Imagine stepping back in time to the 1940s, the heyday of train travel. You board a luxury car and nibble on appetizers as you sip local wines—a romantic tour, perfect for Valentine's Day.
Impossible, you say? Not if you rode the Niles Canyon Railway for the 2011 Romance on the Rails Valentine's Day Wine Tasting on Sunday.
The train tour focused on wines from Livermore Valley. The event was a fundraiser for the Pacific Locomotive Association, which operates the Niles Canyon Railway near Sunol, and the Golden Gate Railroad Museum, which works to preserve historic steam and passenger rail equipment.
Passengers rode in Southern Pacific club lounge car #2279, which was originally built in 1914 by the Pullman Car Company and used for baggage. In the mid-1940s, it was converted into a club lounge car. In the center is a circular mahogany bar, framed by etched glass and mirrors. Customized Southern Pacific ashtrays, with heavy bases to avoid tipping during travel, can be found between seats in the car.
In 1989, the Golden Gate Railroad Museum acquired the car, which had been damaged, and restored it to its 1940s appearance. Photos from Southern Pacific and other documentation were used to make the restoration as accurate as possible. The restoration won an Art Deco Society of California preservation award.
David Roth, operations manager of the Golden Gate Railroad Museum, and Bob Bradley, the commissary manager for Niles Canyon Railway, greeted passengers. Steve Feree, wine educator, gave passengers a few tips on wine and food pairings.
Riders sampled six wines during the two-hour trip, starting with a 2009 Sauvignon Blanc from Occasio Winery. (The winery’s name comes from the Latin phrase Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur, which means “Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.”) It was paired with a triple cream St. Andre cheese.
A Nottingham Cellars 2009 Chardonnay was paired with a sharp, slightly briny bandage wrapped cheddar, aged for roughly six months. This winery’s name comes from the original designation for Livermore—Nottingham.
A 2009 Midnight Syrah Rose from Longevity Wines was paired with a chocolate chip brownie. According to Feree, Longevity Wines’ founders, Phil and Debra Long, spent hours on the road sampling wines for their online wine club. Over time, they learned how to make their own and opened their winery in Livermore.
Cuda Ridge Wines' 2008 Cabernet Franc was served with a mild Manchego cheese, made from sheep's milk. Larry Dino, the winery's founder, began making his own wines and then discovered a place on East Road in Livermore for full-scale winery.
On the purple label, you'll see the outline of a Barracuda—the muscle carbought during the search for a winery location. That's where the "Cuda" in the winery's name comes from.The winery itself is named for that car.
An aged Gouda was paired with a Madden Ranch Syrah from Wood Family Vineyards. The owners, Rhonda and Michael Wood, started their homemade wine business around 2001. The grapes themselves are hand-sorted by Rhonda and her friends; if it doesn't look good enough to eat, it doesn't get crushed.
A Cedar Mountain Winery Tortuga Royale port was served with dark chocolate Midnight truffles from Saratoga Chocolates. The Tortuga Royale label has a tiny skull and crossbones on its flag.
Other dishes were served between tastings. A shrimp salad molded in the shape of tiny hearts and served on crackers made a delicious palate cleanser. The next in-between was a vegetable frittata with zucchini and tomato. Mushroom caps stuffed with sausage and Parmesan came next, followed by almond orange shortbread.
Feree told passengers that Chardonnay, introduced to the area by the Wente family, is one of the most important grapes in the Livermore Valley. The valley has a long and venerable history of winemaking. In 1889, winemakers from the region won gold medals at the Paris Exposition.
Participants said they enjoyed every moment of the trip. Larry and Ann Saslaw came from Bakersfield with friends to travel in a classic railroad car.
"The lounge car has historical significance," Larry said.
Bob and Kathryn Judd were eager to enjoy vintage travel as well.
"It's our Valentine," said Kathryn. "I love old things, and Niles Canyon is so beautiful."
Bob added, "We came up to [visit] Wente vineyards and we heard about this train, so we had to come back."
Jackie Delduco, Lynette Georgis and Gena Delduco, who prepared the hors d'oeuvres, were just as excited.
"We all have jobs," Jackie noted. "We do this for fun. It gives us an education about wine."
Watch the Niles Canyon Railway site for information on next year's Valentine's Day Wine Tasting. When they are available, get them quickly, because the trip fills up fast.