The dining and tourist train, which traverses a 36-mile round-trip route from the city of Napa north to St. Helena, has served more than 1 million customers in the last decade. The trip lasts three hours, passing through the heart of the valley twice a day during the week and three times on weekends. Its route mostly parallels that of the valley's main thoroughfare, Highway 29. Chairman and majority shareholder Vincent DeDomenico said that he anticipates about 120,000 riders this year, with revenues approaching $12 million.
To mark the occasion, DeDomenico and Napa mayor Ed Henderson christened the Silverado Railcar, the latest addition to the line, while employees and friends shared cake and sparkling wine.
Not everyone in Napa Valley, however, toasts DeDomenico's success. The train's inaugural trip, in 1989, was greeted by protesters, and even 10 years later, some local opposition remains intense. "How would you like that going through your front yard at lunch?" said Jack Cakebread, owner of Cakebread Cellars in Rutherford. "People in St. Helena think it's an inconvenience. It's noisy and dirty, like living on the wrong side of the track."
DeDomenico hopes to eventually add more service and stops in Rutherford, Yountville and St. Helena, where the train currently turns around. So far, St. Helena residents have successfully resisted plans to open a station in their town of 5,800. Traffic problems have been a concern; two weeks after beginning operations, the train brushed an automobile at a crossing. While there have been no serious accidents, some St. Helena residents resent that, because the train is classified as a public utility, they had to pay for crossing arms and maintenance at intersections, which cost $115,000 last year, according to St. Helena mayor Ken Slavens.
The townspeople also fear hordes of tourists descending on them, added Slavens. "We're protecting our quality of life. Dropping hundreds of people five times per day would have a huge impact on a town this size," he said. "And there's no compromise with the wine train. They won't even talk about limits or reductions. They're just not very good neighbors."
Whether or not DeDomenico makes a good neighbor, he is a shrewd and successful businessman. In 1986, he sold the Golden Grain Company -- and its most famous product, Rice-a-Roni -- to Quaker Oats for $275 million. In 1987, he bought 21 miles of track and 125 acres of right-of-way for $2.25 million to start his new venture.
With time, DeDomenico has won over some locals, despite the initial resistance. The wine train now stops at Grgich Hills Cellar -- currently its only winery stop -- in Rutherford. "We were hesitant about it, then we accepted their invitation and were impressed with the food and decor," said Violet Grgich, daughter of founder Mike Grgich. "We don't necessarily make much money on their visits here, but it's great P.R. I hear a lot about the wine train when travelling, and it leaves a good impression."
Other wineries have also decided to make the most of the opportunity and promote their products on the train. Joseph Phelps, Beringer, Domaine Chandon and about 30 other producers participate in weekly "vintner's luncheons" featuring their wines.
Support for the wine train is particularly strong in the town of Napa, where it employs more than 100 residents and, according to Henderson, generates over $1 million a year. "Ninety percent of the resistance is gone," said DeDomenico. "Whatever's left is in St. Helena."