Woman kicked off Napa wine train says still humiliated despite apology

A member of book club made up largely of black women said Tuesday afternoon that they still feel humiliated even after the Napa Valley Wine Train issued a fuller apology Tuesday for kicking them off the train for reportedly being loud.

Lisa Renee Johnson, a member of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club, said that she hopes the business makes promised changes, but that it won’t take away the sting from the incident.

“It’s not going to make us feel less humiliated,” she said, adding that she believes the apology was spurred by negative feedback the business was getting from the public.

Wine train officials, she said, also never acknowledged that the women’s race played a role in how they were treated.

“It just had those really ugly racial undertones from the very beginning,” Johnson said.

The apology came after a member of the club met with the wine train’s chief executive, Anthony Giaccio, late Monday and suggested cultural- and diversity-sensitivity training for its employees.

Giaccio said the company already has cultural sensitivity training but will offer additional diversity training for its employees. He also pledged to participate in the training.

“The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100% wrong in its handling of this issue,” Giaccio said in a statement. “We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests.”

The business, he said, was insensitive to the women.

“In summary, we were accurately insensitive to you and the members of the Book Club,” he said in a letter to the group. “Please accept my apologies for our many mistakes and failures. We pride ourselves on our hospitality and our desire to please our guests on the Napa Valley Wine Train. In this instance, we failed in every measure of the meaning of good service, respect and hospitality.”

The women’s experience and the fallout from the matter has been a learning lesson, train spokesman Sam Singer said.

Public backlash against the company began after Johnson posted photographs and comments on Facebook describing the moment she and 10 other women were kicked off the train and told by employees they were laughing too loud.

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According to Johnson account, the women boarded the train Saturday morning, sipping wine and eating cheese as they traveled. However, two hours later, train workers told the women that other passengers had complained about their noise level and that it had become a problem. The women were told to leave because they were too loud.

At least one passenger scolded the women, saying, “This is not a bar,” according to Johnson's Facebook page.

About 1 p.m., the women were met by police officers and given a bus ride back to the station.

The group was escorted through six train cars “on display in front of the other guests to waiting police like we were criminals,” Johnson wrote. “One word. UNACCEPTABLE! This can NEVER happen to anyone else ever again.”

Johnson blamed racial bias, saying the group was kicked off the train because most of them are African American. She said they were guilty of "laughing while black.” The hashtag#laughingwhileblack, which Johnson used on her Facebook page, has taken off on social media, with many vowing to boycott the wine train.

Train officials refunded the women's tickets, and have since invited the women, their family and friends to fill a train car. “They gave us a full refund ... but that's not enough. We are totally humiliated,” Johnson wrote after the women were taken off the train.

Soon after the incident, the wine train posted a statement on Facebook asserting that the women had become unruly once the conflict escalated. “Following verbal and physical abuse toward other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved,” the statement said. “Many groups come on board and celebrate. When those celebrations impact our guests, we do intervene.”

The statement was later deleted. In an interview with The Times on Monday, Singer said the company planned to apologize to the women but had not been able to reach them.

In the letter to the group, Giaccio said the business inaccurately commented about the women’s incident.

“We also erred by placing an inaccurate post on our Facebook site that was not reflective of what actually occurred,” he wrote. “In the haste to respond to criticism and news inquires, we made a bad situation worse by rushing to answer questions on social media. We quickly removed the inaccurate post, but the harm was done by our erroneous post.”

Johnson, who describes herself on her website as a “speaker, coach and self-made Sunshineologist, questioned whether Napa Valley Wine Train would have responded the same way had they been confronted with 11 white women being loud. Johnson said she doesn’t believe they would have been kicked off the train.

The book club doesn’t plan on taking up the Giaccio’s offer to ride the train again, she said.

“We have no interest in going back on the wine train again,” Johnson said.

The women, she said, have not ruled out the option of potentially filing a lawsuit against the wine train.

The women’s story came as Slate published the account of a Latina who said she and her friends, mostly Latino UC Berkeley graduates, were threatened to be kicked off a train after a noise complaint. That woman, Norma Ruiz, told Slate she also believes that the action was racially based.

The train staff, she said, was aggressive to her party of 10.

Singer said he couldn’t comment about Ruiz’s experience because he didn’t know much about the incident.

Incidents such as the one Saturday occur about once a month, he said. Most of the passengers who are removed from the train, he said, are white.

Singer said the company could have handled the book club’s situation differently and that there was a breakdown in communication from the beginning.

When booking the trip, the women told wine train workers they would be enjoying each other’s company and "we may be loud,” he said.

From that point, he said, the workers should have taken measures to accommodate the women and seat them in an area of the train where they could enjoy the trip.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

3:51 p.m.: This post was updated with comments from Lisa Renee Johnson, a member of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club.

This story was originally posted at 12:01 p.m.

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