From winter cruises to summer sailings, wine and water are a perfect pairing for an increasing number of cruise companies, wineries, and wine lovers.
Today’s tourists can choose from wine club-led cruises with their favorite producer’s winemaker and wines to top-flight luxury sailings serving world-class Bordeaux and Burgundies. The vast array of options includes everything from ocean ship voyages to river barges and more. And there’s a wide variety of wine quality, too. One luxury cruise line even sells Napa’s coveted Screaming Eagle ($4,000 a bottle) aboard the ship.
“It just shows the diversity of who’s drinking wine these days,” says Chris Sawyer, a sommelier (who formerly worked for the Getty family) and popular wine expert who regularly appears on the radio. He’s recently led cruises to Alaska and Mexico for Celebrity Cruises and Costco Travel. He said that the demographics of Costco’s legions of fine wine consumers dovetail well with Costco Travel’s cruise business.
“There are definitely a lot of successful wine cruises. Wineries tend to do them every other year. Groups like Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP) do a very good cruise where they have multiple wineries. There are a lot of ways of selling it. Everyone loves to travel. That’s just the starting point to all of this.”
Sawyer says that improvements in cruise cuisine are helping to power the trend. “One of the success stories of why wine cruises work is because the styles of cuisine on the ships have gotten so much better. Some of the cruise restaurants are in the works for getting Michelin stars. You eat like kings and queens. So obviously, our food and wine cultures are coming together on these cruises.”
Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller has collaborated with Seabourn. Celebrity Cruises, a subsidiary of Royal Caribbean Group, has 29 restaurants on its Edge Class vessels.
Going green in food and wine is another way cruise lines attract customers. Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. announced it is “working with The Drinks Business Green Awards 2020 recipient Gerard Bertrand” and its Metropolitan Bar “will showcase more than 20 biodynamic wines produced using organic farming methods such as compost as fertilizer and avoiding most pesticides.”
Wines are changing, too, Sawyer notes. “The bigger kinds of wineries are actually getting very involved with the specific profiles of the wines being served on those boats, and making “drink now” wines, lighter versions of their more age-worthy wines, specifically for cruises.”
Wine education also seems perfect for sea voyages, particularly when guests have many hours on board staring at open waters. Offering wine education is becoming increasingly popular. Cunard even offers credentialed Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) classes on board.
”Putting wine classes on a boat, and drawing consumers to open their eyes and actually expand their horizons by buying wines that are aboard the boat, to not just like the classes that I’m teaching, and hopefully, getting people to be fans of these brands of wines, but also helping increase sales on the boat, because you’re really getting people in this mood to drink really fine examples of wine,” Sawyer said.
It can also drive repeat customers. “In working with Celebrity Cruises and Costco Travel, I’ve always had repeat customers returning to the ships I’m on just for the classes I teach. That’s got to be because they got something out of it,” he said.
Celebrity winemakers are also emerging as a big draw. Witness Norwegian Cruise Line’s Meet the Winemaker series, now completing its sixth year with Bertrand, Green Personality of the Year, Rob Mondavi, Jr., fourth-generation Napa winemaker, and Diane Flamand, of Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite).