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Democrat & Chronicle

June 21, 2009

Winery Train
By Christine A. Smyczynski



The Vineyard Express pulled slowly out from the Lockport rail yard, with nearly 300 passengers aboard looking forward to the unique adventure ahead.

 

The Vineyard Express is the brainchild of the Varallo family, who own and operate Spring Lake Winery in Lockport, and Marty Phelps, founder of the Medina Railroad Museum in Medina. Phelps opened the museum in 1997 and began scenic rail excursions between Lockport and the museum in 2000.

 

When the winery opened its doors in 2007, the Varallo’s realized that the rail line ran through their property and thought it might make sense if the train could stop there. “It seemed a natural fit having the railroad run right through the property to have a stop at our place,” said Tamre Varallo. “So as we planted the grapes, we planted the seed of such collaboration with the railroad museum.”

 

Said Phelps of the excursion, “We are aware of a couple of trains in California, like the Napa Valley dinner train excursion; but there is nothing else like this in New York State.”

 

Last fall, my husband and I, along with a group of people that we knew, booked passage on the Vineyard Express. The train departed from the Lockport rail yard at 10am sharp for a one hour ride to the Medina Railroad Museum.

 

 

 

 

Two vintage New York Central E-8 diesel locomotives pull the five circa 1948 passenger coaches. The locomotives once pulled the 20th Century Limited and the Empire State Express. Juice and danish were served as the train chugged past the rural scenery.

 

Of special note along the way is the “upside down bridge” which passes over the Erie Canal in Lockport. From this bridge there is a spectacular view of Locks 34 and 35 and the famous “Flight of Five” step locks.

 

Upon arrival at the railroad museum, passengers can enjoy coffee, hot chocolate and other refreshments as they tour the museum, which is housed in a 1905 wooden freight house that’s 300 feet long and 34 feet wide; one of the largest surviving examples of such structures in the United States.

 

The one hour stop is not nearly enough to explore the over 7,000 items on display. Of special note is the 204 foot long train layout, which has been declared the longest HO-scale layout in the United States. “I am blessed with a great talent of people helping me with the layout and the train excursions, all of who are volunteers,” said Phelps.

 

 

While most of the items on display focus on railroad memorabilia, Phelps has also amassed a large collection of antique toys for both boys and girls and he also has an extensive collection of fire department and law enforcement memorabilia. Phelps, who is a retired Batavia firefighter, has over 420 fire helmets on display. He noted that the museum is state certified, meaning that it is registered as a state museum to protect these artifacts forever.

Future plans for the museum include expanding to have more display space for the larger artifacts.

 

The hour went by quickly and soon it was back on board the train to head to our next stop, the Spring Lake Winery. From the train, it was a short walk up a slight incline, past rows of grapes to the winery building. Once inside, we enjoyed a delicious catered buffet lunch. We then elbowed our way up to the tasting bar to sample their wines and then sat back to listen to live music.

 

 Music by the Lake takes place the first and last Sundays of the month June through October, which coincides with the Vineyard Express. We had about three hours to spend at the winery. Many people took advantage of the hiking trail that rings the 8 acre spring fed lake on the winery’s property. There is also a cute little gift shop stocked with wine-themed items.

 

 

 According to Tamre Varallo, “At Spring Lake we are trying to promote tourism along the Niagara Escarpment region. Our vision is that by car, boat (via the Erie Canal) or train you can visit the region and find a historic city to explore.” Spring Lake is one of a dozen wineries located along the Niagara Wine Trail in Niagara and Orleans Counties. The soil and climate of this area along the Niagara Escarpment are ideal for growing grapes to produce world-class wine.

 

All too soon Marty was calling the final “All Aboard!” and our group slowly headed back to the train for our return trip to Lockport.

 

If you go

Spring Lake Winery (716-439-5253; www.springlakewinery.com ) 7373 Rochester Road (NY 31), Lockport. Open Friday-Sunday 12-6; summer hours Thursday-Sunday 11-7. Reservations for the Vineyard Express can be made by calling the winery.

 

It is a very popular event and often sells out well in advance. running dates in 2009 are June 14 & 28, July 12 & 26, August 16 & 30, September 13 & 27, October 24 & 25. Tickets are $45/adult and $20/child.

 

For Music by the Lake (without the train excursion) cost is $20, which includes lunch.

 

Medina Railroad Museum (585-798-6106; www.railroadmuseum.net ) 530 West Avenue, Medina. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11-5. In addition to the Vineyard Express the museum also offers fall foliage and Santa train excursions.

 

Niagara Wine Trail (www.niagarawinetrail.org )

 

Directions to Lockport rail yard From Rochester travel to Lockport via the New York State Thruway (I-90), exit at transit Road (Route 78) and travel north to Lockport. Turn left on Park Avenue (just past Erie canal) and travel about six blocks to Park and Michigan. Alternately, travel from Rochester via Route 104 west to Route 78 and travel south to Lockport. Park Avenue will be on your right just before the canal