San Francisco Treat Creator Vincent DeDomenico, 92

Vincent DeDomenico and wife Mildred with their Napa Valley Wine Train. The family also owned Ghirardelli Chocolate.
Vincent DeDomenico and wife Mildred with their Napa Valley Wine Train. The family also owned Ghirardelli Chocolate. (By Scott Sommerdorf -- San Francisco Chronicle)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Vincent DeDomenico, 92, who died Oct. 18 of a heart attack at his home in Napa, Calif., invented Rice-A-Roni, the "San Francisco treat" that has been a staple of kitchen cupboards since the 1960s. He also, with his brothers, bought Ghirardelli Chocolate from its founding family and operated the maker of rich, sweet confections for 22 years.

The products of those companies would make a tasty, if nutritionally unbalanced, meal by themselves, but his last venture upped the ante considerably. The Napa Valley Wine Train, established in 1987 when Mr. DeDomenico was 72, featured white-tablecloth dining, five-course meals and a choice of fine California varietals, all served as the beautifully refurbished vintage railcars chugged through Napa vineyards at 18 mph.

Mr. DeDomenico, who enjoyed a glass or two of good red wine each day, was a pasta man all his life, one of his daughters said. He enjoyed his work and was at the wine train's offices the evening before his death, a colleague said, and was in good humor.

"He lived every day to its fullest, that's for sure," daughter Marla Bleecher said. "When he was 72, he was like most people at 40. When I walked out on the terrace yesterday, I chuckled because there was this big stack of plans for the flood control project that he was working on. He was always moving forward."

He developed the boxed vermicelli-rice-and-seasoning combination while working at his family's business, a pasta-making firm that had been renamed Golden Grain Macaroni Co. in 1933. The television jingle for Rice-A-Roni, along with an image of cable car climbing the San Francisco streets, indelibly tied the product to the city.

In 1964, the DeDomenico family business bought another San Francisco icon, Ghirardelli Chocolate. The firm branched out into beans, rice, candies, advertising and industry equipment for pasta drying and manufacturing. In 1986, the DeDomenicos sold their corporation to Quaker for a reported $300 million.

When Mr. DeDomenico heard that a 21-mile-stretch of Southern Pacific railroad track was for sale in the Napa Valley, he snatched it up for $2.5 million. The tracks, which in the 1800s took San Franciscans to the Calistoga resort, were in terrible shape, and once-a-week freight trains used the route.

Years earlier, he and his wife had ridden the Orient Express and fell in love with the bygone mode of gracious travel. After he bought the tracks, he searched the continent for diesel locomotives and railcars dating from the early 20th century. Within a few years, he and his wife refurbished eight 1915 Pullman lounge and dining cars, adding air-conditioning, marble bathrooms and wine bars, and plush chairs that swiveled completely. One of the cars was turned into a full-scale kitchen.

The effort was not without controversy; many residents opposed the idea of a short-line railroad that would bring more tourists to the narrow agricultural valley. Despite years of court battles, the train was barred from stopping in towns along the way to drop off passengers.

At first, the Grgich Hills winery was its only stop. Eventually, the train became more accepted, and a stop was added at the Domaine Chandon vineyard. Four months ago, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the train brought as many as 1,200 tourists to the area on weekends.

Mr. DeDomenico was born in San Francisco in 1915, the son of Italian immigrants. His parents ran the Gragnano Macaroni Factory. The family didn't have enough money to send all six of the children to college, so the fourth-born Mr. DeDomenico went to work in the family business. He took classes at Golden Gate College but did not receive a degree.

He spent one long vacation each year with his family, often on trips to Europe or Africa. He also bought a cattle ranch in the Sacramento Valley. A longtime member of the Confrerie de la Chaine des Rotisseurs, the world's largest gourmet society, he was awarded its highest honor, the Conseil d'Honneur, in 1995.

In addition to his daughter Marla, survivors include his wife of 60 years, Mildred DeDomenico of Napa, three other children and seven grandchildren.


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