A group of 11 women—10 black and one white—were removed from the Napa Valley Wine Train on Saturday, sparking a backlash against the company over allegations of racial bias.
The women, part of a book club that was taking the wine tour together, were escorted through six cars of the train, forced to leave the train, and were greeted by police officers upon their departure, according to the Napa Valley Register. They were then driven back to their cars and given refunds.
The incident was kicked off when the women were approached by a fellow passenger, who complained that they were making too much noise. Upon being removed from the train, one of the book club members, Lisa Johnson, started sharing reports on social media using the hashtag #laughingwhileblack to describe why she felt her group was removed.
The company accused the group, which reportedly included an 83-year-old grandmother, of “verbal and physical abuse towards other guests,” in a Facebook post that was subsequently deleted.
The company’s since-removed claim that it was unable to relocate parties due to the train being sold out is belied by this photo of the group sitting in what looks like a near empty car as they awaited their removal at the subsequent stop.
Johnson told the Register that she wanted the company to look at its policies and offer sensitivity training to its staff. She also said she hoped for an apology and had not ruled out a lawsuit.
In addition to the Twitter uproar, the Napa Valley Wine Train’s Yelp page was soon bombarded with negative reviews over its treatment of the women. One reviewer, who claimed to be on the same train as the removed party but did not respond immediately to request for comment, posted that “I'd like to think it wasn't a racially motivated act, but given the fact that other, non-black guests were behaving in the same way and not removed, I can only conclude that it was discrimination.”
While the latest case of Yelp vigilantism might be driving down the company’s reviews, there’s actually more to potentially learn by excavating the site’s older reviews, some of which point to how the company has responded to similar incidents in the past.
- A 2010 post complained of a group of six people “yelling loudly over each other in Italian,” who were apparently not kicked off the train.
- A 2011 post complained that the “loud party sitting near us began getting sick” and said the complaining couple were reseated.
- A 2011 post describes “two loud drunk couples whom multiple people asked the maitre'd politely to move and she asked them but they said they were ok. There were lots of complaints and the couples were talking loudly and inappropriately.” The group was not removed from the train, and they weren’t even moved to the empty dining car.
- A 2012 post complained that “older ladies” on the train were loud and one was flashing people, and they were apparently not removed.
Finally, earlier this year a user reported that she was with a party of 10 when a man complained about the noise her group was making. The group moved to the ordinarily louder dining car, and the Yelp user said they lowered their noise levels. A manager then warned them about the previous incident, but did not remove them from the car or the train. After the user posted a review complaining about how her group was told to quiet down, a manager from the company wrote to the Yelp user to apologize, saying, “I am very sorry that your experience was not up to the high standards that we strive for at the Wine Train.” The manager then said that the company was re-evaluating how it would treat larger celebrating parties in the future:
You've given us the chance to reevaluate how we handled your celebration which in turn gave us the opportunity to come up with more options for our celebrating guests.
We value you as our guest and hope that you will give us another opportunity in the future to show you that we can provide an excellent experience no matter the size of party, or type of celebration.
This was in April. It wasn’t immediately clear the racial breakdown of the large party in this instance, though we’ve messaged the Yelp user to ask more about the incident and will update the post if she responds. We also left a message with the company’s CEO/CFO, Anthony Giaccio, but had not heard back as of publication time.
Update, Aug. 24, 2015, 3:00 p.m.: This post has been updated to clarify that it wasn't yet clear what the racial breakdown of the loud group from April was.
Update, Aug. 24, 2015, 9:30 p.m.: Giaccio has apologized to Johnson and invited her and her friends to return to the train as his personal guests, says public relations representative Sam Singer.
Singer, a self-described crisis communications specialist, also said the company was going to take up Johnson on a suggestion that it does additional sensitivity training.
“The Napa Valley Wine Train is open to anybody of any persuasion, any color, any day of the week,” Singer said. “This incident was out of character with the train company, and is not reflective of the train or Napa Valley whatsoever.”
The Yelp user who complained in April that her party was told they were too loud, Nancy Ruiz, told me that that her party was made up of ten Latina women. Meanwhile, the Yelp user who said she witnessed the incident on Saturday declined an interview.