VERA CHINESE PHOTO | LIRR employee Bryan Jecklin pours a glass of Nautique Esprit de Blanc for part-time Southold resident Ed Meredith
Long Island Rail Road passengers boarding the Greenport-bound train from the Ronkonkoma station Friday nights now see a menu on their seat offering refreshments for purchase during the long ride out east.
But other than soda and water, options are limited to two choices — red or white.
The 5:21 p.m. eastbound train from Ronkonkoma, now dubbed the “North Fork Wine Train,” will feature a white and a red wine from six different North Fork wineries each week. The idea is to encourage travelers to use the train and to familiarize North Fork visitors with the region’s wineries.
“This is a kind of pilot project,” said Long Island Wine Council executive director Steve Bate. “But it does seem to be quite popular.” The promotion was made possible through a collaboration between the MTA, the wine council and the North Fork Promotion Council.
This week’s selection on the wine train were Peconic Bay Winery’s Nautique Esprit de Rouge and Nautique Esprit de Blanc.
Other participating wineries include Jason’s Vineyard, Duck Walk, Macari, Pindar and Laurel Lake.
The wine train began Memorial Day weekend and will run until Labor Day. The wine is $5 per glass.
A steady stream of passengers lined up at the bar cart last Friday and more than two-thirds of the wine was gone before the train reached Riverhead. The cart was reportedly out of vino before stopping at Riverhead the Friday before the July 4 weekend. That train carried about 300 passengers, LIRR officials said.
“I think it’s really cool,” said Ed Meredith, a part-time Southold resident who takes the train nearly every weekend. “Now I don’t have to buy beer at Penn Station and keep it cold.” He noted that driving after his trip would not be a problem as his daughter planned to pick him up at the station.
Part-time North Fork resident and LIRR rider Dorothy Rooney enjoyed a glass of wine Friday night, though she said she didn’t need another incentive to take public transportation.
“It’s so much more relaxing on the train,” she said. “I love it.”
For some, it was their first-ever encounter with Long Island wine.
While waiting on line for a glass, Patrick Mahon of Brooklyn said he was so unfamiliar with the area he did not know the name of the place where he and his wife were staying that weekend. But he did say he might come back to visit a vineyard and to taste some more North Fork wine.
“It’s an opportunity to promote our local wineries,” said county Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who came up with the idea and sought its implementation. “I have a lot of other ideas I’d like to push in trying to promote the wine industry.”
Mr. Romaine called the promotion “a right step” for the MTA, after the transit authority proposed cutting virtually all LIRR service east of Ronkonkoma, save for summer weekend trains, as a cost-saving measure last year.
Mr. Romaine said he would eventually like to see Saturday and Sunday wine trains working in connection with tour buses to shuttle visitors to the vineyards and local bed and breakfasts.
The LIRR does offer some tour packages, though not for overnight trips and only in the summer.
The wineries do not make much money off the promotion, it’s main benefits come from the advertising, Mr. Bate said. The vineyards sold the cases of wine to the MTA at a discounted rate and the transit authority keeps the proceeds. An LIRR employee mans the cart and pours the wine into small plastic cups for customers.
Though the MTA has reportedly broken even so far with wine sales, officials say it is too early to tell if the promotion has increased ridership.
“The LIRR’s North Fork Wine Train has been well-received by customers. They have been very enthusiastic and positive with their comments,” said MTA spokesman Sal Arena. “It’s too early to make a fair comparison to ridership on the same train last summer without the wine available. But the data is coming in and we will have that answer later in the summer.”
The promotion sits especially well with East End public transportation advocates, who have been calling on the MTA to explore ways to make public transportation more attractive for years.
“It’s like the first time the LIRR has done something for the North Fork,” said Jim Ellwood, a Riverhead resident who sits on the Five Town Rural Transit Board. “I’m just happy they’re offering these amenities.”