In a remarkable about face, the CEO of the Napa Valley Wine Train apologized to a mostly African American book club that was kicked off the train after fellow wine travelers complained about their laughter.
“The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100 percent wrong in its handling of this issue,” said Anthony Giaccio. “We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests.
Last Saturday, twelve women from the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club—including a white member and one 83-year-old woman— were approached by train employees who said they needed to quiet down because of complaints directed towards them. Next thing the members knew, they were ushered off the train “humiliatingly” in front of other passengers and met by police. Johnson blamed racial prejudice—she said they were guilty of “laughing while black.”
The book club ladies were all refunded, but later, adding insult to injury, The Napa Valley Wine Train wrote on Facebook that the women were relocated because of “verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff.” This statement was quickly removed from the business’s page and days later the official apology by the CEO was released.
“In summary, we were acutely insensitive to you and the members of the Book Club” the letter read. “Please accept my apologies for our many mistakes and failures. We pride ourselves on our hospitality and our desire to please our guests on the Napa Valley Wine Train. In this instance, we failed in every measure of the meaning of good service, respect and hospitality.”
In addition to offering the women free passes for a reserved car, Giaccio said the company has taken up on Johnson’s own suggestion and will offer additional diversity training for its employees, which he himself vowed to participate in.
The motives behind the Nappa Valley Wine Train’s actions have been called into question. This apology comes after this story has been picked up by international media and sparked loud outrage on the internet, including horrible reviews on the Yelp page, calls to boycott the company, and the viral hashtag #LaughingWhileBlack. In the wake of this PR disaster the company has hired self-proclaimed crisis communications specialist Sam Singer who has been named “The Fixer” by the San Jose Mercury News.
But this brouhaha only seems to be getting worse.
Slate published the story of a nurse from the Bay area who says she was similarly discriminated against by the now infamous Napa Wine Train. Norma Ruiz told Slate that she and her friends, mostly Latino UC Berkeley graduate students. Ruiz said that she saw a “large group of white girls celebrating a birthday or a bachelorette” who were left alone, yet when Norma and her friends were threatened with being kicked off. Ruiz also believes that the action was racially motivated.
For Lisa Renee Johnson, the leader of the Sistahs on the Reading Edge Book Club, the loud public apology doesn’t mitigate the humiliation she and her co-members suffered.
In an interview with MSNBC, Johnson recalled that the CEO told her “it’s troubling that we’re being painted in the media for something that we’re not.” Johnson retorted that that is exactly what his company did to her and her friends.
The apologies Johnson said, do not “negate the fact that we went through that experience.”
“I will never forgot my experience on the Napa Valley wine train,” she stated, saying that she wants to ensure that such an incident “never happens again to anyone who looks like us.”