The Napa Valley Wine Train Incident — No Comment

nocommentThose in the wine business in the Napa region and outside it have been reading, seeing and listening to a great deal of commentary about the recent Napa Valley Wine Train incident. In fact, those not in the wine industry, both in the Napa region and outside the region, have been reading, seeing and listening to a great deal of commentary on the Napa Valley Wine Train incident.

In light of this, I thought I’d offer my simple five-point plan to wineries and wine industry members on how to communicate about the Napa Valley Wine Train incident.

1. Say nothing about it

2. Write nothing about it.

3. Make no comment about it if queried

4. Try hard not to think about it

5. Forget about it.

If the basis for this simple five-point plan is not evident to you, simply ask yourself and answer this question:

In what way will saying something, writing something, responding to something, or thinking about the Napa Valley Wine Train Incident and the various commentary that has followed help you sell more wine or more wine services?

I’ve been contacted twice now to comment on the incident. In both cases my response has been: “No comment, and that’s off the record”. This will continue to be my response if contacted again for the simple reason that I’ve asked and answered the question above.

47 Responses

  1. steve - August 26, 2015

    Well said all around. Employees should also be told in the tasting rooms or on sales calls to say: “I am not aware of the details of the event and can’t add anything to what has been reported.” If it isn’t any of your business don’t try and make it your business. Employees that don’t follow managements instructions should probably not work in a public contact area. Personal opinions off the property is protected speech but still comments point to a lack of sound judgement and an appreciation of a good job.

  2. Tom Heller - August 26, 2015

    While I think Steve’s points are well taken. I am frankly appalled at Tom Wark’s proposal. We do not live in a vacuum, and while we do not know the circumstances of the incident. An owner saying nothing or no comment and this off the record, is frankly bullshit. It suggests that the train conductor or whoever made the decision to eject the women did so because of the color of their skin was right in doing so. There is no other way to interpret it. It sends a message that Napa Valley wine is only for rich white people. It projects an exclusionary image of the valley, which is sad.

  3. Jeff Schechtman - August 26, 2015

    The hottest places in hell are reserved for those, who in times of moral crisis, remain neutral. If the same attitude that you put forth had been the case in the Civil Rights era, we be even worse off today. Stand up for what you believe to be right. Don’t hide behind the hood of no comment.

  4. Alison Crowe - August 26, 2015

    I agree with everything here except #4 and #5. It should be a wake up call to TR’s, bars, restaurants etc. to make sure their staff and management is trained for not just ABC/TIPS training but also diversity training, proper company social media protocols and possibly crisis management.

    Internal conversations to be had, certainly not public-facing or external.

  5. AL - August 26, 2015

    The wine train has always irked me. The fact that they got Federal Subsidies to re-build a private train line that essentially offers no benefit to the local community or soft public transit, is a travesty.

    Their recent ads plastered around San Francisco say, “The Wine Train, A ferry ride away.” I found dubiously misleading, as if you could ferry to the train and get to Napa wine country. I’d hate to be the tourist that Ferry’s to Vallejo on a misnomer.

    And while this incident of supposed racism remains unique to the history of the Wine train, ignorantly defending an enterprise that adds little value and is exercising questionable hospitality values and white-lie marketing. (not to mention the photoshopped image of the wine train with vineyards on two-sides of it, the train always borders Hwy 29 on one side or the other.)

    At any rate, the wine train seems to be doing a fine job of mismanaging their messaging, and perhaps they’ll join the ranks of the mustard festival soon enough. Or ideally re-vamp themselves to provide a true value to Napa and their patrons.

    • tom merle - August 26, 2015

      You may not like the initial subsidy, but all businesses seek out financial advantages however they may come. If you want to rage about this direct it at the government.

      As for the Wine Train not having benefits for the industry and for the county, this is patently false.

  6. SJWs Abound - August 26, 2015

    Visitors to wine country can be loud obnoxious assholes. These visitors happened to be black and female. In a pretty left-leaning, blue region. So, of course: we must do something …… for the children……. errrr ….. down with whitey!!……. errr …. smash the patriarchy!

  7. Tim Vandergrift - August 26, 2015

    What a shameful example of depraved moral cowardice

    Let’s just consider your five point plan. In the middle of the most prestigious wine region in America, on an iconic attraction, there was a moment of controversy, one that deserves attention and consideration. And you want people in the industry to keep their head down and not engage in any kind of dialogue, comment or thought.

    I don’t know you, Tom, but I’ve met you a couple of times and thought you had some interesting things to say about the industry. Sadly, I’m pretty sure now those were all calculated to promote maximum sales and minimum real thought about what the industry is and where it can go.

    In matters of race and society men like you and I are bulletproof: white, male, heterosexual, older, affluent, somewhat influential in our spheres–to quote Louis CK, you can’t even hurt our feelings, because there’s nothing you can say that will affect our position as the dominant point in society.

    And that means we have to make sure we’re not jerks. Or let other people be jerks in our presence. This isn’t paternalism, and it’s not an example of privilege: it’s our duty as human beings to make sure our fellow men and women are welcome at every table we are welcome at, and if that means discussing a controversy, then that’s a discussion we should not shirk, nor counsel others to shirk. To do any less is to deny others their humanity.

    And to diminish our own.

    • tom merle - August 26, 2015

      So how would you lead the discussion, Tim? And what do you know that others don’t ? Well meaning people come down on both sides of The Incident. With something involving race and highly charged that didn’t occur on their property, winery reps should abstain from commenting.

      • tom heller - August 26, 2015

        Excuse me Tom Merle, I actually think opposing racism is noble. not a cause for sarcasm or snarkiness. I also believe that all wineries should oppose racism as well. That is their choice, my pocketbook is closed to those we preach no comment

        • Joe - August 27, 2015

          I am also against Muslim Terrorist kidnapping, raping little girls, blowing up buildings (9/11), preaching hate, recruiting little kids to blow themselves up. I am against Muslims preaching 29 or 79 virgins benefits.
          I am against killing a baby laying on a table with a heart beating and wringing its neck to kill it to harvest a once beating tiny heart and laughing about it.
          I am against illegal immigrants killing a lady in SFO.
          I am against Wall Street salaries. And the list can go on and on. These are events that are on going and no body responds to these events with such furor. Yes, racism is not good in any situation.
          I was once throw out of a restaurant, along with others at our table, when a very heated discussion erupted over a business proposal. It was loud, disruptive and imposing. Guess it was racism when we were told to leave immediately. Well the meal was free at least.
          Tom, is right in my opinion. If you are concerned about racism, how much money, time, protesting, donations did you contribute to stopping racism against all races? If the answer is very little-there’s your sign.

          • Bob Henry - August 27, 2015


            I have never been motivated to leave a “political” comment to a wine blog. On this occasion, I set a precedent.

            Western European Christians invaded the Middle East in the name of their religion during The Crusades.

            Spanish Catholics persecuted “heretics” during the Inquisition.

            Spanish Christians committed genocide against native Americans in South and Central America in the name of colonization.

            White American Christians committed genocide by enslaving Africans.

            American Christians national leaders persecuted native American Indians by forcing them off their tribal lands and onto reservations. [See article below that closes this comment.]

            White American Christians formed the Klu Klux Klan and persecuted blacks, Jews, Catholics, and European immigrants to the U.S.

            White German Christians slaughtered white English and French and American Christians waging World War I.

            White American Christian national government leaders interned (predominately Christian) Japanese Americans during World War II. But didn’t intern (predominately Christian) German Americans and Italian Americans. (Why the distinction?)

            White Catholics and white Protestants (worshiping the same God and reading the same Bible) waged war against each other in Ireland.

            It seems the only mainstream religious groups not guilty of such sins of aggression are the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the Quakers and the Buddhists.

            Guilt by tenuous association: a distinct minority of so-called “Muslims” discredit the majority of faithful and peaceful Muslims. A distinct minority of so-called “Christians” discredit the majority of faithful and peaceful Christians. A distinct minority of so-called “Jews” discredit the majority of faithful and peaceful Jews.

            Bigots and fanatics populate all races, all religions, and all nations.

            Their race doesn’t define them. Their faith doesn’t define them. Their citizenship doesn’t define them.

            Only their hate defines them.

            In closing, read this Times article:

            Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
            (December 7, 2014, Page A2):

            “Remembering Sand Creek;
            Special tribute is paid to a hero on the massacre’s 150th anniversary”


            By David Kelley
            “On the Ground in Denver” Column

            . . .

            Lines of Cheyenne and Arapaho streamed toward [Capt. Silas] Soule’s grave, paying silent tribute to the man who exposed the Sand Creek Massacre.

            “He refused to fire,” said Otto Braided Hair, who helped organize events around the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre last month. “If his men did fire, many of us wouldn’t be here today.”

            The killing commenced on Nov. 29, 1864, when 700 members of the Colorado Territory Militia led by Col. John Chivington attacked a Native American encampment in southeastern Colorado, slaughtering between 150 and 200 Indians — mostly women, children and the elderly.

            . . .

            “I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized,” wrote Capt. Silas Soule to Maj. Edward Wynkoop. “You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did there but every word I have told you is the truth which they do not deny.”

            . . .
            “It wasn’t enough for them to kill us; they also had to mutilate the bodies,” she [Rhoda Hungary, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe from Wyoming] said.

            ~~ Bob

        • Jena - August 31, 2015

          Amen and thank you (and many others) for your courage to address this head on. Racism, blatant or cloaked is not acceptable- especially among purported “refined” folks. This “NO COMMENT” bs is what allows this type of behavior to repeat. Horrible advice, as always- consider the source…

  8. Leslie Hennessy - August 26, 2015

    Wine people said the same thing about me when I proudly started the first gay lesbian wine shop in San Francisco in 1978. Some wine owners even kicked me off their properties because I did business with those’ people. Today the gay lesbian market is part of any smart wine marketing program’s. The black community has similar demographics and should not be ignored- let alone harrassed.

  9. SJWs Abound - August 26, 2015

    Until there is incontrovertible evidence of bias and unwarranted harassment, nobody should be jumping the gun on what happened.
    You’re doing it because these customers were women and black.
    I posit that, statistically speaking, it is far more likely they got kicked off because they were obnoxious than because they are black.
    Or….. you will have to defend the idea that the people who elected Mike Thompson (D), Lois Wolk (D), Bill Dodd (D), Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D) are also racist.

  10. Blake Gray - August 26, 2015

    Can I quote you on this, Tom?

  11. Tom Wark - August 26, 2015

    Yes, but it would have to be off the record.

  12. Charlie Olken - August 26, 2015

    I have no comment on your no comment.

    Other than to say that the evil stink of racism is all over this incident, and while unwarranted and uniformed speculation is never of any use, it is 100% appropriate for everyone to say that they are concerned and that there needs to be a thorough examination of the situation.

    The wine train took public funds, runs on a right of way allowed to them by the govt, and they are obligated to treat everyone fairly and with understanding. Anyone who has seen these wealthy, educated women and heard them talk will know that they were not intoxicated, that they were having a good time, that they stayed in their seats, that they did not take their clothes off, that they did not act rudely to the staff.

    In short, it truly does beg the question of whether some form of overt or nearly overt racism was present. Prejudging the final info about the incident may not be the place of tasting room staff, but if the wine industry cannot stand up and at least say that racism of any kind is unacceptable, then this is a very sad world indeed. And I for one do not think that little of the industry. We need to hear more about diversity and openness and less about turning our backs.

    • Tom Heller - August 26, 2015

      God Bless Charlie…..much more elegant than me

    • tom merle - August 26, 2015

      OK Charlie we’re all against racism. How noble of us.

      • Charlie Olken - August 26, 2015

        Mr. Heller–Thanks for the amen. You get the point. Bravo.

        Mr. Merle–I know you as a curmudgeon, but a friendly one with whom I have shared more than few laughs, but I don’t see your issue here. Being silent is never appropriate in these situations. Sure, uninformed tasting room staff may be out of place talking about all this, but the industry in general and the Wine Train in particular MUST publicly oppose any form of racism.

        It took the Wine Train an extra day and a professional PR person to finally figure that out. Too bad the Prez of WT did not step up sooner and simply say they were wrong before trying to hide behind a bunch of half truths and childish obfuscations.

        • tom merle - August 28, 2015

          Charlie, Is The Incident automatically driven by racism or a policy on noise that was poorly administered? It does a disservice to the Book Club to reduce them to their skin color even if they fall back on this knee jerk response. virtually all blacks today see actions that affect them as racially motivated. And it only increased this alienation and anger when well meaning white folks also introduce racism into the discussion, only adding fued to the fire of rage.

          As for the Wine Train management, their apology about how they handled what happened is automatic in the hospitality industry. Ask for forgiveness not permission. And they did not accept that their actions were driven by racism.

  13. Bob Henry - August 26, 2015

    Welcome to the “phenomenon . . . known as the Streisand Effect, after actress Barbra Streisand, who in 2003 sued to remove aerial images of her California home from the Internet, unwittingly spurring Internet users to find it.”


    Tom, I was unaware of this Wine Train incident, until your e-mail blast called attention to it.

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times (August 25, 2015):

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


    A member of book club made up largely of black women said Tuesday afternoon that they still feel humiliated even after the Napa Valley Wine Train issued a fuller apology Tuesday for kicking them off the train for reportedly being loud.

    . . .

    “The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100% wrong in its handling of this issue,”
    [chief executive, Anthony] Giaccio said in a statement. “We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests.”

    The business, he said, was insensitive to the women.

    . . .

    Train officials refunded the women’s tickets, and have since invited the women, their family and friends to fill a train car. . . .

    . . .

    The book club doesn’t plan on taking up the Giaccio’s offer to ride the train again, she [Lisa Renee Johnson, a member of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club] said.

    . . .

    The women’s story came as Slate published the account of a Latina who said she and her friends, mostly Latino UC Berkeley graduates, were threatened to be kicked off a train after a noise complaint. That woman, Norma Ruiz, told Slate she also believes that the action was racially based.

    . . .

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

    Singer said the company could have handled the book club’s situation differently and that there was a breakdown in communication from the beginning.

    When booking the trip, the women told wine train workers they would be enjoying each other’s company and “we may be loud,” he said.

    From that point, he said, the workers should have taken measures to accommodate the women and seat them in an area of the train where they could enjoy the trip.

    • Joe - August 27, 2015

      Motto of the media:
      “Never let facts stand in the way of a good headline!”

      • Bob Henry - August 27, 2015


        “Never let facts stand in the way of a good headline!”

        Not all media.

        My hometown Los Angeles Times expended the effort to get it right.

        Investigated the issues involved, quoted the individuals at length, and left the reader with the clear impression that all individuals involved could have acted more . . . civilly.

        ~~ Bob

  14. Mike Dunne - August 26, 2015

    For satire in wine writing, the HoseMaster finally has competition, for no one in wine communications ever would suggest his clients clam up. Unfortunately, Napa Valley vintners could take Tom’s advice at face value, thus perpetuating the myth that Napa Valley is a gated community only interested in visitors willing to put up with inflated prices, churlish manners and abusive congestion. Ahh, that is a myth, correct?

    • tom merle - August 26, 2015

      OK Mike we’re all against racism. Now what?

  15. Jo Diaz - August 26, 2015

    As an event producer, I took it on. The comments support the industry.

  16. Wine Guy - August 27, 2015

    “I wasn’t there, of course. However, dealing with large groups who have been enjoying a lot of wine over a long period of time is always challenging. Especially if they have been transported in a limo or van which also allows more drinking aboard. On top of that, the Wine Train has a bar in their waiting room which may have added more fuel to the fire. It’s troubling when any guest to our wine country has a poor experience. After all this is all about creating relationships and good feelings about our industry.”

  17. Bill Haydon - August 27, 2015

    Here’s another idea. Napa Valley addresses the rank classism and quiet racism that has long pervaded its community. It’s a quiet, smug racism that rarely rears its head publicly because it doesn’t have to in the bubble.

    I can picture exactly how those women were acting, and I know damned well had it been a bunch of loud boorish white lawyers from Omaha dressed in golf shirts, they absolutely would not have been removed from the train.

    Buy hey, let’s just say nothing, pretend it didn’t happen and go back to our safe sleep and dream of how perfect everything is in the bubble.

    • Bob Henry - August 27, 2015


      Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times article [above] quoted the Wine Train spokesperson Sam Singer that most of the passengers who are removed from the train are white.

      Say, loud boorish white lawyers from Omaha dressed in golf shirts.

      Just sayin’ . . .

      ~~ Bob

  18. Tom Wark - August 27, 2015

    Thank you for commenting.

  19. Bill McIver - August 27, 2015

    snark, snark, snark… Time for Lance Cutler and Jim Bundschu to make another raid on Napa’s disgusting wine train for snobs…

  20. Amit Nischal - August 27, 2015

    I have heard this many times not just from African Americans but other races. NAPA stands for “No African People Allowed” . Napa does have a race issue. I am sure the train incident has been blown out of proportion, but at least it’s getting the community to talk
    About race in a serious matter. Last thing we should do is be quiet

    • joe - August 27, 2015

      Talk is cheap, if your not racist put up your money and time to prove it (based upon my standard of proof). If you don’t put up money your a racist. Show me the money. Talk is calling someone a racist with no back up other than a media type who has been sipping much to much chardonnay (maybe-but a beautiful thought). Much easier painting with esoteric phrases-talk talk talk. Epiphany–Let’s all live in a commune, sing kum ba yah every evening at sundown around a campfire at the Wine Train terminal, and wait for Hale Bopp to come by and gather up the PC correct annointed. Until then a select group search out who we think are racist and bludgeon them or talk them to death and feel we have made the world a better place based on a news story.

      Tom, how about a label for a 99 point Cab called (and it should sell): You Big Fat Racist Bastards Who Buy Wine From Napa Producers or You Are A Racist If You Buy Wine From Napa And Live or Work In Napa. Nah, much to long to get on a label and the TTB would probably have a problem with the back label warnings. Now, I got it- Charge a $20 premium for Napa wine and the $20 per bottle contribution goes to a campaign of purging closet racist in Napa. A $20 bottle of Cab. would now go for at least $40. Now everybody’s souls will be made right before the Judge of Racial Purgings.

  21. Bill McIver - August 27, 2015

    Yes, we have a huge racial divide in this country…and this incident shows that those who can afford to luxuriate on the wine train and hang out in expensive wine country, that it’s not just Georgia crackers who are racists. Kicking those people off the train was just another degrading event African Americans endure in this racist country.

  22. Keith Miller - August 27, 2015

    In what way will saying something, writing something, responding to something, or thinking about the Napa Valley Wine Train Incident and the various commentary that has followed help you sell more wine or more wine services?

    Not everything is about selling wine or more wine services Tom… Correct?

    And would you agree that The Napa Valley wine train is a Wine Service?

    The Napa Valley Wine Train services the wine community aka those in the wine business such as Grgich Hills…or would you disagree?

    Would you say the Fermentation Wine Blog sells more wine?

  23. Jon Bjork - August 27, 2015

    Looks like you may have forgotten to “Don’t Allow Comments” for this post, Tom! 🙂

  24. Donn - August 27, 2015

    What a hoot. So many comments from people who weren’t there. But seem to have evidence anyway. Hi, I’m Brian Williams reporting on the scene.
    Oprah! Hillary! Gavin! Let’s pile on.

  25. Enemy of Average - August 30, 2015

    My wife and I are heading to the Napa region when we head to the US from Australia next year. We were considering the train, but now….Im not too sure!!

    • Steve - August 30, 2015

      Do the Wine Train. It isn’t a bullet train, food is so so, slow, people are nice easy on and off. I have done it twice. I would recommend not getting loud and imposing. Welcome to America.

  26. Bob Henry - September 1, 2015

    “Ripped from the headlines . . .”

    From the Napa Valley Register Online
    (August 31, 2015):

    “Women forced off Wine Train retain lawyer for possible settlement or suit”


    • Joe - September 2, 2015

      Tell me NO ONE in America saw this coming? Seems like the Wine Train could be seeing copy cat suits-Get on Wine Train, get loud, get thrown off, sue, then a movie, premier showing at Copia in Napa. Guest list-Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton. The latter two hitting up the crowd for donations to their cause. I have been ask to leave a lot nicer restaurant at a business meeting that got pretty loud and we were ask to leave. We were white guys that got into an argument about policy. I’m should have sued. There went my 401K. But I bet the Lady’s Bood Club will donate all their proceeds to charity. And good for them.

  27. Steve - October 3, 2015

    I am now officially OD’ed on PC. After reading everything posted on this subject I am now of the opinion that EVERYTHING in our country can be motivated by Racism. Definitions are so broad there is even racism claims targeted at Rednecks, farmers, hunters, wine drinkers, people proud of being from the South and historically getting their collective buttocks kicked by Damn Yankees. Heck I grew up in an environment who hated Italians. I think I can justify calling a local roofer racist, whom I have never met, based on a bumper sticker on a truck he doesn’t even own but drives.
    Just a question-If a group of people are annoying you at a restaurant/sporting event/etc. due to loud behavior or talking on a cell phone constantly is it proper to ask them to leave-no matter their race or should such a request be based first on ethnicity ? Heck, some real liberal and conservative cities in America have laws that allow police to ticket, arrest or confiscate automobiles where the drivers are playing music/rap/whatever very loudly going down a street.
    Some people say, let’s get PC about nuclear waste disposal. Killing babies just after being pulled from the mother. Killing young people who profess faith. Poor and expensive schools rendering subpar results.
    The women humiliated by whatever they did or others thought they did on the wine train will settle for a significant amount of money, based upon other CA suits, and most will probably keep the money to soothe their conscious and humiliation. Some will donate it to charities to combat racism.
    A question for this wine blog: Do survey’s say white wine drinkers are more prone to racism? You can try and fix stupid if you like.

  28. Dasara Wishes - October 17, 2015

    This post gives me lots of advice it is very useful for me.

  29. The Top Wine Stories of 2015 - Fermentation - December 2, 2015

    […] 11. Wine Train and #LaughingWhileBlack The single most important story in 2015 that put Napa Valley in front of readers (and TV watchers) was that of the renowned Wine Train’s decision to ask a group of women (primarily African-American women) to leave the train in the middle of the ride for being too disruptive. News spread across the country of the Wine Train’s decision to ask these ladies to leave for allegedly #LaughingWhileBlack. The ladies are suing. Meanwhile, many have noted that The Wine Train regularly (once a month, apparently) ask patrons to leave for being disruptive and those ejections are most commonly not of African-Americans. It certainly isn’t the kind of story Napa Valley wants to see in the media. However, it provided a number of lessons for the wine industry. […]

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