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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."

When critics failed to derail the train's inaugural voyage in September 1989, they resorted to other tactics to try and shut it down, including litigation and anti-train signs erected along the route.

At 12:45 and 1:15 p.m. most days, Manzer, an insurance agent whose office in St. Helena was 50 feet from the train tracks, stepped outside as the train passed by to hold aloft a sign that had a line drawn through the words "Wine Train."

When passengers yelled at him to get a life, Manzer, who is now retired, turned the sign around to reveal the phrase, "My sentiments exactly."

Many influential people in the valley supported Manzer's cause, most notably, the St. Helena city council, whose members were vociferously opposed to the train ever dropping passengers off in the town.

The city was a member of a coalition of municipalities and trade groups that wanted the train to fall under California's strict environmental guidelines, which the group was convinced would kill DeDomenico's efforts.

That plan failed, but community organizers succeeded in having the California Public Utilities Commission block the train from making stops in towns along the tracks which parallel Highway 29, including Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena.

Undeterred, DeDomenico continued to sink more money into the project — an estimated $20 million by 2002. His largesse continued until his death in 2007 at the age of 92.

That same year, the decades-long courtroom battles over the Wine Train came to an end, after the California Supreme Court refused to listen to an appeal from train attorneys asking to reverse the PUC's decision.

The nation's financial meltdown also contributed to a thawing in relations between the train and its former antagonists. Struggling to attract customers and stay in business, St. Helena merchants signed a petition asking city leaders to talk with Wine Train officials about the prospect of dropping passengers off in the town, something that would have been unthinkable before.

Councilwoman Bonnie Schoch was among those who participated in the talks. "The big battle that St. Helena has fought for a long time was to make sure we had a say on what the Wine Train could do," she said. "Once we had that control, we felt we could talk to them knowing we would have final say."

The discussions also involved McManus, who was named CEO of the Wine Train after DeDomenico's death. The new approach he brought to the company may explain as much as anything else why old tensions have faded.

McManus lives on the big island of Hawaii, where he operates a record company for local musical talent and is a volunteer pilot with Angel Flight, which flies sick people who can't afford travel costs to their medical appointments. He said in the past two years he has spent about half his time in Napa, where he has reorganized and updated Wine Train operations.

"I really saw an opportunity for the train to continue doing what it did, but also set the tone for what a business actually can be, and look at the need for a business to be a part of the community," he said.

The train forged new partnerships with local hotels and other tourist-serving businesses to offer package deals, and teamed up with Horizon Air to bring train passengers from Southern California to Wine Country via Sonoma County's airport.

McManus points to other strides the train has taken, including completing conversion of one of its main locomotives from diesel to compressed natural gas in 2008. The company also pays full health care costs for full-time employees, who number about 100.

McManus said the train began offering free excursions to people who performed volunteer work locally, and has hosted fundraisers on behalf of nonprofits.

DeDomenico also was a big contributor to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Napa Valley, Queen of the Valley Medical Center and the Napa Valley Symphony, among others. But McManus said the food maverick preferred that his generosity be kept under the radar.

"What happened in the past is the train did its deal and Vince wrote really big checks to the nonprofits and didn't tell anyone about it," McManus said. "With his passing, we don't have his checkbook. The train has to prove it can interface with the community on its own."

Skeptics will argue that McManus' new emphasis on community outreach is less about altruism than promoting a brand in a tough economy. Manzer, for one, is among those who believe the train is still a bad fit for the Napa Valley. In the two decades he's opposed the train, he's never once ridden it.

"I still don't see it as a benefit to our community, and I would hope that those who are in decision-making positions are able to see that as well," he said.

Not all of them do.

McManus and St. Helena officials ultimately agreed on a plan to allow the train to drop people off on the first Friday of each month last summer and fall for "Cheers! St. Helena," a promotional event downtown.

The number of passengers was modest — only one car filled with 50 people. But given the acrimonious history, the first step onto the makeshift platform was a proverbial giant leap.

Schoch said officials are considering whether to allow the same excursion this summer. But it looks as if the issue might already be settled.

"We heard no complaints about the &‘Cheers!' train. None," she said. "In fact, when we brought up whether we we were going to pursue this, nobody came before us to discuss it. I can assure you, that would not have been the case in years past."

McManus said the train essentially covered costs for the special St. Helena trips. Still, he's receptive to doing them again.

"I put it under the category of just trying to help," he said. "&‘Cheers!' is a great deal. If we can get people there without driving a car, that's excellent in my book."

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