Through the windows of the train, lush green mountains roll into bending rivers and swirling rapids, and kayakers battle their way through the Nantahala Gorge. Inside the train, they’re just taking away the plates from dinner. A server refills your glass with wine made just a few counties over, while the rugged Appalachian landscape drifts by, natural and untouched save for the tracks that cut through the hills like a vein. Candelabras on the tables impart a yellow haze to the room when the view goes black through the chiseled tunnels.
“Railroading is definitely a niche market, but wine is obviously something that is really popular, so we’ve decided to mix the two,” says Sarah Pressley, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, which recently partnered with the French Broad Vignerons to host the MacNeill Uncorked, a wine dinner that rolls from Bryson City to the Nantahala Gorge and back .
“The MacNeill was a dining car first used by Norfolk Southern,” explains Peter Fland of local wine organization the French Broad Vignerons. “It was specifically built for a run called the Powhattan,” which ran from Florida to Chicago, “and it was one of their more elegant trains. It’s a mid-1940s dining car that has just been renovated. It is a great first-class car, and it’s a perfect place for a wine tasting.”
“This car definitely has a different feel,” adds Pressley. “It definitely takes you to a very vintage place. It looks like a classic 1950s dining car. … It has these great candelabras and that wood grain that makes you feel like you’ve taken a little bit of a trip back into the classic train era.”
The MacNeill Uncorked will make three monthly runs this summer, pairing six wines from Western North Carolina; with a three-course meal served throughout the course of a laid-back four-hour ride. “It’s just a leisurely putter up this section of track by the Nantahala Gorge and back,” says Fland. “[Wine] is going to become a cornerstone for tourism in Western North Carolina, it’s already well on its way. And I cannot tell you how many of these wineries are basically just mom and pop operations with just two or three people handling everything from the planting of the grapes, the harvesting, the making of the wine, to bottling and labeling it. And they’re making some damn good wine.”
The first tasting will feature wines from Parker-Binns Vineyard and Winery, Mountain Brook Vineyards, St. Paul Mountain Vineyards, Burntshirt Vineyards, South Creek Vineyards & Winery and Silver Fork Vineyard & Winery.
“This is part of an overall effort by the French Broad Vignerons to bring to the forefront the quality of the vineyards and the wines of this area,” explains Fland. “This is kind of a test market for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, and if it is successful, they will put a wine train into the schedule for the next year. And if that happens, then North Carolina will have one of two wine trains in the United States, the other one being the Napa Valley Wine Train.”
The menu offers a first course of local cheeses followed by a choice of barbecued pulled pork, beer-battered cod, pot roast, chicken salad or a vegetarian plate.