NILES CANYON -- Chugging wine is never a good idea -- but sipping wine while chugging along on a vintage train is a different matter.
Wine lovers and train aficionados are heading into Niles Canyon this summer, drawn by the lure of Livermore wines and a scenic rail experience. The "Livermore Valley Wine Tasting Specials" are the latest additions to the Niles Canyon Railway schedule, and are a big hit with riders from throughout the Bay Area.
"Our goal was to come up with a formal wine tasting in a very casual surrounding," said Bob Bradley, of the Pacific Locomotive Association, who coordinates the wine events. "The purpose was to develop a relationship between Livermore Valley wineries and the train. We only serve Livermore Valley wines on the train."
This year the wine specials were scheduled for only four summer days. Each are hosted by Steve Ferree, a certified wine professional with the Society of Wine Educators. Ferree writes about wine for local media and in his blog at WineProGuy.com. He has been riding the train and hosting onboard tastings for the past three years.
"We get a mix of people," he said. "There are some who just want to do something a little special and who like wine. Others are familiar with Livermore wineries and with wine in general. Then there are a lot of people who are familiar with wine, but not Livermore wine."
In addition to discussing each featured wine, Ferree
Each event features five wines, each from a different winery. The two reds, two whites and a dessert variety are accompanied by cheeses and chocolate.
Ferree visits each Livermore winery in the spring to make his selections for the season.
"That means there are 20 different wineries that participate (each season)," he said. "The wineries are happy to be involved. It generates business for them.
"For each train I'll invite one of the winemakers doing the wine," he added. "It's an opportunity for them to get out and talk to 100 people who are tasting their wine."
The route carries 125 passengers in one closed coach and two open cars alongside Highway 84 between Sunol and the Niles District in Fremont. Scenery on the two-hour round-trip is a perfect accompaniment to the mellow mood of the train, said station agent Donna Alexander.
"Several years ago the state of California declared Highway 84 Scenic Highway number 23," she said. "It's very pretty -- you go over two bridges, through hills and wooded areas, grassy areas and you might see deer and wild turkey .... It's very serene and very pretty."
The Wine Tasting Specials have restroom facilities and can accommodate wheelchairs. In addition to the wine trips, the Pacific Locomotive Association -- made up of 800 members and about 300 active volunteers -- also offers regular weekend rides on vintage diesel and steam trains, between Sunol and Niles.
Other special events include "Wildflower Trains" in the spring -- some featuring wine tasting -- and the holiday "Train of Lights," on which riders can enjoy nighttime rides on brightly decorated coaches.
In February, a one-time only Valentine Train takes 38 passengers -- some sporting period costumes--- on an elegant and romantic ride in a 1940s art-deco-style lounge car. That event includes wine and hors d'oeuvres, and sells out each year.
Riders on the Wine Tasting Specials seem happy mixing steam engines with sauvignon, Ferree said.
"The main thing we're trying to do is show off what's in this area -- both the Niles Canyon Railway and the wineries from Livermore," he said. "This area has a significant history to it, and a whole new group of winemakers. It's a great opportunity for people to learn something ... and is usually less expensive than going to Napa or Sonoma."
Niles Canyon Railway's "Livermore Valley Wine Tasting Specials" depart from the Niles Depot in Fremont at 1:30 p.m. and return at 3:30 p.m. Aug. 12, Aug. 26 and Sept. 9 only.
Tickets at $37.50 are available online at www.ncry.org or by calling Niles Canyon Railway at 510-996-8420.
Tickets also are available for the Railway's regular "Daylight Limited" diesel and steam train rides Aug. 4, 5, 18 and 19; Sept. 2 and 16; and Oct. 7 and 21. Those round-trip fares are $12, $10 for seniors 62 and older and $7 for children ages 3 through 12.
Depots are in Sunol at 6 Kilkare Road and in Fremont at 37001