By P. Joseph Potocki
Culminating two decades of huffery, puffery and legal acrimony, St. Helena's city council recently voted 4–1 to allow the Napa Valley Wine Train to begin trial downtown passenger stops on each first Friday of the month through this coming October. While the dual-engine train typically pulls multiple cars and as many as 370 riders, these runs will be limited to one engine and a single car carrying 50 passengers.
Longtime Wine Train nemesis and St. Helena mayor Del Britton cast the sole vote against the proposal, claiming the city has developed no means by which to gauge impacts the stops will have on the town, and further, that the city has yet to issue the train any permits. But the council's action, taken before a near empty city hall chamber, ends, at least for now, a contentious issue going back to the founding of the Napa Valley Wine Train two decades ago.
The Napa Valley Wine Train commenced service from the town of Napa heading up valley on Sept. 16, 1989. Two years earlier, upon his retirement at age 72, the late Vincent DeDomenico began actively pursuing his dream to utilize the old Napa Valley Railroad's tracks in order to run an upscale vintage passenger line featuring fine food and wine combined with shopping and winery visits. The 42-mile ride would leisurely transport Bay Area travelers from the line's original terminus in Vallejo up to where the railway's first owner, San Francisco pioneer Sam Brannan, had developed Calistoga into a world-class result almost a century and a half earlier.
But DeDomenico—of Rice-A-Roni and Ghirardelli fame—met a hell storm of local opposition, particularly from residents in St. Helena. In 1990, the California Supreme Court ruled 4–3 in favor of DeDomenico, clearing the line's last significant legal hurdle, but opposition to the Wine Train has persisted. Many upvalley residents have expressed concerns that the line, which has accommodated over 1 million riders to date, floods an already overcrowded Napa Valley with tourists. Local business owners, however, welcome the potential customers the train might provide.
Starting Friday, July 3, the Wine Train will begin dropping passengers off in St. Helena on Railroad Avenue at 6pm each first Friday of the month. They'll be picked up for their return trip downvalley at 8:45pm.
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