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NV Register: Staying on Track
Sunday 30 Mar 2008, 07:56
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New leader keeps Wine Train chugging along
Sunday, March 30, 2008
By KEVIN COURTNEY
Register Staff Writer
Gregory McManus, the new man in charge at Napa Valley Wine Train, was never a train buff like his father-in-law, Vince DeDomenico.While DeDomenico spent the final two decades of his life operating a luxury dining trail, McManus lived a leisurely life in Hawaii, pursuing personal interests in animal rescue and alternative energy and providing mercy flights to people needing medical treatment.

All that changed following the unexpected death in October of DeDomenico, 92, then the passing in November of his wife Mildred, 87.

These deaths stunned the family. There was no succession plan for what would happen to Wine Train, which DeDomenico had presided over with founder’s ferocity.
When the DeDomenicos’ four children came together to improvise new management, they selected McManus, who is married to Vincent and Mildred’s daughter Vicki, to be Wine Train’s CEO and president. Vincent DeDomenico Jr. remained as operations director.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about the future,” McManus said. “Our first goal was to ensure people that we intended to maintain Vince’s vision.”

Rumors swirled that Wine Train was for sale, but that was never the case, McManus said. “I haven’t talked to anyone. I’m just focusing on the business.”

McManus is a lanky 52-year-old who jogs home at the end of his work day to the DeDomenico home on Monticello Road. He describes himself as a technical guy who loves to make things work. Now he has a railroad to tinker with.

What’s next?

How committed is he to perpetuating Wine Train? Enough so that he puts in 80-hour weeks. On Sundays, his day of rest, he and his wife walk segments of track so he can know the line intimately. Starting at Streblow Drive in south Napa, they’ve made it to Rutherford, so far.

The DeDomenico heirs are working on a plan to increase ridership on the gourmet dining train that makes leisurely three-hour runs between Napa and St. Helena for lunch and dinner.

Since taking over as CEO in early January, McManus also has begun expanding hours at the train station’s wine shop and remaking Wine Train’s Web site to sell more wine. He is looking at offering cooking classes and corporate events at the train’s commissary.

Acting on his passion for energy conservation, McManus replaced all the lighting at the Wine Train station on McKinstry Street earlier this month with a system that uses 50 percent less power.

The message to Wine Train’s 120 employees and the Napa public is this: Wine Train is going to be around for a while, he said.

McManus said he was as close to DeDomenico as anyone who was not his child could be. While dating Vicki, he began working for DeDomenico at age 18, at the Golden Grain pasta plant in San Leandro.

“He started me out in the maintenance shop sweeping the floor,” said McManus, who rose to the position of vice president of engineering before the DeDomenicos sold their pasta-candy conglomerate to Quaker Oats in 1986. “Vince was an amazing mentor,” he said.

In 1989, at age 75, DeDomenico launched Wine Train amid opposition, especially from Upvalley residents who worried that a dining train would Disneyfy the Napa Valley.

During its peak years, 2000-2001, Wine Train carried as many as 120,000 riders per year. More recently the annual totals have been closer to 100,000, McManus said.

“It pays its way,” McManus said of Wine Train’s financial performance. By making Wine Train not as dependent on the cyclical tourist market, it can do better, he said.

Along the river

McManus took the helm at a crunch time for Wine Train and the Napa River flood control project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers intends to award a contract worth between $39 million and $45 million later this year to elevate Wine Train tracks in central Napa and build two railroad bridges. The current bridge and track are a flood impediment.

Before signing off on the plan, McManus had to absorb reams of technical data about how this relocation, which could take three or more years to accomplish, will affect his daily train operation.

Wine Train is close to giving the corps’ plan its blessing, said McManus, who said his technical background helped him understand federal blue prints.

Heather Stanton, the local flood project manager, said McManus took charge surprisingly fast. “He’s a very impressive person. Obviously a quick study,” she said. “It didn’t take him any time at all to get up to speed.”

She called McManus a “down-to-earth guy, very easy to work with, very clear, no hidden agendas.”

McManus bristles at Wine Train critics who say public funds should not be spent to keep a tourist railroad in business. “One of the things that does bother me is the perception this work is being done for Wine Train. It’s not. The work is being done for the transportation corridor.”

“Some day people will say that money was spent well. Right now they don’t see it, but when gas is $10 a gallon …” That’s when Wine Train tracks could support commuter trains, he said.

Federal law classifies the Wine Train as a public utility that must be made whole by flood control, Stanton said. Even if Wine Train ceased to operate someday, the flood-proofed right of way could be used by another railroad, she said.

Total flood control costs related to Wine Train are estimated to be between $55 million and $61 million, depending on bids this summer for the work downtown, Stanton said.

Wine Train constitutes between 15 and 17 percent of the flood project’s estimated $360 million cost, she said. Some $16 million spent to date was used for a new commissary, a parking lot on McKinstry and track relocation in south Napa, she said.

Looking to the future, McManus said that Vince and Mildred’s four children — Michael DeDomenico, Vicki McManus, Marla Bleecher and Vincent Jr. — and their families would continue to make major business decisions.

“Basically we reach consensus very quickly. We’re all on the same page,” he said. Even as CEO, his role is more that of “facilitator,” he said.

McManus, who still has his home in Hawaii, doesn’t know if he will stay in Napa forever. “We are committed to staying here until we have things on track,” he said.

In the meantime, there is much to do, McManus said. The quality of the Wine Train experience has to be promoted. He’s toying with a new slogan. “I’m thinking, ‘Ride the Wine Train again for the first time,’” he said.

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