For wine lovers, there's nothing like discovering new tastes of the grape. For cruise lovers, there's nothing like touring some of the most beautiful regions of the world. Combine the two, and you have a wine cruise - a happy blend that is attracting more and more travelers.
"We love wine, and we love Europe," says Joan Carter of Destin, Fla., explaining why she and her husband, Stephen, chose a wine cruise as their very first sea voyage.
"We had a wine event almost every day, and a wine dinner with pairings," Carter says of their seven-night Windstar cruise in the Mediterranean last year. Their itinerary took them to ports in Spain, France, and Italy, where they visited several wine areas, including the Super-Tuscan wine region of Bolgheri. There, they lunched at and toured the Ornellaia Winery, one of the few in the world that has received a perfect 100 score from Wine Spectator.
Their host vintner: Kosta Browne, a small California winery whose pinot noir was ranked in the Wine Spectator's Top 10 wines of 2006. On board was the winery's marketing director, Dan Kosta, who arranged the Ornellaia visit.
That's a perk that comes with having a winemaker on board, says Larry Martin, president of Food and Wine Trails, which put together the Carters' cruise.
Through the winemaker's contacts, group members get access to wineries not usually visited, and to wines not usually served. Wineries that host wine cruises may be big operators such as Robert Mondavi and Beringer, Martin says, but many more are less well known but respected boutique vintners, such as Paul Hobbs in California and Paumanok & Wölffer Estate, up-and-coming wineries on Long Island.
Like the Carters' trip, most wine cruises are regular sailings with a group of wine buffs that has paid extra for grape-oriented events. These may include private tastings, educational talks, parties, winemaker lunches or dinners, and excursions to wineries and vineyards. Such groups may get to taste the host winemaker's "library selections" - especially good wines held back from regular sale.
"Wine cruises give passengers more bang for their buck . . . all the bells and whistles that come with being aboard a cruise ship, plus the wine," Martin says.
It's a growing trend. "They are now a recognized travel niche," Martin says. His company organizes wine cruises and runs about 300 wine-themed shore excursions annually.
Typically, a wine group's price includes private onboard events, with wine-related excursions at an extra cost. A wine cruise may feature one or more winemakers, who bring their wines aboard for tastings and other gatherings.
"They gave us a lot of wine, also from wineries ashore," says Julie Scheblein of Palm Harbor, Fla., who honeymooned with her husband, Karl, in May on an Oceania cruise that visited Spain, France, and Italy. In the onboard sessions hosted by California's St. Supéry winery, they particularly enjoyed tastings of different vintages of the same labels.
The cruise "was nice, too, because we were with a group with similar interests," Scheblein says. "On the last day, we requested a table for 12 [for dinner] on the ship, had six couples, and each brought a bottle they had collected on the cruise."
Because wine lovers tend to be more affluent, upscale ships host most wine cruises. The Mediterranean is the most popular region for wine cruises. But smaller river boats offer wine cruises on European waterways such as the Danube and the canals of France, or on American rivers such as the Columbia and the Napa.
One tall-masted sailing ship in Maine, the Stephen Taber, offers wine sailings. And a full program of wine events is offered on cruises that never get near wine-producing regions, such as those in the Caribbean.
Though wine travel has traditionally been expensive, wine cruises need not be priced out of reach, Martin says, particularly when the economic downturn has prompted cruise lines and packagers to make attractive offers. "We've lowered prices by $1,000 a person for new bookings on five departures, if booked by March 31," he says.
A few cruise lines conduct wine cruises. Silversea, for example, has scheduled 11 Wine Series voyages this year that include special tastings, events, and lectures conducted by wine professionals. But wine tastings and vineyard visits also have become routine on many cruise ships.
Many ships also have wine bars, and the new Celebrity Solstice has taken the trend one step further with an elegant wine-tasting room.
But beware - some wine cruises are merely part of an epicurean theme or simply offer a shore excursion to a vineyard. As Martin says, "Some lines just put one wine expert on board and call it a wine cruise."
A Taste of 2009 Wine Cruises
May 5-12: Silversea's Silver Whisper, from Barcelona to Rome. Includes wine tastings and themed dinners with pairings. From $3,995 per person, double occupancy, liquor and gratuities included. Specialty Wine Cruises, 1-888-857-7379, www.specialtywinecruise.com.
Oct. 5-17: Oceania's Insignia, calling at ports in Italy, Monaco, Greece, Montenegro, and Croatia. Hosted by White Oak Winery of Alexander Valley, Calif. From $2,799 per person double occupancy when booked by March 31, including air fare, plus taxes of about $756 and gratuities. Shore excursions extra. Food and Wine Trails, 707-526-2922, www.foodandwinetrails.com.
April 18-25: MSC Orchestra, from Fort Lauderdale. "Thunder Cruise," hosted by the unconventional Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV. Tastings, seminars, wine treasure hunt, Vayniac disco pajama party. From $899, double. Gratuities, fees, taxes not included. 1-877-865-9714, www.garyvthundercruise.com.
September and October, various dates: Seven-day Taste of the Pacific Northwest sailing on Cruise West's Spirit of Discovery out of Portland, Ore. Winery and vineyard visits, wine events on board, all excursions and gratuities. From $3,499, double, with early-booking discount (ends March 27). 1-888-851-8133, www.cruisewest.com.
June-September: Three- to six-day wine sailings aboard the Stephen Taber tall-masted sailing ship from Camden, Maine. Tastings and wine-paired dinners. $500-$1,000 with discount for early booking by March 15 (mention Philadelphia Inquirer to qualify). 1-800-999-7352; www.stephentaber.com.
- Jay Clarke