I was researching vineyards in the northeast online a few weeks ago and discovered the Warren County Winery Train, a steam locomotive that takes wine lovers to a vineyard in New Jersey. I was excited.
I’d taken diesel trains in Jamaica but a steam train was an entirely different thing. Just the mention of a steam train immediately transported me back to a time long before I was born.
I could hear the sound of the steam as it escaped the chug, chug of the engine. I saw women dressed in hats and gloves, men in suits followed by uniformed porters carrying trunk suitcases. I imagined myself there and more than anything, I wanted to be on that train.
I emailed some friends, proposed a day when we should go and booked tickets online. As the day drew closer, I was as excited as a child waiting for Christmas and prayed anxiously for good weather.
The Warren County Winery Train operates on weekends only from May to October by a volunteer crew. It is one of the trips that the Delaware River Road Excursions organizes each year. (They also do other themed excursions like the Easter Bunny Train, the Corn Maize Train, and the very popular Polar Express).
We woke up to a cool, overcast morning on the day of our excursion, loaded up the car and set off on the 90-minute ride to Phillipsburg. It was beautiful to see that the leaves on some of the trees that line the highway were already begun turning yellow, orange and red.
About an hour into the drive, the clouds suddenly gave way to brilliant sunshine as if someone had flipped a switch. It happened that quickly.
Phillipsburg is a quaint little town, which was pretty easy to find. The trouble came when we tried to find the train station. We drove right past the turn on to Elizabeth Street and ended up in Pennsylvania.
Thankfully, we had enough time so we doubled back and found it. We’d noticed signs as we pulled into town but missed the one directing us to the station. They could definitely be placed more prominently.
After days of daydreaming about the steam train, I was disappointed when it didn’t arrive. The conductor said there had a problem had developed so they had to take it out of service. We were sent on a regular (diesel, perhaps?) train.
I had also imagined a small train — they sell only 45 tickets — but when the train arrived I realized that the Winery Train is only one car of several. The other cars take riders for pumpkin picking, and panning for gemstones at the Ol’ Susquehana Mine. Despite my disappointment over the steam train, the vintage cars with antique suitcases that rest on racks above the seats made me think of the time when women wore pencil skirts and men suits and everyone smoked.
The Winery Train leaves Phillipsburg, NJ at 11:00 a.m. and takes a leisurely 20-minute ride along the Delaware River to the end of the line. From there, a yellow school bus makes the 15-minute trip to Villa Milagro, a vineyard that spreads over more than 100 in Finesville, NJ.
Villa Milagro Vineyard
The location of the winery, in the Musconetcong Valley, where the Musconetcong River flows from the Delaware River, also offers spectacular views of four counties in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Steve and Audrey Gambino are the proud owners of Villa Milagro, House of Miracles. A family-run operation, they produce about 12,000 cases of wines each year. They spent the first three years following their purchase of the vineyard turning it organic. They don’t use pesticides or herbicides and provide a sustainable habitat for native species of birds, animals and wildlife.
We spent about an hour at the vineyard learning about the different grapes they produce, hand harvesting, blending, aging, bottling, and even labeling. Audrey Gambino or Dr. Audrey, who led our tour, showed us how painstaking it is to apply labels to the bottles – they must be placed in the same position on each.
When it was time for the tasting, Dr. Audrey ushered us into the tasting room. We tasted six wines – from a light white to deep red. Each was paired with foods that blended superbly – a mild cheese to meatballs. I liked them all and found it difficult to pick a favorite.
The hour passed too quickly. Before we knew it, we were back on the bus and train heading for Phillipsburg.
Villa Milagro does tastings, cooking classes and offers a dinner with the vintners. They’re also open for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other events.
Ol’ Susquehanna Mine and Corn Maze
We stopped for an hour for lunch at the Ol’ Susquehanna Mine and Corn Maze on the way back. We spread the foods we had brought – cheese, crackers, grapes, sandwiches, saltfish fritters, and salads – and opened a few bottles of the wines we’d purchased on a few of the picnic tables
After lunch, a few of my friends checked out the corn maze. There was also a bounce-about for the little ones.
Soon we heard the whistle and the rumbling of the train. We didn’t have time to pan for gemstones, like rose quartz, rubies, amethyst, emeralds, crystals and arrowheads.
The train stopped a second time so we could pick pumpkins. We returned to Phillipsburg around 4 pm.
Warren County Winery Train Particulars
Round trip tickets: $35
Departs 100 Elizabeth Street, Phillipsburg at 11:00 a.m. The wine train has a capacity of 45 seats. If those seats sell out, they’ll run another train at 12:30. The train picks returns around 2:00 p.m. The train operates from May to October only.
Villa Milagro is located at 33 Warren Glen Road in Finesville, NJ. The vineyard is open on weekends for tastings from 11am to 5 pm, daily from 9-6 for sales, and by appointment.