Tony Giaccio, The Napa Valley Wine Train's CEO says the company was "100 percent wrong" in their handling of the situation

By Maria Coder
August 26, 2015 06:30 PM
Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News/AP

Eleven mostly African-American women who say they were kicked off a Napa Valley wine tour for being too loud have received an apology from the company’s CEO – but it may be too little, too late.

The women, ranging in age from 39 to 85, are part of a book club and had been looking forward to their luxurious three-hour wine and food journey for more than a year, they told the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper says the women felt humiliated after the train’s maitre d’hotel escorted them past other passengers through six train cars on Saturday – and kicked them off the train. The women say police were waiting for them at the station and they were forced to stay there until a taxi van arrived.

Lisa Renee Johnson, leader of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge book club in Antioch, Calif., says the only thing the club members were guilty of was laughing loudly together. She believes they were singled out because all but one of the women are black.

Johnson took to Facebook to share her experience, sparking a racially charged controversy online. The Twitter hashtag #laughingwhileblack quickly caught on. There were thousands of social media mentions, some posts calling for people to boycott the train – even an online petition demanding an apology that garnered more than 18,000 signatures from people across the globe.

To make matters worse, the company posted a Facebook message that accused the book club members of giving staff “verbal and physical abuse.” While that post has since been removed, it was just one more thing that likely helped bring forth an apology from company CEO, Tony Giaccio, he admitted Tuesday. In a written statement Giaccio says his staff was flat wrong, Inside Bay Area reports.

“The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100 percent wrong in its handling of this issue,” he writes. “We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests.”

Giaccio tells the paper he also apologized to Johnson by phone on Monday evening and invited her book club back, with friends, as his personal guests in a reserved car. He says he plans to heed her advice and take extra cultural diversity and sensitivity training to avoid future mishaps.

Despite the mea culpa, Johnson says she may be able to forgive but not forget.

“You can apologize, but you can’t take away the experience we had,” Johnson, tells Inside Bay Area. “We were still marched down the aisle of the train car to waiting police officers. I’m still traumatized by the whole experience.”

Johnson’s been organizing Napa trips for 17 years though this was her first (and probably her last) time on the wine train. “Our first experience on that wine train is one that will live with us forever. I can’t see us going back on that train,” she tells the paper.