Wednesday, August 6, 2008

At Strasburg, wines hits the rails

There are the traditional sites for wine tasting and then there’s the Strasburg Rail Road, where the light bulb went on in JoAnn O’Connell’s head more than a year ago and the result was an idea that should be seeing the light of day for many years to come.

A year after creating the Wine & Cheese Trains, O’Connell developed an intriguing concept that combines the 45-minute ride through the Lancaster County countryside with an education in the basics of wine tasting. It’s not the only place in the country this is being done – certainly the
Napa Valley Wine Train and its 36-mile round trip through wine country in northern California has earned plenty of deserved publicity since it made its debut. But the Strasburg wine tasting has built its own momentum since the idea first left the station.

“I was just looking for something a little different,” O’Connell said. “I started out online just going through [various wineries that offer tastings]. There’s quite a few; like the Wine School of Philadelphia and actually called them, and they would come out too if we wanted them to. But I wanted to try and stay with a little bit of the local wines. And they were offering more like even imported wines for their tasting. But that might be something we’ll do later on.”

The cost is $50 per person and there is a limit of 30 seats for each of the wine tasting trains. Boarding begins at 6:30, with the train departing at 7. Since Strasburg Township is dry, they don’t begin serving the wines until the train starts moving. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get settled into your seat in the first-class car and start noshing on the cheese and fruits that are passed around on trays. Chaddsford was the presenting winery for the two trips held last year; not only offering five wines (a mix of red and white, dry and sweeter) but also the winemaker to direct the tasting and complimentary glasses to send home with everyone.
Twin Brook Winery in the Gap, 10 or so miles west of Strasburg, did last month’s and will do the next one, scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 15. A few tickets remain for that; they can be purchased at the Strasburg Web site.

A fourth straight sellout could mean a few more of the tasting trains when 2009 rolls around.

“I would like to maybe consider doing it four times next year,” O’Connell said. “You don’t want to over due something like that. We found that out with the wine and cheese train. We added a Thursday and, what happened was, I think we really hurt ourselves because people didn’t feel like they had to hurry and get their tickets. I think you can kind of overdue a good thing, and this way, people feel like they are in a hurry to get their tickets as soon as they go on sale. So we cut back to Friday and Saturday.”

O’Connell said she has used the two wineries because “sometimes the same people come, so it makes it a little more interesting that way.” It sounds like she’ll continue switching, at least in part, next year.

Passengers on the wine tasting train are poured about an ounce of wine per variety and whatever background the winemaker cares to impart.

That’s in contrast to the Wine & Cheese Train, where you get a little more wine but none of the instruction. The cost is $30 per person and includes complimentary wine, cheese and crackers. Beer, mixed drinks, premium wines, nonalcoholic hot and cold beverages also are available for purchase. Again, tickets can be purchased at the Web site. With the limit on those rides capped at 44 people, O’Connell said they use two parlor cars for the trip.

Trains leave at 7 on Friday and Saturday nights through Aug. 30, then the schedule is cut back to Saturday night only through November. After a winter break, they resume in April.

O’Connell’s primary job is manager of the first-class cars on the landmark railroad. That includes managing The President’s Car, built in 1916 for the head of the Reading Railroad. It can be chartered during July and August.

Spreading the word for both wine trains hasn’t been a problem, O’Connell said. Area newspapers, for one, have written about them. And word of mouth has played as big a role in filling seats.

“All in all, it really has been a fun experience, she said. “I don’t have any trouble finding people to work it. Everybody kind of likes doing it. And, basically, a lot of people are repeats. They come and bring friends with them. As long as everybody keeps having a good time, we’ll be fine.”