Published Nov/Dec 2005

Drink in the history, scenery and spirit of California’s Wine Country on a small ship Cruise with Cruisewest through San Francisco Bay and on the Napa River.
By Cynthia Kagan Frohlichstein

You’ll find quotations extolling the virtues of wine everywhere. Philosophers, humorists, historians, nutritionists as well as poets, playwrights and novelists praise the product of the vine. Even the Bible offers glowing tributes to the juice of the grape.

What better way to sample the tastes of California wines than on a cruise? Passengers enjoy the amenities of a ship and there are no worries about driving. You can do a wine-tasting tour aboard CruiseWest’s Spirit of Endeavour that sails seasonally out of San Francisco. By the time you disembark, you’ll undoubtedly have memorable quotes of your own.

Galileo Galilei:
“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.”

When I told friends that we planned to take a wine cruise in California, they thought I was crazy. “There’s no water in the wine country!” Most of our cruising was on San Francisco Bay and the Napa River, no problem for our small ship. We docked in little ports, then boarded one of two motorcoaches to nearby wineries. Both coaches visited the same wineries but at different times. Everyone met for lunch.

John Gay, English poet/dramatist:
“From wine what sudden friendship springs.”

CruiseWest bills the Spirit of Endeavour as up-close, casual and personal. The vessel can accommodate 102 passengers; 67 people were onboard our trip.

Capt. Mike Anderson personally welcomed every passenger on board. Afterward, we were led to our AAA category Stateroom 105. Staterooms are small (ours was about 110 square feet) as you’d expect on a 217-foot-long vessel. It contained well-organized storage space, twin beds, a large window for great views, and a tiny bathroom with shower. Bring your own 110-volt blow dryer.

There are no keys to use or lose. Cabins lock from the inside. We placed a “do not disturb” sign on the door for privacy. Valuables can be checked, but why bother to bring them?

If you’re looking for lavish production shows, casinos and black-tie evenings, small-ship cruising isn’t for you. The destinations and ability to squeeze into little ports are the main attractions. Social hours with new friends made for superb entertainment. Dress is always casual.

The first evening we met onboard wine expert Terry Beswick representing Pezzi King Vineyards in Sonoma. The award-winning vineyard produces one of the highest rated Zinfandels in the world.

The ebullient Beswick shared her enormous knowledge of wine during tastings. She explained how to smell, swirl, taste and enjoy wines. At every tasting, she answered questions from knowledgeable passengers.

Ecclesiastes 9:7:
“Eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart.”

On the Spirit of Endeavour, there are no table assignments; we chose our own tablemates. Passengers enjoyed continental-style buffet breakfasts in the lounge and cooked-to-order full breakfasts in the dining room. Two lunches were at wineries. The scheduled deck barbecue was moved inside due to rain.

At dinners, we chose from four entrees–meat, fish, pasta or vegetarian. They served a variety of freshly-baked breads and tempting desserts.

Chef Irv Richardson described entrees to us each evening during the social hour. Unlike many aloof chefs, Richardson mixed with everybody. He was funny enough to be a stand-up comic.

The wiry Richardson emphasized that chefs don’t have to be hefty to prepare great food. “I cook with love!” he said frequently. “Do you feel the love?” We felt it.

Dom Perignon at his first taste of champagne:
“Come quickly! I am tasting stars.”

The first winery we visited was Schramsberg in Calistoga. The misty day provided a dramatic backdrop for the stately, mountainside Victorian house.

Champagne tastings were held in a cool wood-paneled room inside the caves where more than 2 million bottles of wine were aging. Our guide told us he loved to get people for their first tasting of the day. Later, I realized why. By the third vineyard visit of the day, my taste buds were exhausted.

Our guide talked about the Old-World tradition of processing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes to produce premiere sparkling wine. Schramsberg’s illustrious champagnes have been served at the White House and Buckingham Palace.

We met the other motorcoach at Markham Vineyards in St. Helena. After a tasting, we adjourned to lunch in the atmospheric stone cellar, their original winemaking facility. Hundreds of oak barrels filled with red varietals–providing intoxicating aromas–lined the rough-hewn stone walls.

At an elegant lunch, we clinked, swirled and enjoyed award-winning Merlot and full-bodied Cabernet. The delicious food presentation also pleased our palates.

Next, we toured the 1880 Victorian Atkinson House at St. Supéry Winery in St. Helena. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the home is a living museum of Napa Valley a century ago. The winery specializes in Bordeaux varietals. Third-generation winemaker Robert Skalli takes pride in his award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.

Pope Pius XII:
Wine in itself is an excellent thing.”

The second morning, we docked in Sausalito. CruiseWest provided shuttles into the quaint Mediterranean-style village at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Don’t take the early shuttle. Galleries and boutiques in Sausalito don’t open before 10 a.m. Some passengers signed up for tastings at Bacchus and Venus, a combination winery/art gallery.

After lunch aboard ship, we crossed the bay for tastings at Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda. Kent Rosenblum moved there to start a veterinary practice. He fell in love with California wines and began home winemaking. Friends joined him in developing a bonded winery. Demand for their products grew, so they built a larger facility near his clinic, where Rosenblum still practices, along with fulfilling winemaking duties.

Rosenblum Cellars produce more than 40 different wines and is particularly famous for its award-winning Zinfandels.

Ernest Hemingway:
“Wine is the most civilized thing in the world.”

On our final tasting day, we docked at historic Mare Island in Vallejo. We drove through the oldest U.S. Naval base on the West Coast before busing to three Sonoma Valley wineries.

We first visited the family-owned Benziger Winery in Glen Ellen. They produce biodynamic wines using principles of organic farming.

“Our family’s goal is to grow grapes and make wines with a unique sense of place. We believe this is best achieved through biodynamic winemaking and farming,” winemaker Mike Benziger explained. “Biodynamics integrates the vineyard with its surrounding ecology, enlivening and increasing the intensity of the living forces that surround a vine above and below the ground. Over time, the vine and environment intertwine and become one.”

Rain prevented us from taking the scheduled tractor-pulled tram tour through the vineyard. We did visit the underground caves. Our guide explained, “The warm to hot days and cool nights make Sonoma Mountain ideal for cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon. We devote 65 percent of the vineyard to that varietal.”

Alexander Dumas, French author:
“Wine…the intellectual part of the meal.”

Lunch at the landmark Ledson Cellars Winery was a happening. The 16,000-square-foot French-Normandy structure, known locally as the castle, sits on manicured grounds with sculpted rose gardens. The impressive structure with turrets, balconies and “Gone-with–the-Wind Staircase” offered a luscious setting for an exquisite lunch.

Ledson sells its award-winning Merlots, Chardonnays and Zinfandels exclusively at the winery. It’s a family business involving more than 20 proud family members. The gift shop/emporium displayed many unusual and beautiful items.

The hilltop Tuscan-style Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace, a tile-roofed villa with olive tree lined-driveways, was our final stop. CruiseWest arranged a food, wine and olive oil tasting presenting all Viansa products. The winery specializes in premiere Italian varietals.

I particularly liked their Italian Marketplace that featured an extensive array of Italian delicacies, including their outstanding estate-grown olive oil.

All the wineries gave special ship discounts. Enthusiastic passengers joined their wine clubs to keep that discount flowing.

Alexis Lichine, importer/ exporter:
“When it comes to wine, I tell people to throw away vintage charts out the window and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is in the drinking.”

Unlike most passengers, I boarded knowing absolutely nothing about wine other than I enjoyed certain varietals. I’m still far from an expert, but I have a deeper appreciation of the differences.

Taste California wines aboard CruiseWest’s Spirit of Endeavour Wine Country cruise. You’ll enjoy the camaraderie, the spirit and the spirits. You can quote me on that.

Cynthia Kagan Frohlichstein is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Above: The cruise passes through San Francisco Bay and offers spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Below: Ledson Cellars features a stately French-Normandy structure–known as the castle–complete with a stunning staircase, turrets and balconies. CruiseWest photos

Before You Go
CruiseWest’s Vintner’s Choice five-day cruise and four-day Culture of the Vine cruise have late September through early November departures. AAA members receive up to $200 off per person. To reserve your CruiseWest vacation, see your AAA Travel agent.

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