When it comes to the Napa Valley Wine Train, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, hyperbole, passion, controversy and the occasional outright lie have come along for the ride.
Despite being pilloried as Exhibit A of Wine Country's tourist trade and a plaything for the hoity-toity, the train keeps chugging along, holding its own in a horrible economy that has run over other businesses that rely on people parting with their discretionary income.
The Wine Train has survived despite the obstacles thrown in its path. They include organized opposition, lawsuits, untold letters to the editor and an occasional backside being revealed as a protest to train passengers as they sipped wine and dined on gourmet food along the 36-mile round-trip journey from Napa to St. Helena.
And in response to criticism from Republican senators who view construction of a new bridge and tracks as a pork-laden boondoggle, train and Napa County officials say the work is actually a boost for Napa's flood protection efforts. And they've been scrambling for weeks to make their position known.
"That's just the nature of the beast," Wine Train CEO Greg McManus said. "Even people in Napa think the Wine Train's ownership has monetarily benefited from the flood control project, and that's far, far from the truth."
That the train still makes about 500 trips every year, ferrying 100,000 passengers annually, is a significant achievement, in hindsight.
Vincent DeDomenico, a San Francisco food purveyor who sold his Rice-A-Roni and Ghirardelli chocolate empires for an estimated $300 million, got things rolling in 1987 when he paid $2.5 million to Southern Pacific Railroad for 21 miles of run-down tracks and the rights to the railroad line.
The route was used at the turn of the 19th century by SamBrannan to bring San Franciscans to his resort in Calistoga, and later, to ferry passengers and freight.
DeDomenico and his wife, Mildred, had ridden the Orient Express and envisioned a similar elegance for their train. The meticulously restored Pullman rail cars were decorated with mahogany paneling, brass accents, etched glass partitions and velveteen fabric armchairs. The food and wine were to be first class.
But those dreams very quickly collided with reality.
To many Napa Valley residents, DeDomenico's plan to disgorge thousands of train passengers in towns all along Highway 29 was a threat to their way of life. It would be 20 years before the train dropped off a passenger in St. Helena, ground zero of opposition to the tourist attraction.
Battles had been fought and won to protect the valley's agricultural way of life. Many perceived the train as a threat to those gains, and feared that the addition of so many tourists would turn Wine Country into another Disneyland.
"They've got ice cream cones in one hand and latt? in the other. The next thing you know, the T-shirt shops prevail," Norm Manzer, co-founder of a group that led the charge against the Wine Train coming to the valley, recalled of those early protests.
According to McManus, who was an executive in DeDomenico's food businesses, the early ridership estimates — including predictions that the train would bring an additional 500,000 people to St. Helena every year — were overinflated by design.
"They put out some very aggressive numbers, as anyone would, in an effort to show people there was a level of profitability," McManus said. "I personally never thought those numbers were realistic at all. But those numbers stuck."