If cruising in a ship filled with thousands of other people sounds overwhelming, Cruise West has the solution: medium-sized boats of 78 to 138 passengers. They offer ocean cruises to Asia, Mexico, Central America, the South Pacific, and freshwater cruises in the US and Canada. On our Vintner's Choice cruise from San Francisco to Napa Valley, Sausalito, and Sonoma, I found that most of our fellow passengers had taken Cruise West before. One couple raved about the Cruise West ship in Alaska that took them up the fjords for an up-close look at wildlife—an impossible fit for a large ocean liner. Another couple from Texas was on their 10th Vintner's Choice tour. They reported Cruise West varied the itinerary each time, they loved the food and found the ship size big enough to meet a variety of people, but small enough to feel cozy. We were part of a special group of wine and travel writers on this trip, with a special table and wines provided by Cruise West.
Our adventure started with a greeting from Cruise West personnel at the airport. We were shuttled to a hospitality center at the Holiday Inn at Fisherman's Wharf. Unfortunately, the boat had a mechanical problem that prevented us from boarding the first night, but the Cruise West personnel made up for it with a nice hotel and an elegant dinner at Ca Bianca in Santa Rosa. Inside the beautifully restored Victorian building, the wine flowed courtesy of Cruise West: a Scarbolo from northern Italy for the first course of salad with avocado and caramelized red onion. Domaine Laurier Merlot and Zabaco Sonoma were served with the entrée; I chose the grilled salmon on potato gratin.
The next morning we were off to Napa Valley to a wine blending demonstration at the Culinary Institute of America with Master Sommelier Catherine Farris. Our mission was to blend the five grape varietals in a Bordeaux-style wine: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Each grape contributes its own aroma, flavors, mouth feel, acidity or tannin. Using a pipette (like a long glass straw with milliliter markings on the side) we could blend our own wine and have it tasted by Catherine. This gave me an appreciation of the winemakers' skill--it's not easy to blend great wine!
Afterwards, we were treated to a cooking demonstration by one of the ACI chefs. Their facility is a state-of-the-art showcase for all things food and wine. In a gleaming amphitheater with multiple monitors demonstrating an overhead camera view of the stovetop, our chef prepared Roasted Tomato Risotto with Basil Oil. Risotto is difficult to prepare properly. We were able to watch, and then taste his skillful preparation. In addition, we were given a complimentary bottle of Guenoc Cabernet Sauvignon.
Lunch was at the renowned Michelin-starred Auberge du Soleil, overlooking the verdant Napa Valley. After a flute of champagne and hors d'oeuvres on the terrace, we feasted on field greens salad with walnut oil and pears, baked chicken with Brussels sprouts. The pairing of Gregory Graham Sauvignon Blanc was a perfect complement. At the end, we each received a free gift and a personally signed recipe from the chef.
The Wine Enthusiast Magazine calls Mumm Napa "one of the best tasting experiences in America." Mumm Napa sparkling wines are made by the same method used in France, known as the Méthode Champenoise, in which the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle to create the bubbles. The yeast must be extracted from the bottle after fermentation. We marveled at the mechanical riddling machine, which consolidates sediments in the neck of the bottle where they can be flash-frozen and extracted. After a taste of their Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, we enjoyed their art gallery exhibit including original Ansel Adams photographs.
We were all excited to board the Spirit of Yorktown, which was docked on an arm of San Pablo Bay. The San Francisco waterway includes three bays and is 75 miles across, covering more than 1,600 square miles. As it was my first time on a cruise ship, I was thinking we'd be cramped, but our stateroom had ample floor space, comfortable beds, a nice bathroom with plenty of hot water and a first-class view from the expansive window. I was happy to discover our meals were made-to-order from the restaurant menu with many wonderful choices like Dungeness crab appetizer, fennel and wild mushroom soup, roast lamb, and fresh halibut.
During the night the ship moved to Sausalito. We woke to a glorious view of the bay at sunrise. Some of my new friends were eating a Continental breakfast in the lounge area, but I had a hankering for pancakes and eggs. I was impressed by the helpfulness of the staff--a waitress in the restaurant gladly offered to bring my meal up so I could stay with my group. Small niceties like this on the part of the crew made our voyage memorable.
After breakfast, we took a short walk into town to Caffe Trieste to check our emails and have a latte. On the way back, we visited the free San Francisco Bay-Delta Model housed in a three-acre facility once run by the Army Corps of Engineers. The model is the size of two football fields and replicates the tide and water flows of the entire Bay/Delta. We returned to the ship and that night an enormous harvest moon spilled its light across the Bay. After dinner, we sampled Franciscan wines in a “Winetasting 101” class.
Thursday was a day for choices. A tour of Sonoma was included with the cruise. Optional tours at an additional charge were to Round Pond to see and taste fresh-pressed olive oil, a limo tour to visit Cabernet Sauvignon producers, or one could float in a hot air balloon over Napa Valley. Touring and Tasting was given a spot on a press tour of three premium Cab producers: Piña, Conn Creek and Spring Mountain.
The four winemaking brothers of Piña are continuing a Napa family tradition that stretches back more than 140 years. We were privileged to barrel taste their 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from their D'Adamo Vineyard and the 2005 Cab from their Yountville Wolff Vineyard. Their limited-production, single-vineyard Cabs are so esteemed that most of their wine has sold through future contracts two years in advance--before it's even bottled!
At Conn Creek we had the rare chance to taste the 2007 Sauvignon Blanc right out of the tank, still cloudy with yeast. More educated palates than mine could discern the character of the fully matured wine from the just-fermented juice, but to me the flavor was like refreshing, but chalky, floral grapefruit. It was easier to appreciate the lusciousness of their red wines. Conn Creek will surely become even more of a destination in Napa when they open their blending room to the public in 2008. Here, barrels of Conn Creek Cabernet Sauvignon from each of the 15 Napa appellations are paired with a display of each vineyard’s soil and a description of its microclimate. This gives one a tremendous understanding of the effect of terroir. Equally impressive is the comparison of an identical Cab aged in either French , American or Hungarian oak. Added to this are barrels of the four other varietals for a Bordeaux blend, giving us innumerable possible combinations. We spent an enjoyable afternoon searching for our perfect wine blend, which was bottled for us with the label of our own design, to take home.
After a stop at the legendary Oakville Grocery in Yountville for sandwiches and salads, the limo carried us to classy Spring Mountain Winery for a picnic on their beautifully landscaped grounds. The Estate covers 845 acres rising from an elevation of 400 feet above sea level to 1450 feet. An ancient Roman method of head pruning called “gobelet” can be seen in some of the meticulously tended, steep, hillside vineyards. Spring Mountain reds regularly receive 90+ ratings. These are powerful, complex wines best cellared for 5 or more years. We sampled the 2002 and 2005 Elivette Reserve to see how the years developed the soft, supple tannins and concentrated the flavors. They also poured us one of their Library Wines, the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon. 2000 was not considered a banner year in Napa, but the higher elevation Spring Mountain yielded a full-bodied, rich Cab.
Winemaker Jac Cole praised Vineyard Manager Ron Rosenbrand saying, “great wine begins with great grapes”. He calls grape growing “science in slow motion” because of the time it takes: three or four years for usable juice, five or six years before the grape produces the flavors desired. I asked how he blends when there are so many permutations possible; he stressed the importance of his years as an apprentice and his work experience that gives him a baseline from which to start. His eyes lit up as he explained that blending is an art. Having so many vineyards to blend is like “being a kid and getting the big Crayola box with 128 colors and knowing you can create anything you want on the paper".
After full and informative day, I skipped the onboard dessert wine tasting and went to bed early. This proved to be fortuitous as I woke before dawn to see the dark arc of a bridge passing overhead. The bridge was topped with a line of glowing streetlights that flooded the Sacramento River with a golden sheen. As I lay in bed watching the lights of the shore pass silently by and the sky fill with a pale morning blue, I understood why one would return again and again to see sights that one could never see from a car. I tasted great wine, learned a lot about winemaking--toured and tasted in style--sign me up for the next cruise!
Itineraries for the Vintner's Choice and Culture of the Vine cruises vary, for more touring and tasting ideas, click here.