Story and Photos by Deborah Grossman.
Onboard the Napa Valley Wine Train, the staff welcomed us with a refreshing “Napa Valley breakfast,” a mimosa with cranberry juice. As we relaxed into the rhythmic pace of the journey and gazed at miles of verdant vineyards, I felt gratitude for the peaceful ambiance compared to the valley’s frequent traffic and bustling tourist scene.
On this trip during the autumn season, we also took to the road and visited two wineries with very different approaches to wine tourism. One property offers a modern tasting lounge with a casual patio. The other offers a panoply of choices, from an intimate room with wood accents to an opulent, red-toned lounge and fanciful outdoor settings.
With a bird’s eye view of wine country, the train also brings a gourmet, elegant experience with storytelling on selected wineries that pass by. Whether a new wine lover, experienced aficionado, or in my case, a wine writer, the historic train is a unique way to travel the world-renowned wine region. I enjoyed a memorable dinner on the rails with my train-loving mother, Goldie and my husband two years after the train launched. Goldie loved the elegance and what she called the “The Orient Express” service.
Recently my husband and I savored another fine dining experience in the same plush, historic dining car. During the three-hour trip, a 36-mile route from Napa to St. Helena and back, we glided through the back streets of the town of Napa and rode past fields of vines dotted with wineries. We also learned the backstory of the rail line built in 1864, which tracks the era of the Gold Rush and California’s statehood. A Gold Rush entrepreneur built the line to transport tourists to his new resort in Calistoga. The line remained active for decades with excursion runs and then freight conveyance.
In 1989 a group of investors led by Vincent DeDomenico, the inventor of Rice-a-Roni and former owner of Ghiradelli chocolates and Golden Grain Pasta, launched the Napa Valley Wine Train. As CEO, DeDomenico oversaw the purchase and restoration of antique rail cars to their first-class heritage with etched glass and gleaming Honduran mahogany.
With a focus on hospitality, current owners Noble House Hotels raised the bar on the wine train experiences. While waiting for your rail car to be called, you can now view historic photos, visit the small bar or browse the shop designed to delight both railroad and wine lovers.
In planning past trips, the options consisted primarily of lunch or dinner excursions. The new owners now offer eight experiences plus monthly and holiday special events. I hope my husband has noted the monthly “Romance on the Rails.” The two-hour gourmet dinner takes place in the elevated (up the stairs) 1952 Pullman glass-domed Vista Dome observation car which offers the best viewing on the train. I experienced the Vista Dome during my second trip on the wine train a few years ago and enjoyed the unique perspective on Napa Valley. Many aspects of the train are the same as on previous trips. When ready to board, you walk a bridge studded with locks; the famous trend started on Parisien bridges to indicate your devotion to your lover.
During our recent trip, I signed up for the three-hour Gourmet Lunch. We began in the parlor car with sparkling wine and appetizers. As I sipped on sauvignon blanc and nibbled on cheese and salumi, I focused on enjoying the beauty of the valley and wineries we passed per the train map printed opposite the menu. The guests who had signed up for the Grgich Wine Tour ate lunch first and left the train for a one-hour wine tasting at the winery. Our server Tasha told tales of owner Mike Grgich who made the prize-winning chardonnay at the famous Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976. The train picked them up while we ate dessert.
Meanwhile, we tucked into moist and savory herb-roasted chicken and salmon with an intriguing, not-too-spicy chipotle honey glaze and fresh green beans.
The porcini-dusted tenderloin with smoked bacon and forest mushrooms also looked appealing.
I didn’t expect to eat dessert but yielded when the server mentioned white chocolate cheesecake. For our next trip, I need to arrive even hungrier—Rodrigo Cuadra joined the train as executive chef in April 2022 with experience at luxury restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Sated from our wine train excursion, the next day, we switched gears and visited two wineries with different hospitality missions.
Located off the quiet Silverado Trail, Odette Estate winery beckons with a low-key profile next to the Palisades hills. Odette is the third winery opened by The Plumpjack Group, founded by composer-musician and philanthropist Gordon Getty, Governor Gavin Newsom, and John Conover. The group’s Napa Valley wineries include Plumpjack winery, whose name evokes the fun-loving Shakespeare character, and Cade, a term Shakespeare used for wine casks destined for England from France.
In 2014, Plumpjack Group purchased Odette’s 45-acre property from the Steltzner family within the Stags Leap appellation (AVA). After the Steltzners’ neighbor Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars planted the first cabernet sauvignon in the 1960s, the Steltzer family planted the district’s second vineyard to the grape variety in 1970. The historical nature and renown of cabernet sauvignon grown in the area is the win by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in the red competition at the Judgement of Paris in 1976.
As for the name Odette, Shakespeare and Proust presented characters with her name, and she is featured in the Swan Lake ballet. Odette was also the first name of an embarrassed French judge who voted for American wine at the Judgement of Paris. I met Governor Newsom at Plumpjack winery while he was mayor of San Francisco in 2004. He was down-to-earth and friendly then and when we chatted briefly at subsequent press events. Newsom is not involved operationally with the winery and was not present during our tasting. Our experience at Odette was elegant and low-key. Neither the décor nor the staff flaunted the famous connections. The entrance features a barn-style gate and patio seating. The pathway leads to a modern and expansive, natural light-filled tasting lounge overlooking comfortable patio couches nestled close to the new winery building and vineyards. Odette offers a tasting of current releases and a cabernet sauvignon experience with cheese on a reservation-only basis. Guests can reserve tastings for the lounge or patios.
The Odette tasting Lounge is Gold LEED-certified to follow sustainable “whole building” construction standards. A noted innovation from the Plumpjack group is the early adaption of screw caps. The inaugural release of Odette cabernet sauvignon received the perfect 100 points by The Wine Advocate. This score was the first received in an inaugural release—and the first to receive 100 points bottled under a screwcap.
Seated in the lounge for the cabernet sauvignon tasting, we enjoyed the vineyard view and one-on-one attention from our server, who shared a deep knowledge of the individual vineyards and winemaking techniques. We sampled the refreshing chardonnay and then segued to the red wines.
After the acclaim for Odette cabernet sauvignon, the partners and winemaker Jeff Owens wanted to showcase the best of Napa Valley vineyards in diverse AVAs and launched the Adaptation brand. After tasting Adaptation, I described the wine as “soulful.” How can a wine be soulful? With balance from the first taste through the finish, Adaption is full-bodied and food-friendly, a rare and thoughtful combination. Though deep purple-hued, redolent in dark berries, I was delighted to imagine Adaptation paired with chicken and pasta and steak. The 2018 and 2014 Odette Estate cabernet sauvignons were richer, full-bodied, and fine examples of Stags Leap District wines.
Jean-Charles Boisset is the son of the largest landholder in Burgundy, France. In 2002 Boisset made his first investment in California with the purchase of DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma County. I interviewed him a few years later about the female viticulturist he had recently hired. Boisset waxed enthusiastically about her skills, the transition to organic farming, and ambitious plans for the estate. Currently, CEO of the Boisset Collection with wineries in France, the USA, England, and India, Boisset continues to bring diversity to his teams and to espouse an environmentally friendly approach to wine growing. Boisset presents diverse and unique guest experiences. He parlayed a fanciful living room set into a frame for a photo op in the bucolic tasting garden at Raymond Vineyards.
Whenever I encounter Boisset at tastings, his outgoing and spirited personality shines through the conversation. His aesthetic sense veers toward the exuberant as evinced in some aspects of Raymond Vineyards located on St. Helena Highway (Highway 29) just north of the town in St. Helena. The Crystal Cellar is a unique wine cellar with Baccarat chandeliers and chardonnay resting in stainless steel tanks. The decadent Red Room Lounge provides an opulent setting for bottle service of wines. Though Boisset’s creations can appear quite bold, I have observed him take intricate steps to maintain the heritage and history of his wineries while layering on his style and vision for the wine and visitor experiences. As proprietor of Buena Vista in Sonoma, he renovated the historic site and added new options, including a barrel tasting and historic winery tour.
Boisset’s Napa Valley portfolio has grown to include one of my favorite haunts; the Oakville Grocery, packed with wine country foods, merchandise, and drinks. At Napa 1881, the restored historic house adjacent to the grocery features tastings of wines from appellations throughout Napa Valley. This year Boisset purchased Elizabeth Spencer Winery in Rutherford. After purchasing Raymond Vineyards in 2009, Boisset followed his philosophy of protecting the land and transitioned the property to organic farming and sustainable, biodynamic winery practices. The vintner honored the founders of the winery in several visible ways. Given that Raymond was known as a Rutherford district leader for red wines of power and complexity since the first release in 1974, Boisset chose to retain the family name. In contrast to the Red Room, Boisset honored Roy Raymond with the founder’s portrait in the sedate Saddle Room.
To honor the five generations of the Raymond family who established the winery, Boisset chose the name Generations for the top Raymond Vineyards label. The 2018 Generations cabernet sauvignon was the most memorable taste experience on our recent visit. We arrived at the winery during the Lady M. Baccarat “food truck” six-week stay in late summer 2021. The dark fruit flavors of the Generations wine paired well with the chocolate-filled, multi-layered crêpe cake.
Boisset periodically partners with companies like the luxe, New York City-based Lady M for unique pairing opportunities. I put food trucks in quotes due to the indulgent, buoyant exuberance of the tasting.
The light, French-style cakes with very thin layers of crèpes also exhibited strong Japanese influences in the green tea crêpe cake bite. Pairings for this course featured Boisset’s LVE Legend brand Vineyard Exclusive Napa Valley 2016 Blanc de Blancs. Boisset’s partner on this brand is John Legend; the JVE refers to John Legend Vineyard Exclusive.
Guest experiences available year-round include Winemaker for a Day, Taste of the Valley with limited production wines, the JCB Lounge with a tasting of the global collection of JCB wines, and private or virtual tours and tastings.
In addition to the relaxed elegance of Odette tastings and the fun options at Raymond, one has hundreds of tasting opportunities in Napa Valley and beyond. After learning about the Napa Valley Wine Train’s rail excursion and overnight packages launched with five local hotels, we are tempted to return to wine country soon.
While living in London for five years, I became a dedicated fan of afternoon tea. The wine train now features an elegant three-hour “Afternoon Tea Service” on weekends with an optional caviar service and the new, gussied up “Dressed to the Nines on the Lines” tea service. If we are looking for excitement after wine tasting among the vines, an attractive option along the rails is the two-hour “Mayhem and Mystery” experience with a gourmet meal and interactive murder mystery theater. The next morning, off to explore more about the mystery of winemaking.
IF YOU GO: Napa Valley Wine Train https://www.winetrain.com/; Odette Estate https://www.odetteestate.com/; Raymond Vineyards https://raymondvineyards.com/ ; Visit Napa Valley https://www.visitnapavalley.com/