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NV Register: ‘A Dragon in the Valley’
Sunday 30 Mar 2008, 08:00
Filed under: Railroad | Tags:

The following is excerpted from “A Dragon in the Valley: The Earliest Beginnings of the Napa Valley Wine Train,” by Dr. Alvin Lee Block.An original investor in and first president of the Napa Valley Wine Train, Dr. Block’s book is based on fresh observations as well as saved notes and documents from the arduous years of securing financing, obtaining the right-of-way, battling competitors and overcoming local political resistance to launch the Wine Train in the years before Vincent DeDomenico came along.

In 1984, the rail line initially created by colorful Sam Brannan in 1864 to transport wealthy San Franciscans through the Napa Valley to his new, plushy retreat in Calistoga was dying, its wine transporting monopoly gutted by a growing trucking industry. This is the story of how that rail line was acquired against incredible odds by a most improbable group of Napans and how that adventure finally evolved four turbulent years later into the Napa Valley Wine Train …

Some things seem bound not to be, but nevertheless they are, irrefutably so. History and nature are replete with examples of logic defied: the bumble bee, powerless to fly according to aerodynamic theory but busily buzzing nonetheless; the Donner Party, scaling that impenetrable Sierra wall, without hope of survival, but surviving in spite of all; Stephen Hawking, imprisoned in a wasted body, yet his brilliant mind cranking out those magnificent constructs of the universe, a life dedicated to defying the odds.
In its own way, the creation of the Napa Valley Wine Train was just as unlikely, not as heroic or dramatic to be sure, but just as improbable. Viewed from any angle, it should never have come to pass … saddled with meager financing, no experience, powerful competitors and countless opportunities for failure. But happen it did, primarily because it was the right time and place, the proverbial idea ready to be born and then blossom with an irrepressible vitality of its own.

The spring of 1983 was glorious. I had just returned from a refreshing vacation in Italy and found myself peculiarly sensitive to the glories of the valley, the lush green carpeted hillsides spilling gracefully downward to luxuriant vineyards and the valley floor, all unfolding in warm, spring days. Framed on either side by a range of gentle hills, the valley seemed narrow and easily comprehended by the eye, intimate in its dimensions.

Mid-valley, the hills progressively compressed it from Yountville to St. Helena and then, in the approach to Calistoga, pinched it severely. Yes, glorious, but still on such a human scale.

Then, with the arrival of summer, the weekend visitor counts began to climb and the valley floor, dotted with winery parking lots, overflowed with cars. For some, these crowds were welcome and encouraged, a source of wine sales and economic prosperity. But over the preceding several years there had been nagging, increasing concern over the effects of tourism on the valley. What was its potential … structured growth with prosperity? Crowded roads and rampant commercialism? Perhaps even the tolling of a death knell for the rural charm of this very special 50 square miles?

While traveling to and from San Francisco, I had repeatedly passed Sears Point and had been drawn to the railroad tracks winding their way into wine country … a railroad directly into the Napa Valley … why not?

The thought germinated and grew more complex. Why not arrange for all recreational visitors to stop at an entrance like Sears Point, transfer into waiting trains, and then be transported into and throughout the valley, absent their automobiles. …

Imagine all of the undesirables — the automobiles, the confusion and crowding, the commercialism — all of these would be surgically severed and deposited at the valley’s entrance, thereby preserving Napa’s rural tranquility while simultaneously encouraging a healthy flow of visitors, attracted by the valley’s beauty and wines …

But these were day dreams, dim, without any realistic promise of achievement, crowded by hours already filled with important family problems and a large, busy medical practice. Besides, I had only the most fragmentary knowledge of both business and trains, totally inadequate for such an enormous project. At best, it was a fantasy, fragile, formless, and I knew it. But it had one thing going for it … tenacity. … It simply wouldn’t let me go. Every time I saw the track, my mind was excited by the imagery, constantly growing more powerful.

In the spring of 1983, I discussed these ideas with Yvonne Frauenfelder, who was equally fascinated by them and encouraged me to do more. We talked at great length about the train, our discussions often turning into playful thought games which ranged freely over endless scenarios about railroading, scheduling, marketing, decor, comparisons with the Orient Express. The ideas spilled out, mushrooming like an expanding crystal, the latticework spontaneously spreading in all directions, each layer of thought becoming a foundation for the next. New themes constantly sprouted and dreams perpetually budded, each clothed with its own life and energy, but all descendants of the germinal idea … the train.

Then, one day after one of those shared exchanges, I impulsively picked up the telephone and called Southern Pacific.

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