Napa Valley Wine Train's CEO apologized for kicking off a group of black women from the train for laughing too loudly, promised diversity training for his employees and invited the group back as his guests on the train.
"The Napa Valley Wine Train was 100 percent wrong in its handling of this issue," Anthony Giaccio said in a written statement Tuesday. "We accept full responsibility for our failures and for the chain of events that led to this regrettable treatment of our guests."
When a day of wine and fun was abruptly cut short for 11 members of The Sisters on the Reading Edge Book Club, one of the women, Antioch author Lisa Renee Johnson, took her frustration to social media, detailing the group's experience aboard the train.
Johnson's posts created a social media firestorm, with a growing group of people discussing a boycott of the Wine Train on Twitter, Facebook and Yelp, where the business was harshly criticized for what many saw as a racist act.
The social media backlash prompted the Wine Train to hire well-known PR figure Sam Singer, who spoke to media at length Monday.
Johnson posted a photo of a woman she claims was annoyed by their laughter because the train was "not a bar." The complaint resulted in the group getting kicked off the train.
"We were truly kicked out because we were 'laughing while black' ... It was racially charged," Johnson, who hashtagged her experience as #LaughingWhileBlack, told NBC Bay Area. Johnson said Wine Train CEO Tony Giaccio had personally apologized to her Monday, but added that "it wasn't authentic."
"In order to solve the problem, you have to first admit there is one," she said. "They are apologizing for the bad experience, but not because of the role they played in the whole experience. They are not saying 'we are the bad actors.'"
Giaccio told Johnson he pledged to learn from the incident and offered additional diversity training for employees. He also invited club members, their family and friends to be his guest and fill an entire train car.
"He said 'this is not how we want the Wine Train to be portrayed,'" Johnson said.
According to Johnson, at one point, the train's maître d'hotel came by and asked the group to tone it down so that other passengers didn't feel uncomfortable.
"Facebook Family, we have a problem!" Johnson wrote at 12:54 p.m. "We sipped wine, enjoyed each other's company but our trip is being cut short. We are a group of 12 ... if we all laugh at the same time it's loud! When we get to St. Helena they are putting us off the train."
Her next photo showed the book club members waiting to be escorted off the train. "We are in purgatory," her caption read.
When the train reached St. Helena, four police officers were waiting by the track.
"WOW! They paraded us through 6 cars and none of us are even drunk ... the police were waiting," Johnson wrote.
A Change.org petition strongly criticized how an 83-year-old grandmother in the group was ejected from the train as well. Video footage shows some of the women crying as they left the train.
"A trip which was to be an enjoyable day of sisterhood, turned into a day of humiliation," the petitioner Toni Battle wrote. "To see an elder leaning on her cane by the train as if it's 1954 Alabama, spoke volumes regarding your business practices.“
A message on the Wine Train’s Facebook page Saturday that was later taken down said: "Following verbal and physical abuse towards other guests and staff, it was necessary to get our police involved. ... When these celebrations impact our other guests, we do intervene."
"We erred by placing an inaccurate post on our Facebook site that was not reflective of what actually occurred," Giaccio wrote in a letter to the group. "In the haste to respond to criticism and news inquires, we made a bad situation worse by rushing to answer questions on social media. We quickly removed the inaccurate post, but the harm was done by our erroneous post."
Giaccio also wrote an apology letter to the group, which underlined some of the management's shortcomings: "Clearly, we knew in advance when we booked your party that you would be loud, fun-loving and boisterous--because you told us during the booking process that you wanted a place where your Club could enjoy each other's company. Somehow that vital information never made it to the appropriate channels and we failed to seat your group where you could enjoy yourself properly and alert our train's staff that they should expect a particularly vibrant group."
The letter talked about the lack of sensitivity shown when the group was asked to disembark from the train, marching past all the other passengers.
"While that was the safest route for disembarking, it showed a lack of sensitivity on our part that I did not fully conceive of until you explained the humiliation of the experience and how it impacted you and your fellow Book Club members," Giaccio wrote.