"Since its founding, the Wine Train has endured a number of challenges including locals protesting the noise, pollution and traffic, the 2007 death of founder Vince DeDomenico and the Great Recession."
But none of that caused headlines like the August incident in which 10 African-American women book club members were escorted off the train because they were considered to be talking too loudly. The women said they were humiliated, and the incident spurred the hashtag #laughingwhileblack. At first, the company justified the removal, saying there had been complaints about the group. It posted, then deleted, a statement on Facebook accusing the women of “verbal and physical abuse toward other guests.”
After a ton of negative media attention, however, the company called in Mr. Crisis Management, PR specialist Sam Singer. An apology by company CEO Tony Giaccio soon followed.
“The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100 percent wrong in its handling of this issue," he said. "We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests.” He offered the club a refund and an entire train car that would accommodate up to 50 people, and he said the company would start diversity training.
But that didn't stop a lawyer for the group from announcing a few days later that members were considering a discrimination lawsuit.
“I’m not going to advise them to settle the case for 52 tickets on a wine train,” San Francisco attorney Waukeen McCoy said. “They don’t want to go on another wine train, because it would only bring back the memories of them being kicked off the train.”
A UCSF graduate student, Norma Ruiz, told Slate last month that a group of Latinos she was with also had a negative experience on the train. A passenger approached them, Ruiz said, to complain they were making too much noise.
A waiter told her group to continue their celebration and they moved to the dining car on their own, she said. Then a woman from the train company approached their party, which at this point had quieted down to below the noise level of the dining car, and told them if they didn’t “control [their] level of noise” they would be kicked off the train.
“We were not making noise, we felt very uncomfortable the way we were being approached and [they were] embarrassing our group in front of everyone,” Ruiz says.
Ruiz described the group as being made up of “all Latino individuals,” the majority of whom were local University of California–Berkeley graduates. She now sees the incident as one of racial bias.
“I think it was just that person complaining and then the manager seeing that we were Latino, basically decided to discriminate [against] us because we were Latinos and [a big] group,” she said. “Now that I hear about this event with a group of African American ladies being kicked out of the train, I’m seeing a pattern. I’m realizing that how I was treated was not normal.”