Sour Grapes : Vintners Want to Derail Proposal for Napa Valley Train Tour

Times Staff Writer

Norm Manzer, an insurance agent and self-described train buff, calls it a “tourist trinket on wheels.”

Musicians Tom Overton and Scott Dean rail against the “Wino Train” in song: “I guess I’ll get away to New York, Oakland or L.A.; any place that’s quieter than Napa by the Bay.”

The object of their ridicule--and ire--is the Napa Valley Wine Train, a quaintly named rail line that would shuttle as many as 450,000 tourists a year, at $45 a ticket, through the heart of Napa’s wine country in turn-of-the-century trains, stopping at tasting rooms along the way.


Weary of tourism in one of the state’s most popular attractions, many officials, vintners, grape growers and others fear that the train will add to the growing number of out-of-towners. In their search for the finest Cabernets, locals say, tourists clog highways, force up prices and threaten the very vines that are the basis of the allure.

“I love railroads. But this isn’t a railroad. It’s an intrusion,” says Manzer, who heads a campaign to stop the Wine Train.

Jack McCormack, the Wine Train’s principal spokesman and defender, wants to start runs by the height of the tourist season--harvest time in late summer or early fall. He has been battling the likes of Manzer for more than a year in a variety of forums--from the local newspapers to the courts and government agencies.

McCormack got involved in the project when the Southern Pacific Railroad sold a rarely used freight line on the valley’s western edge for $2.2 million to an investors group led by Vincent DeDomenico, inventor of Rice-a-Roni and chairman of Golden Grain Macaroni Co.

If it ever gets on track, the line’s two vintage diesel engines, one steam locomotive and 19 Pullman cars would make five or six round trips daily, plus dinner excursions, on a 21.5-mile stretch between Napa and St. Helena.

“The whole intent was to help the situation in the valley--the traffic problem, the disorganization of people running up and down the highway looking for a place to stop,” DeDomenico said.

He and McCormack insist that the train will not add to the tourism crunch, and might even ease it. People who now drive to the valley would ride the train, they say, relieving traffic on California 29, the valley’s “winery row.”

The train has won support within the city of Napa, where officials, hotel operators and restaurateurs see it as a way of capturing tourists who now bypass the city of 50,000 and zip north to the wineries. Although several major wineries plan to refuse to admit passengers, McCormack said several vintners have told him that they will welcome the added customers.

“We’re in the business of handling tourists . . . and will accommodate them,” said Donald Ayala, manager of hospitality at the stately Inglenook Winery, visited by 300,000 tourists last year.

It’s not as if Napa Valley wants to turn back tourists. As it is, there are hot-air balloon rides, concerts, festivals, art shows and wine tastings and winery tours, all designed to attract out-of-towners in the hope that when they go home, they will buy Napa Valley wine.

“There isn’t a business in this town that can survive without tourists,” said Robert Lewis of the Napa County Conservation, Development and Planning Commission.

Tourism added $166 million to the county economy in 1986. Local and state officials estimate that last year, 2.5 million to 4.1 million people visited Napa County, which has a population of slightly more than 100,000. In recent years, even wineries that long had encouraged visitors have sought ways to limit their numbers.

“At some point, there’s a breaking point and no one will want to see it,” said Herb Schmitz, a spokesman for the Mondavi winery, which now requires that visitors make appointments before showing up for a tour.

Several small wineries and a few large ones, Charles Krug among them, now charge $1.50 to $5 for wine tastings, hoping to discourage people who want a free drink rather than the education that goes with a tour.

Many winery operators fear that if the Wine Train begins operations, its passengers would further crowd the tasting rooms, where in the summer months, patrons must stand elbow to elbow.

Tourists by the Trainload

“If a busload of tourists arrives, your enjoyment is gone,” says Joseph Heitz of Heitz Wine Cellar. With the Wine Train, he said, “We’re not talking about a busload. We’re talking about a trainload.”

“They would come and shut down the tasting room for all of our other customers,” said Carolyn Martini, granddaughter of Louis Martini, who founded a winery that attracts 200,000 tourists a year and sits a few feet from the tracks. “They’re counting on us to provide free entertainment for their paying customers.”

There’s also a feeling among vintners that train passengers will not buy wine, unlike visitors who arrive by car and leave with cases.

“A driver can put a case of wine in the trunk,” said Reverdy Johnson, a winery owner and president of the Napa Valley Vintners Assn. “Someone who must get back on the train probably cannot carry a case.”

Napa Valley grape growers, whose crop was valued at $85 million last year, have nagging fears that car fumes will affect the quality of grapes, and worry that pressure from tourist-attracting businesses could drive up the price of vineyards, already the priciest agricultural land in the country at $30,000 to $40,000 an acre.

Local government officials are heeding those concerns.

The county Board of Supervisors established a committee to analyze the threat to agricultural land. The county planning commission, determined to keep wine and not tourism the prime industry, will hold hearings in June to define the term “winery.” The commission is concerned over establishments that call themselves wineries but sell cheese, trinkets and wine from other vintners.

St. Helena, a town of 5,140 people, has imposed a moratorium on hotels and other tourist-oriented businesses because there are too many cars and not enough water. In Yountville, a tourist town of 3,200 people just off California 29, officials do not permit new eateries or hotel rooms, now that the town has a dozen restaurants and 174 hotel rooms.

Impact Report Sought

“It isn’t what you call closing the door,” said Yountville Administrator Robert Myers. But the town does need to preserve space for local needs, he said, such as hardware stores and Laundromats.

Hoping to at least delay the train, local officials joined with vintners and grape growers to demand that the state Public Utilities Commission require the train’s backers to produce an environmental impact report for the train.

They cite concern over noise from train whistles,which could be sounded hundreds of times a day, and about safety and traffic delays at the more than 100 railway crossings along the route.

The state agency is expected to rule soon on whether McCormack must do the environmental report and solve any problems it identifies. McCormack argues that the federal Interstate Commerce Commission--and not the state PUC--has jurisdiction over all railroads, even ones such as the Wine Train with purely local runs. The ICC has not yet taken a position on the question.

Similar disputes elsewhere in the state and country over local trains have ended up in court. If that happens with the Wine Train, it could be delayed for months, if not years.

DeDomenico said that if the state demands that he produce an environmental report, the Wine Train could be held up for two years. As it is, the train has cost him nearly $10 million, he said, adding that he never would have invested in it if he had known that it would have stirred such hard feelings. But while his opponents have dug in for a fight, so has he.

“Sometimes you like a challenge,” he said. “Now that I’m into it this far, I’m in too far to back out. Those people don’t realize it up there, but it will help the valley.”

Trouble Seen

Insurance agent Manzer,however, sees nothing but trouble from the train. He talks darkly of what is around the bend. One fellow suggests towing a junk car to block the tracks. Others suggest showing up en masse at the Napa depot with their “Kiss my caboose” T-shirts.

“I don’t know that we’ll lie on the tracks,” he said. “But the town of St. Helena has been known to take in the welcome mat to tourists.”