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Amtrak Coast Starlight

Wine Tasting with Richard Talmy

 Parlour Car Attendant


"The Most Unforgettable Character"

By:  Carl Morrison,


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Richard, as the Coast Starlight Parlour Car Attendant, has a number of responsibilities, not the least of which is directing the Wine Tasting at 3:30 each day.
Richard's procedure is to first hand out napkins on which to place the wine glasses so that the glass doesn't fall on the floor from the movement of the train.  Additionally he hands out to the seated passengers a bottle of water each, for rinsing the glass after each taste, and for cleansing the pallet.
The focus of his presentation is, How Wines Go with Food, similar to what high-end hotels and restaurants do.  Three trays of a variety of cheeses and crackers are provided on the serving cart and we were encouraged to fill our small plates. 
He takes the first 20 minutes to explain wines.  Amtrak looks for lesser known varietals from wineries which produce excellent wines.  Once they purchased the entire production.  Most of the wines can be purchased off the train - although some may take some hunting. 

Amtrak researched its sleeping car clientele and found them to be upscale, educated, well-traveled, with disposable income, and, as Richard put it, good looking.  To Amtrak this meant that sleeping car passengers would appreciate wine-tasting onboard and perhaps would purchase wine.  These wines are only $14 to $16 per bottle, wrapped in a white linen napkin, and sales tax is included in that price.

Richard suggested we follow the traditional Sight, Smell, Taste routine during our tasting this afternoon.  White wine is better enjoyed young and Red is better old.  Air speeds up oxidizing. 

Wine is a living organism, with its own youth, maturity, decline and end.  The challenge is to catch it at maturity.  White wine can be enjoyed for 5 days after opening, red holds for 3 days.  Sweet wines hold longest.  Some sellers, such as Trader Joe's, sell pasteurized wines.

It is very important that no air reaches the wine before opening...this is why wines are stored cork-down to keep the cork from drying out.  "Cork" is being replaced by "closure" these days and the closure may be cork, twist off, or plastic.  Cork can crack and air can reach the wine.  Corks can rot.  So a good wine steward will show the cork to the diners for  examination.  Look at the cork for mold and cracks.  See if the cork will flake off with your fingernail, if not, it is probably a good wine that has not been reached with air.

With the first pour of white wine, is the wine clear?

Tip the glass at a 45 degree angle, if the Color is dark this means heavy oak.  Lighter in color is medium oak.

Good wine has good legs.  Swirl your wine in the dry glass and in 45 seconds or so, look for legs or 'tears.'  If they appear, this means it is a premium wine.  This works in a dry glass only.

Smell the 'nose' aroma, is it citrus or floral?

Swallow and check the finish.  Is it smooth and fruity?

The wines for today:

DSC01465.jpgFirst is the Chardonnay.  Buchli Station, Napa Valley, CA, 2003.  The card that was handed out by Richard had the following notes:

Buchli Station is an actual train station no longer in use, located on the property of Bochaine Vineyards in Napa Valley and is the namesake of this wine.  The station is depicted on the label.  We don't normally feature Chardonnay in our tastings, but we liked this wine and the railroad theme caught our attention.  The wine has aromas of citrus and lemon zest with just a hint of oak.  This chardonnay has true varietal character with citrus vanilla and spice flavors and a smooth finish.  Try this wine with trout almandine or grilled chicken breast. $14

Buchli Station is pear, melon, and apple blending.  In France, this would be called a Chablis (higher quality) or Bourgogne Blanc (lesser quality).  This is a dry wine.  Oak casks give a butter flavor.

[I had never tasted a chardonnay I liked, but this is obviously a cut above and it was enjoyed.]

Second Tasting:  Pinot Noir, Parker Station, 2005, Santa Barbara, CADSC01462.jpg

Fess Parker, the former actor (Disney's Davey Crockett, among other roles) planted the grapes for his vineyard in 1989 with the interest of selling the fruit to local wineries.  The initial 5 1/2 acres is now more than 700 acres and Fess Parker Winery is producing world class wines including Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir.  Pinot Noir is the noble red grape of Burgundy and because it is so delicate, is one of the most difficult wines to produce.  This is a great example of a Pinot Noir.  It has the typical Pinot Noir aromas of cherry, leather and spice and the flavors are that of  cherry and cranberry with a hint of vanilla and toasty oak.  This is a great wine to serve with grilled salmon, turkey dinner, or even cheese and crackers.  $16

Richard added that Fess Parker's winery is where  some of the movie, Sideways, was filmed.  This is a light red, medium bodied wine best served with steak, fish, and chicken.  If it was from France, it would be called a Burgundy, from that growing area in France.  The winery is in Los Olivos where there are cool coastal breezes with temperatures not over 70 degrees and ample sunshine.  It is earthy and fruity with the flavors of cranberry, cherry, and stawberry.  It is soft on tannins.  Grape skins are left on for red wines, givng red wines tannins and acidity.  Tannins loosen with time.  It is best to pour red wines into a carafe or decanter for one hour before serving.  One hour in a carafe or decanter equals ten years in the bottle.  In a young wine, red equals flavor.  Aged wine looses flavor.  In a pinot, the tannins are already soft.  Serve at room temperature (62 degrees) or refrigerate for 10 minutes.  If too cold, it looses its flavor.  If you order this wine, Richard will aerate it for you.


Third and final Tasting of the afternoon:  Symphony Obsession, Ironstone Vineyards, Murphys, CA

I was glad to see Symphony still on the tasting list because the last time I was on the Coast Starlight, with Nanette as the Parlour Car Attendant, I tasted and purchased a bottle before wine tasting to assure that I'd have it available in the Parlour Car and for meals in the diner.   Parlor car attendants will keep your purchased bottle in their cooler and will pour glasses for you in the Parlour Car during your trip.

The featured-wine-card says:  Ironstone Vineyards started in 1948, when John Kautz bought some land in Lodi, California and started growing grapes to sell to wine producers.  They now have more than 5,000 acres.  In 1988, John decided to produce his own wines.  Symphony is a new [grape] (compared to the pinot noir grape which has been around for more than 2000 years) developed by crossing the Muscat of Alexandria grape and the Grenache Gris grape.  The first Symphony wines were produced in 1948 - the same year John bought his first property.    This wine has fresh floral aromas and a hint of apricot.  This flavor is full of fruit and very crisp with a clean finish.  This wine is perfectly matched with Asian and spicy foods such as Kung Pao Chicken or Jambalaya.  $14

Symphony is a sweet wine suitable to serve with barbecue, Thai, and Cajun which are foods that go well with sweet wines.  This wine was developed by University of Calfironia, Davis.  It has a muscat, apricot finish.  This wine gets better with age.

Richard mentioned the five reasons to serve wine with food:

1.  Wine accentuates the flavor of the food, like salt does, but with less severity.

2.  Wine draws out hidden flavors in the food.  That is why we have cheese with our wine tasting on the train.

3.  Wine cuts the fat in foods by its acidity.

4.  Wine brings its own character and flavor to the food.

5.  Wine combines to bring a new consistency and changes the character of the meal.

White wines have four levels of dryness:  Dry, Off-dry, Medium dry, and sweet.  Symphony is a Medium dry.

After wine tasting, the Parlour Car guests continued their conversation until their dinner time was called.  Of course, you have the option to return to your room.

At the end of wine tasting, I purchased a bottle of Symphony and had Richard put it aside in the cooler.  He mentioned at wine tasting time that if anyone purchased a bottle of wine, he would bring it to our table at dinner.  When our dinner reservation was announced in the evening, I reminded Richard as we walked by the bar, that we were headed for dinner and he said, "I'll bring your wine right away."  When Richard arrived with our wine, he pointed out the good characteristics of the cork assuring that it would be as good as expected, which it was.   When Eileen from Bellingham, and Dick Fureer from Santa Maria joined us for dinner, I asked if they would help me share the bottle because I did not want to drink most of it myself, and Dick said, "Sure, we'll help you with your problem!"  I went back to the Parlour Car and got 2 more glasses and we enjoyed the rest of the Symphony with our dinner and conversation. 

Eileen mentioned that the "light" was very good outside during our sunset dinner.  I immediately asked her, "Are you a photographer or artist?"  She looked up quickly with her bright eyes and answered, "Yes, I was a photographer, how did you know?"  I said, "Because you mentioned "the light," and photography is 'painting with light' so your vocabulary gave away your vocation." I asked her if she was at the wine tasting, and if so what did she think of the Parlour Car Attendant, Richard.  She immediately responded,  "He's a hoot!"  (I realized she is from the next generation behind me and this is a compliment!)  Further evidence that she enjoyed Richard's wine tasting presentation was shown when I later saw her carrying a bag of purchased wine from Richard, " gifts for my Mother and friends" she smiled.  Mother's Day was the following Sunday!

The second day on the Los Angeles to Seattle trip was wine tasting in the Parlour Car, again at 3:30.  The focus again was, "How well wine goes with food."  Again, Richard handed out water to clean the pallet between tastes and to prevent cross contamination of the three wine tastes.


First was the Mirassou Riesling. 

<<It is bottled in Healsburg, California, and the grapes are grown in Monterey.  This reisling is off-dry and could be a substitute for Chardonnay.   An all-purpose wine, slightly sweet with orange, mango taste.  Pairs well with all food.  $14

>>Second was the Parducci, Petite Sirah, Mendocino County, California.  DSC01560.jpgThe card that was handed out by Richard had the following notes:

In 1921, Adolph Parducci purchased his first vineyard, north of Ukiah, in California.  He sold grapes to home winemakers (who were allowed to produce  up to 200 gallons a year) to survive the Great Depression.  He and his sons built a winery in 1932 and began producing their own wines shortly before the repeal of Prohibition.  The Winery was sold in 1996 to Carl and Marilynn Thoma, who continue to operate it as a "family winery" with a focus on quality.  Petite Syrah is a wine that is rapidly gaining popularity in today's growing wine industry.  This is a great example of a full-bodied red wine with dark ruby color.  Beautiful aromas of ripe berries, cocoa and a hint of toasted oak, greet the nose.  Rich, ripe black cherry and berry flavors are accented by a touch of oakiness and a dash of chocolate.  This wine is beautifully paired with hearty foods such as grilled steaks and our favorite - pasta with a rich, red sauce.  $14.

Richard added:   It is a full-bodied steak wine.  It is the wine with the most umph.  Swirl this taste of wine in the glass to release the tannins by aerating.  One hour in a carafe or decanter equals ten years in the bottle, but drink California wines young.  Use this wine instead of heavy sauces.  Add wine to moisten dry food, fish or steak.

DSC01562.jpg<<Third was Tin Roof, Sauvignon Blanc, 2004.

"Tin Roof" is a play on words for the twist off cap.  This is a pure, unblended, savignon blanc.  Cork is on the way out as a 'closure' for wine.  One reason is that Portugal is running out of cork.  Twist off and plastic closures are replacing cork.  Richard reiterated the five reasons to use wine (mentioned above).

Premium wines are balanced wines with balanced grapes.  Grapes are watched by the vintner for sugar level, acidity, and PH factor.  Each element can be corrected with chemistry.

Check the cork for:  redness, squeeze for firmness (softness is not good), flick the top to see if it flakes off (not good).

Legs:  check for purity by swirling in the glass, let set for 40 or so seconds and wine will begin to tear, or leg.  This only works on a dry glass, the first glass to taste.

Nose:  Riesling should have a fruity nose.  Put your nose in the glass as far as possible to smell the aroma.

Taste:  Feel the wine with your tongue, take in air, let it sit, then swallow.

Finish:  How does it go with food, even crackers and cheese.

DSC01589.jpgDSC01477.jpg< >Both days, Herminio Vargas, Car Attendant in the 1430 car poured for Richard, then passed the bucket for unused tastes and water.  He was comical and worked with Richard as a team.

At the bottom of the card listing the wines is this statement:  If you would like to suggest a wine for this event, please drop me a line:  Matt Cahoon, Manager, On Board Services, The Coast Starlight, 810 N. Alameda St. 1st Floor, Los Angeles, CA  90012. 

During the return trip to Los Angeles on the Coast Starlight on May 12, I heard Matt Cahoon paged on the P.A. system before the San Luis Obispo stop.  I walked the platform for some fresh air at SLO, and noticed a fellow with an Amtrak nametag talking with Amtrak employees.  Back on the train, I asked our Parlour Car attendant, Darren, if Matt Cahoon was on the train, and if so I'd like to meet him.  Darren said he was not sure, but he would look for him.  Sure enough, Matt soon arrived, saying he had heard that I was on the train.  We must have talked an hour about the Coast Starlight and his career with Amtrak. 

In 1995, second-generation Amtrak cars were used to make up the four Coast
Starlight train sets.  The former Santa Fe service cars were found in the
Beech Grove, Indiana, storage facility and renovated for use as Parlour Cars
on the Coast Starlight.  Five cars we remodeled to their current state
39970, 39972, 39973, 39974 & 39975.
We shared conversation not only about the American Orient Express and Rocky Mountaineer, but about the trials, tribulations, and rewards of working for Amtrak and being the Manager of On Board Services (OBS) for the Coast Starlight. 

One of the joys of his job is receiving letters (see address above) complimenting Coast Starlight on-board employees, car attendants, Parlour Car attendants, dining car workers, ticket and station agents, Metropolitan Lounge attendants, etc.  If you would like to compliment an Amtrak employee you enjoyed on a recent Coast Starlight trip for a job well done, Matt is the way to get the compliment to the right person, since he passes all comments on to the specific employee by name. 

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