gillwoods Café and kept going to Calistoga.
Eventually, we got a lead and headed to the winery. There we met Jesse, who set us up with free tastings of some of the best wines that I’d ever had up until then, all with a healthy serving of east coast sarcasm. There may have even been some barrel tasting. Needless to say, nothing stacked up by comparison the rest of the day.
If I had to put my finger on a particular time when we became the wine lovers that we are today, it would have been that weekend in June 2009 when we rode the wine train and met Jesse.