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What really happened on the Napa Valley Wine Train?



It’s been one of the big social stories for the last several weeks, this tale of the Black women who were escorted off the train. You know the facts; I don’t need to go through them. What I find interesting are (a) the reaction in Napa Valley itself, as I perceive it to be through letters to the editor at the Napa Register, and (b) what this says about race, culture and the very image of “wine country.”

Concerning (b), it’s no secret that wine country has always been pretty lily-white. It was in the 1970s when I first began visiting, and it still is today. Yes, you can find Blacks, Asians and Latinos in Los Olivos, St. Helena and Healdsburg, but not many—maybe more today than ever, but sightings are still pretty rare.

Why is that? The main reason, I think, is that people of color in this country generally make less money than white people. Wine is an expensive “hobby” and it’s even more expensive to visit wine country, which tends to be located in high real estate areas, with pricy restaurants and costly lodging. Add to that that the appreciation of wine has historically been a Caucasian thing. I think all races and ethnicities like to drink alcohol (provided they’re not on the wagon), but different races and ethnicities have preferred different alcoholic beverages, and wine, which really developed in Europe, has been a white drink. Finally, the “lifestyle” associated with wine has definitely been a white thing—and an elitist white thing, at that: Even many white people are turned off by the whole sipping-and-swirling thing. (Sometimes it even embarrasses me!)

I’ve celebrated the fact over the years that wine has become more and more appealing to non-white people. Based on economics alone, the wine industry can’t succeed simply by selling to a portion of the white population, it has to sell across all racial and ethnic demographics. That’s been happening, despite the fact that the wine industry was slow, very slow, to figure out how to appeal to non-whites—much slower than beer and spirits. I was pointing this out decades ago: the wine industry has to learn how to make itself appealing to non-whites.

The fact that the Black women’s book club was on the train in the first place is a good sign. That might not have happened ten years ago. So count that as progress. And what of “wine country”? Well, the concept of “wine country” is aspirational. It’s about making more money, living in a nicer house than perhaps you already do, in a nicer place, and being able to afford “the finer things in life.” There’s nothing wrong with aspirations. They’re a form of hope—and hope is important to staying alive and moving forward. I, personally, would not want to live in wine country, as I am city born and bred, and prefer the liveliness of the urban environment. But even I can see the graciousness, the cultivated ambience of wine country. Wine country doesn’t have to be lily-white—but it probably does need to be wealthy. I don’t see any way around that. And just because wine country is wealthy, doesn’t mean it’s bigoted or mean-spirited. In fact, the North Coast wine country has been represented in the Congress for many years by Mike Thompson, a good Democrat. So I don’t think there’s anything redneck or conservatively hateful or racist about wine country.

As to the reaction to the Wine Train event itself, the letters to the editor have been running fairly heavily against the women. The general reaction in the valley seems to be that the women were in the wrong, that they should have apologized (not the wine train), and that they’re only suing for the money.

I think that, until and if there’s a trial, and more witnesses step forward, none of us who were not actually on the train know what really happened. We know that at least one person complained; we have the Wine Train’s statement that the women were asked multiple times to tone it down, and apparently didn’t. There’s the issue of marching the women through several cars, but we don’t know why that was—many of the letters say that not all the cars are exit-able. I’d like to have more people who were on the train come forward and tell us what they saw and heard, but so far that hasn’t happened. We do know that the head of the Wine Train apologized and said that his employees were 100% wrong. If that’s the case, then perhaps the women do have a case. If the women really were obnoxious, and deserved to be removed (as apparently happens fairly often), then why did the Wine Train head say those things?

As for the charges of an ambulance-chasing lawyer, maybe the guy the ladies hired is, maybe he isn’t. But guess what? Suing isn’t a black thing or a white thing or a Latino or Asian thing, it’s as American as apple pie. We’re the most litigious country on earth, and, while I deplore that, it has nothing to do with the race of the lawyer or the litigants. If somebody thinks they can make a little money by filing a civil lawsuit, they’re going to do it.

We’re dealing, here, with the Rashomon Effect. It may never be possible to know exactly what happened. This is an age of “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Even if all the facts ultimately come out, people will argue about what they mean. So there’s always going to be some ambiguity.

I do think the discussion this has engendered in Napa Valley has been a healthy one. I don’t think the Valley needs to wear a hair shirt, but I do think that conversations of this sort always are helpful, even if they’re uncomfortable. I also think there should be a conversation in the Black community (as I believe there already is). I’m personally tired of some of the memes that are floating around: that there’s “Black behavior” as opposed to “White behavior.” I live in Oakland, one of the most racially- and ethnically-mixed cities in the U.S., and I don’t live in the Hills, I live downtown. I can tell you that when it comes to civility and respect, there’s only one behavior, and that’s human behavior, and it’s ultimately based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you.

  1. “Yes, you can find Blacks, Asians and Latinos in Los Olivos, St. Helena and Healdsburg, but not many—maybe more today than ever, but sightings are still pretty rare.” Really? Last I heard, over 70% of the students in the public schools in Calistoga are Hispanic. And we are quite proud of the Mexican-American owned wineries and vineyards. They even have their own organization to promote their products:

  2. Bill Dyer, As I earlier replied to someone else, I’m talking about tourists, especially in the upscale restaurants and wineries. Obviously there are many Latino residents of Napa Valley and other wine regions.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    Kudos for the Rashomon reference. Not sure that I’d call Mike Thompson a good Democrat though. What he is is a good Rockefeller Republican (a breed that migrated to the Democratic Party a generation ago). He’s moderate on some social issues that are of no threat to the oligarchy but firmly in the pocket of Wall Street, the US Chamber of Commerce and the Fortune 500 on economics, income inequality, trade and business regulation.

    Just ask “Money” Mike what his thoughts are on unfair trade, antitrust enforcement, a return to pre-Reagan marginal tax rates or reinstating New Deal era banking regulations, and you’ll get a sense of how good a Democrat he really is.

  4. I think you have two main groups of tourists that come to Napa Valley. You have those that come here for a nice romantic get-away and those that visit expecting a Las Vegas type experience. By Las Vegas type experience I mean that they are here to party, have fun and drink lots of wine. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does upset the group that desires a more subdued and romantic vacation. I only know what I’ve read in various articles but that is what I assumed happened here. These ladies were having a good time and while I doubt they crossed the line, they probably did upset those that were hoping for a romantic lunch aboard the train.

  5. Your characterizations are broadly true, but at least at The Hess Collection, we see a much more diverse group of visitors today than we did just give years ago, with many Black visitors, Asians and increasingly Indian. One of our ongoing challenges is to recruit a diverse visitor center staff with a multiplicity of backgrounds, genders and race that will allow us to best understand, connect and serve the wonderful people who arrive every day at our doorstep. We do monitor to assure that all guests are having a positive experience, and everyone experiences things in a different way. It can, and sometimes does, get interesting….

  6. Bill Haydon’s remarks about Mike Thompson show an ignorance about his own party. For the record, for what it is worth, on balance, Mike has been a great representative of this District. However, the Democrat Party as a national entity has been in the pocket of “Wall Street” and enormous corporations for years and years. They talk the game of the “little people” and “victim groups” but follow the huge pile of money. The Clintons and their ethically tainted cash is only the most visible and noisy part of the iceberg. Recently, Obama’s EPA has gone to war against coal. Fine, it’s their POV. Step two: the coal companies start to fail. Right, that’s what happens. Step Three: George Soros, the bankroller of so many left wing and Democrat Party surrogate operations starts to buy up coal companies on the cheap. Profits. Conclusion: it’s all about the money no matter how righteous the Party tries to paint itself. So why do you keep voting for them?

  7. I wrote two stories, back-to-back about this issue. My first one: The Removal of Wine Train passengers is a symptom of a bigger problem. The second one was on the comments that I had gathered for the first story, which supports the need for understanding the wine culture, from a wine “educator’s” perspective; i.e., those of us in hospitality.

    A few weeks earlier, I had to eject someone from a party, so this issue was still raw for me. The party was over at 4:00 p.m. I suggested at 6:30 p.m. that it was over. I suggested at 7:30 p.m. that it was over. I suggested at 8:30 p.m. that it was over – and everyone invited was long gone. Finally, at 9:00 p.m., I said, “It’s time for us to leave, and that means you, too, NAME.” She wasn’t happy, but finally left. Sometimes, when people are told three times to change a behavior, they just don’t get it and get wrapped up in their own little worlds.

    It’s the second one that I want to comment on here, as a reader of this story decided that I was egregious, by not focusing on the race issue, versus the courtesy issue in “Wine industry comments support the issue of common courtesy”

    She had her say, and then I wrote this:

    Those of us in wine hospitably… know it when we see it. “Please keep it down, others are objecting.” Obviously someone missed the message — three times. Not once, like my person above I believe I was justified, but hated to have to do it. Not twice, like my person above. And, not three times, like my person above. How do you explain that one? It’s not about race when it comes to manners. I know a ton of people of color and they’ve got manners. It’s just common courtesy, like common sense. If someone on your campus is not conforming to the culture at your university:
    1) is it just ignored?
    2) does it first have to measure up to some litmus test of rules for color consideration?
    3) is it dealt with?

    It’s a sad commentary of people not taking responsibility for their actions.

    They produced a video, once off the train. The one most responsible for the social media aspects, was recorded asking herself, almost quietly, but still audibly, “was this racial?” In a perfect world, she would have said, “Why didn’t we listen to at least one of the requests?” It was really hard for me, just before this incident, to have to tell someone at an event I was hosting for 4.5 hours that our party was over and it was time to go. (The party was for four hours, to being with.) It was eating away at my gut the whole time, that she just couldn’t pull herself away. Finally, five hours later, I had to eject her. Then this story came along. For me, courtesy and conforming to the culture people chose to enjoy is at the root of their being asked to leave, when conformity isn’t working… Nothing more… Courtesy. The train made a statement that this happens monthly. No one else has gone public when it happened to them, perhaps understanding that they just caused their own scene… Just my own thought, having just lived the side of it being the one forced to take action.

  8. It would be informative, and useful for prosecution purposes, to learn how often the Wine Train evicts guests for unruly, or uncooperative (we’ve asked you three times to tone it down…) behavior.

    If the Wine Train evicts passengers weekly, or on a regular basis, the eviction of the women becomes somewhat more understandable in light of the number of times this card is played.
    If no one has been evicted from the Wine Train for “bad behavior” in recent times, then racism becomes a more strident argument.

  9. Jo Diaz – let me get this straight. You gave this meathead FIVE extra hours, and she still complained. I’d say you should be nominated for sainthood. For future reference, I suggest that at any such time-limited party you have a copy of Willie Nelson’s “Turn Out The Lights The Party’s Over” loaded up on the audio system. Play it at closing time. Give people an extra half hour to leave. Then play it again – really LOUD. Keep playing it. And then… turn out the damn lights!

    Steve – great piece my friend. However, I must take exception to one statement: “Wine country doesn’t have to be lily-white—but it probably does need to be wealthy. I don’t see any way around that.” That may be true for California wine country. Not true in Walla Walla, in the Yakima Valley, in much of the Willamette Valley, etc. Many middle middle class people are living, working, making wine and raising families here. And wine touring is cheap. Tasting room fees are modest at best. Lots of freebies too. And you’ll even get to meet a genuine winemaker more often than not.

  10. Paul, I have been considering what to do, if and when this happens again. I like your idea. Jose will bring the boom box… Done!

  11. To Jim White, from Sonoma Index tribune: “Sam Singer, a spokesperson for the Napa Valley Wine Train, responded quickly to the Index-Tribune’s request for comment. He confirmed that the on-train staff had received at least two complaints from other passengers about the group’s “loudness and language,” though he made no attempt to evade the company’s mishandling of the situation, reiterating Giacco’s apology.

    “When asked, Singer also mentioned that they do eject people from the train fairly frequently. “Approximately once a month there is an issue similar to this, where the actions of an individual, a couple or a group of people, impact the experiences of other train passengers.” He said the offending groups are asked to depart the train in St. Helena and offered a ride back to the Napa Valley train station, just as occurred with Sistahs on the Reading Edge.”

  12. Daniel Morris says:

    Just a thought I wonder if any one has been ejected from the Big Gay Wine Train. Lets support the Wine Trains decision, a hard one to make, but one that was forced upon them. This is so out of control.

  13. PaulG, you’re probably right about what I said about California. Along the coast–my turf–it is very wealthy, from Los Olivos up through Napa Valley (Maybe not Anderson Valley so much!)

  14. You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts. The U.S. is not the most litigious country on earth. You just made that up. Here are the facts:
    Lawsuits per 1,000 Population

    • Germany 123.2
    • Sweden 111.2
    • Israel 96.8
    • Austria 95.9
    • U.S.A. 74.5
    • UK/England & Wales 64.4
    • Denmark 62.5
    • Hungary 52.4
    • Portugal 40.7
    • France 40.3

  15. Sadly, The Great Train Dispute is a microcasm of the state of U.S. race relations in 2015. Using our common sense and personal experience it is reasonable to conclude that the book club members were causing some noise pollution and interfering with the enjoyment of the Wine Train experience by others. What is most disturbing is not any ruckus, it is the sense of offence and entitlement that middle class blacks and others feel. Ferguson et al have certainly contributed to feelings of grievance and anger on the part of African Americans and others. The Wine Train botched the how to treat the situation. Other wine country hospitality entities have to walk on egg shells and be prepared for confrontations and assertions of victimhood by black guests. It’s just the way it is for now

  16. redmond barry says:

    “While that was the safest route for disembarking, it showed a lack of sensitivity on our part that I did not fully conceive of until you explained the humiliation of the experience and how it impacted you and your fellow Book Club members.”-the CEO.

    He offered the traumatized ladies a whole car to themselves , which doubtless will be interpreted as segregation. No doubt a No Cal judge will order some other customers to ride with them.

  17. Jim White:

    “It would be informative, and useful for prosecution purposes, to learn how often the Wine Train evicts guests for unruly, or uncooperative (we’ve asked you three times to tone it down…) behavior.”

    Quoting the Los Angeles Times (August 25, 2015) coverage:

    “Woman Kicked Off Napa Wine Train Says Still Humiliated Despite Apology”


    “Incidents such as the one Saturday occur about once a month, he [Napa Valley Wine Train spokesman Sam Singer] said. Most of the passengers who are removed from the train, he said, are white.”


  18. Tom Merle:

    “What is most disturbing is not any ruckus, it is the sense of offence and entitlement that middle class blacks and others feel.”

    The late astrophysicist / popularizer of space exploration Carl Sagan observed:

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

    What is your evidence for this bold assertion that middle class African-Americans feel a sense of entitlement?

    And who are the middle class “others” that you allude to?

    (If upon reflection you have inartfully composed and articulated your thoughts, then use this opportunity to revise them.)


  19. Tom,

    Don’t come off as a contemporary “Al Campanis.”

    Los Angeles Times headline:

    “Dodgers Fire Executive Al Campanis Over Racial Remarks”



    “On ABC-TV’s ‘Nightline’ Monday night, [Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President Al] Campanis, 70, made several comments that were seen as being insensitive at best and possibly bordering on being racist.

    . . .

    “[Ted] Koppel, realizing the difficulty Campanis was creating for himself, gave the Dodger vice president several opportunities to either retract or clarify his remarks, but Campanis did neither.”


  20. “Evidence”? Like anyone who follows the passing scenery from the metaphorical railroad car or more apt the craft on the river containing outcroppings, raging white water etc. So yes personal observation and keeping abreast via online viewpoints like including black journalism.

    Just reading the comments in the various media that covered The Incident provides a definite sense of direction from my vantage point. And the mode that the book club members adopted in decrying their plight. Footnotes could be provided if I thought it worth the time to respond to you Bob.

  21. Oh, and the large block of wood on the shoulder of my former highly educated (PhD) girlfriend and her girlfriends.

    The only disinterested black pundits IMO are John MCWhorter and Gene Robinson. Maybe Amy

  22. You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts. The U.S. is not the most litigious country on earth. You just made that up. Here are the facts:
    Lawsuits per 1,000 Population
    • Germany 123.2
    • Sweden 111.2
    • Israel 96.8
    • Austria 95.9
    • U.S.A. 74.5
    • UK/England & Wales 64.4
    • Denmark 62.5
    • Hungary 52.4
    • Portugal 40.7
    • France 40.3

  23. Tom,

    A small percentage of affluent individuals (defined by high income and high net worth) affect an attitude of “sense entitlement.”

    Likewise highly educated individuals.

    Both of which distance themselves from “the hoi polloi.”

    But I fail to see the societal “evidence” of an overweening sense of entitlement as manifest by one’s: race, gender, family lineage nationality (we are a nation of immigrants), religious affiliation, sexual identity and orientation, and other demographic characteristics.


  24. Blake Gray says:

    Good piece, Steve. It’s not a simple story and you didn’t cover it that way.

  25. OMG Blake Gray just gave me a compliment!

  26. Steve,

    As you wrote on May 19, 2015 at 7:26 pm:

    “Dear Blake, please don’t feel guilty about occasionally agreeing with me. Like the proverbial broken clock, I’m right at least twice a day.”

    Blog headline: “From the Old Guard to the New Guard: Lighten Up”


    ~~ Bob

  27. Tom Merle:
    “Oh, and the large block of wood on the shoulder of my former highly educated (PhD) girlfriend and her girlfriends.”

    Ah, yes. Because you don’t come across as bitter and resentful at all.

  28. How so, Jim? Chagrinned about the racial standoff, but not bitter or resentful and certainly not toward my former girl friend, who is one of Merle’s pearls.

  29. Oh, please. You claim to know what happened on the train, based on broad proclamations about the state of race relations, and offer ominous warnings about the poor wine country folks being terrorized by the scary middle class black people.

    When challenged to provide evidence, it turns out you have none other than your “personal observation” and “common sense.” But hey, some of your favorite journalists are black, so it’s all okay!

  30. anonymous poster says:

    I don’t think I agree with your assessment that people are in favor of the wine train’s decision. Maybe the people who write to the Napa Valley newspaper were, but look at the Facebook page the wine train manages. There are far more comments criticizing the wine train’s decision than standing up for it.

    I happen to disagree with the wine train’s decision because it sounds like a) they screwed up the reservation of the book group from the beginning and b) there were apparently other loud groups on the train the same day who were not asked to leave. It also seems there are often loud groups on the train who are not asked to leave.

    The comments on the Facebook page definitely don’t make you want to take the train. The people who support the train’s decision make despicable racist comments, so if that’s who is on the train, I think I will pass.

  31. Bob Henry says:

    “[Further] Ripped from the headlines . . .”

    From the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (October 2, 2015, Page B3):

    “Book group sues over Napa wine train ouster”


  32. If their behavior wasn’t outrageous enough, the fact that they’re suing the NVWT for $11,000,000 for a situation THEY created takes it to a whole new level! I’m curious to see how this lawsuit plays out since there’s a Caucasian woman amongst them. How was she discriminated against? My guess is they’ll “settle” for $100,000 each and go about their new & improved lives. Lisa Renee Johnson, the ringleader and videographer of the group, calls herself a Sunshineologist… whatever *that is! If she’s such a positive person, why can’t she and the rest of her book club act like civilized adults when asked to do so in a certain environment? And when the consequences they were warned would happen actually transpired, all of a sudden it’s an issue of race…when nothing could be further from the truth!
    I hope whatever Judge they appear laughs in their faces and sends them home empty-handed!
    This whole thing is ridiculous!

  33. Bob Henry says:

    Breaking news . . .

    From the San Francisco Chronicle
    (posted Monday, April 18, 2016):

    “Book Club Members Settle Suit Over Ejection from Napa Wine Train”

  34. Of course there was going to be a settlement. The cards were stacked. As Steve pointed out we never heard a peep from any other person on that train car. This was the missing “evidence” and without it companies have to settle. And today no ‘enlightened’ white person will speak out about black behavior. The new owners take this resolution as part of the purchase price and move on. But it certainly leaves a lingering bitter taste.

  35. Bob Henry says:


    Methinks the term you were searching for (but failed to use) was “politically correct.”

    As in:

    “And today no ‘politically correct’ white person will speak out about black behavior.”

    A truly “enlightened” person (skin color/race is irrelevant) would stand up and declare the Emperor has no clothes in the face of opposition.

    Here’s my pitch on seeking enlightenment. Read this book detailing “an approach to decision making and action that is driven by hard facts rather than half-truths or hype.”

    Title: “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense”

    “Enlightened” individuals welcome being informed on the errors of their ways.

    ~~ Bob

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