SAN FRANCISCO – A group of mostly Black women who were thrown off the Napa Valley Wine Train last Saturday for laughing too loudly, have received the corporate apology they were seeking, but the experience has left a bitter taste in their mouths.
Eleven members of the Sistahs On The Reading Edge book club were booted off the train in an incident they feel was racially motivated.
“We were singled out,” co-founder Lisa Renee Johnson shared with the OBSERVER.
Ms. Johnson, who books an annual trip to Napa for the Antioch-based group, decided to have them do the wine train this year and called to make sure a party of their size could be accommodated. She says she was assured that it would be fine.
As the train made its way from Napa to St. Helena and back, they’d sip wine, discuss their latest book selection, “A Man’s Promise,” by prolific African American romance novelist Brenda Jackson, and enjoy each other’s company. She says upon boarding, they were seated in an L-shaped lounge car that wasn’t conducive to group discussion, but decided to roll with it, literally.
They wore matching gray book club T-shirts and quickly drew attention from other passengers, who came into the lounge car to get wine. Ms. Johnson said fellow passengers, mostly White, asked where they were from and what they were reading and a few even commented on what it must be like to be a member, because they seemed to be having so much fun.
“We’re a friendly bunch,” Ms. Johnson said.
But the vibe would quickly turn to anything but friendly. Ms. Johnson says a female “maitre-d” came over and asked them to “tone down” because they were being “offensive” to other riders.
When they pressed her for details, the employee revealed that only one White woman had actually complained.The same woman, Ms. Johnson said, later leaned over to them and commented that “this is not a bar.”
“She had a sense of entitlement. She belonged there and we didn’t,” Ms. Johnson shared.
The group was approached a second time by the train employee.
“She said,‘OK this isn’t going to work. Either lower the noise level or you’re going to have to get off the train,’” Ms. Johnson said.
As they were “in the middle of nowhere,” members wondered how they’d get back to Napa and their vehicles.
“It was unimaginable,” shared Ms. Johnson, a past volunteer at the Sacramento Black Book Fair.
She and her friends would be escorted through six train cars, past curious fellow passengers and off the train.
The book club group included four non-drinkers and a senior who recently had knee surgery and was walking with the assistance of a cane. In cell phone videos circulating heavily online, the woman can be seen crying after being put off the train. Police were called and arrived to meet the train, however, a police spokesperson said there didn’t appear to be a problem, determined that no one was intoxicated and no action was taken against the women.
Ms. Johnson, author of the book “Dangerous Consequences,” shared the experience with her social media followers.
After the incident on Saturday, the train company posted a message on its own Facebook page stating that police were called because the group was verbally and physically abusive to other passengers and train staff.
“That’s an absolute lie,” Ms. Johnson said.
The statement was removed after she threatened to take legal action for the false statements.
On Tuesday, Napa Valley Wine Train CEO Anthony “Tony” Giaccio issued a formal apology.
“The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100 percent wrong in its handling of this issue,” Giaccio said in a statement.
“We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests,” he added.
The letter continued to state:
“We were insensitive when we asked you to depart our train by marching you down the aisle past all the other passengers. While that was the safest route for disembarking, it showed a lack of sensitivity on our part that I did not fully conceive of until you explained the humiliation of the experience and how it impacted you and your fellow Book Club members.
“We also erred by placing an inaccurate post on our Facebook site that was not reflective of what actually occurred. In the haste to respond to criticism and news inquires, we made a bad situation worse by rushing to answer questions on social media. We quickly removed the inaccurate post, but the harm was done by our erroneous post.”
On Wednesday, Giaccio appeared with Ms. Johnson, via Facetime on BET’s nationally televised “News One Now” program, telling host Roland Martin that the company had spoken with former San Francisco Mayor and California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown about creating diversity training for staff.
Ms. Johnson says members doubt his sincerity and call his statements “damage control.” She says his apology statement reads “almost verbatim” like the letter she sent to him, demanding the apology in the first place.
The statement concludes with Giaccio offering the group a free wine tour for up to 50 people in a reserved car “where you can enjoy yourselves as loudly as you desire.”
That bit, Ms. Johnson said, demonstrates that the company believes African Americans are innately loud.
“It goes to show you, they just don’t get it,” she said.
“They believe we’re just angry Black women, we’re aggressive, we don’t have the right to be upset and to feel humiliated. That as Black women, our skin is just tougher.”
“This is really some stuff that shouldn’t be happening in 2015,” she added.
Sistahs On The Reading Edge, Ms. Johnson says, has been sent countless emails and social media messages from people from other ethnic groups who say they were also discriminated against while on the same wine excursion. They’ve also received offers from Napa area wineries, including a few owned by African Americans, to visit.
“After the dust settles, we’ll go back to the Napa wine country,” Ms. Johnson said.
“We’ll sip somewhere, but it won’t be on that train,” she added.