Traveling to your favorite winery isn’t enough anymore.
“Wine is bottled poetry,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote. And anyone who’s ventured to Wine Country has experienced the poetry of many fine wines in Napa and Sonoma, which is why hotels have been providing their guests with unique wine experiences for years.
Silverado Resort & Spa in Napa, for example, partners with wineries in the area to give its guests a memorable experience, whether it’s with individual guests or national corporations. “Corporate groups often want to go off-site,” says Connie Hagston, director of sales and marketing at Silverado. “We’ve been doing this for at least 10 years and our guests love it. It’s interesting, different and enjoyable.”
Hotel Yountville partners with about 30 select Napa Valley wineries and provides guest-exclusive wine tasting in the hotel bar and lounge Thursday through Saturday evenings. Hotel guests have the opportunity to talk with staff from wineries such as Alpha Omega, Grgich Hills and Domaine Chandon and enjoy some of their finest wines without leaving the premises. Guests also can visit these wineries and receive exclusive benefits such as private tastings and tours. “Our guests receive VIP treatment at some of the best wineries in the valley while enjoying spectacular views, cave tours, culinary offerings and, of course, incredible wines,” says Erin Ratliff, sales manager at Hotel Yountville.
Lately, however, wineries are stepping these experiences up by creating extraordinary excursions for club members, especially for those members consumed by wanderlust who want to enjoy their favorite vino on an adventure farther from home.
For club members who attend these special trips, there’s no better way to know a place than to experience it first hand—the wine, the food, the people and the land itself. “Food, wine and travel is the Holy Grail. If you can go somewhere, eat good food and drink great wine, you’ve hit the jackpot,” says Tracy Michaels, a co-owner with Flying Dutchmen Travel, who routinely works with wineries to create such experiences.
“The average person may join three or four wine clubs, so wineries have a vested interest in retaining their members,” she adds. “Cruises are an amazing event for members. They have a lot of sizzle.” Wine cruise vacations are becoming increasingly popular, attracting wine club members not only from California, but also from New York, Florida, Texas and more.
Wine, dine and cruise
Currently, Michaels is planning a Wine, Dine & Music Cruise in the Caribbean in November aboard Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas cruise ship. The cost of the trip is about the same as a three-day weekend in Napa and includes seven full days on the cruise ship, plus nightly concerts and great wine from such wineries as Rodney Strong, Flora Springs and Sapphire Hill. Guests have the opportunity to meet internationally recognized Chef John Ash, who’ll be preparing some of his signature dishes in the Chops Grille. Guests will enjoy nightly concerts by Three Dog Night, Kenny Loggins, Nestor Torres, World Class Rockers and more.
The Wine, Dine & Music Cruise attracts both singles and couples and offers an exceptional value. “This is an amazing value for the wine-centric event and the high-end entertainment. People are looking for amazing experiences,” says Michaels. Studies have shown that 40 percent of the value of the vacation is experienced prior to taking the vacation, says Michaels. “It’s about looking forward to the trip and planning it,” she says. “Twenty percent of the enjoyment is in the moment while they’re on the trip, and the other 40 percent of the enjoyment is sharing the trip with friends and family when they return.”
While this cruise offers a unique experience where guests taste the wines from a variety of Napa and Sonoma wineries, many wineries are also hosting their own exclusive cruises for club members.
A South American cruise
Dutcher Crossing Winery, for example, is working with Michaels to plan a 12-night South American Cruise from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janiero in March next year. Debra Mathy, owner of the winery, will be personally escorting her guests. This will be the third trip for Dutcher Crossing Winery. The first year involved a Mediterranean cruise from Greece to Spain and, this year, guests enjoyed a nine-country tour in the Baltic Sea. “The first year, we didn’t know what to expect, but our guests loved it,” says Mathy.
How did Dutcher Crossing come to choose a South American cruise for its 2014 trip?
“It’s an area that my winemaker [Kerry Damskey] and I are fascinated by. We want to experience the culture and the food, and we think it’s a great match with our wines. What better way to do that than with our Dutcher Crossing wine club family? We have breakfast together. We have some type of cocktail reception or dinner with our guests every night. Guests hang out and go on excursions together. We’re all about togetherness,” says Mathy. “And we enjoy spending time with our guests.”
According to Mathy, a grower also joined them on the cruise last year. “It gave her a new perspective on how we interact with our club members,” she says. “She had really only seen it at the winery when we’re launching a new vintage and managing sales. She’d heard us refer to our club members as part of our family but didn't really understand why. [On the cruise] she got to see first hand that we care about our wine club members and are genuinely interested in their lives. The really great thing was, she developed strong bonds with them during the trip and realized our club members are as big a part of who we are, as a winery, as is the grower, proprietor and winemaker.”
The 2014 trip includes Dutcher Crossing wines with dinner every night. Along the way, guests will enjoy cruising on the Regatta, the flagship of the Oceana Cruises fleet, which offers luxurious suites, many of which have private verandas. The ship also features four restaurants, a casino, eight lounges and bars, and a world-class fitness center.
The Regatta will make a number of stops along the way, so guests can enjoy exploring the elegant city of Buenos Aires and its beautiful surroundings. They’ll also enjoy a cruise through the Tigre Delta past islands, mansions and English gardens. From there, it’s on to Rio de Janeiro, where they’ll enjoy a cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, known for its view. They’ll also ride the cog railway through dense forest to Corcovado, visit the lush botanical gardens, see the famed Ipanema and Copacabana beaches and more.
Rhone River cruise in France
Viansa Winery is also planning a wine cruise next summer, along the Rhone River in France from Avignon to Lyon. “We plan a trip every other year to keep it interesting and affordable,” says Lloyd Davis, president of Viansa Winery in Sonoma Valley. This is the third cruise hosted by Viansa for club members and, of the 90 members who’ve already signed up, 42 have attended a prior cruise with the winery.
“Our emphasis is all about the wine, food and being together. We want to give you that great experience,” says Davis, who’ll personally host the cruise for club members. “I do things in abundance and know how to throw one hell of a party, so it’s going to be fun. We’ll visit wonderful cities, eat great food and drink fantastic wines.”
Next summer, guests will cruise aboard a soon-to-be-launched luxury ship, christened the “Catherine,” which is designed to carry only 159 passengers. The Catherine features spacious luxury cabins, a number of restaurants, a swimming pool and also has bicycles on board for guests who want to explore villages or ride along the river quay.
During this seven-day cruise, guests will visit some of Europe’s most picturesque towns and villages such as Avignon, Tarascon, Tain L’Hermitage and Lyon. They’ll also explore some of the world’s most iconic wine regions such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Hermitage and Burgundy. They’ll visit fantastic wineries, says Davis, including Domaine Janasse, Domaine Pegau and Chapoutier. In addition, Viansa is planning an optional pre-cruise, two-night stay in Paris, with a day trip to Champagne to visit Vilmare & Cie and Maison de Billecart.
Davis likes to keep the cruises interesting, exciting and different. “Usually, we focus on Viansa wines, but this time, the focus is on French wines,” he says. While the Catherine offers some amazing wines, Davis has personally selected wines for his club members that are outstanding and highlight the quality of wines that are made in this region. Guests will enjoy highly rated, limited supply Rhone and Burgundy wines.
Will there be Viansa wine served aboard the Catherine as well? “Of course,” says Davis.
The Rhone River Cruise gives club members the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful cities in France, make new friends and create lifelong memories. As for Davis, he’s looking forward to exploring the wine region with Viansa friends and family. “My club members are all a part of my family,” he says.
Exploring the Alaska Inside Passage
Mazzocco Sonoma Winery will be hosting its second cruise for club members next June along the Alaska Inside Passage. “Life is about living well—friends, good food and good wine,” says Karen Clarke, sales manager at the winery. “We plan events that involve life experiences.”
According to Clark, Mazzocco’s wine club has been growing steadily and now has 5,000 members. “Wine club members become like family, and our members enjoy doing things with our winemaker, Antoine Favero.”
Ken and Diane Wilson, as well as Favero, will host the trip for an unforgettable journey aboard the Celebrity Solstice as she sails roundtrip from Seattle. Guests will visit a number of cities along the coast, including Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan and Victoria. In addition, they’ll enjoy two onboard wine-tasting events and a wine-pairing luncheon in the ship’s restaurant, Tuscan-Grille. They also can participate in an exclusive sommelier-guided Champagne tour of the ship’s wine tower.
In addition, the winery has partnered with a luxury hotel in Seattle, where club members can stay the night before and after the cruise. There will be a special wine reception both nights, and club members are welcome to attend whether or not they participate in the trip.
Last year, Mazzocco hosted a cruise to the Mediterranean and 150 club members attended. Club members who went on the Mediterranean cruise are already booking the Alaskan cruise, and those who can’t make it next year are already asking about the trip planned for 2015.
The flavor of Spain
Though wine cruises are popular among wineries these days, Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery offers a the experience of a lifetime abroad in Spain. “It’s a unique experience and our club members love it,” says Marimar Torres, a native of Spain and founder and proprietor of the winery. “We have a great time.”
For the last eight years, Torres has offered a seven-day, eight-night stay in the Catalan area around Barcelona for up to 24 wine club members, including a tour of the Torres Winery, established in 1870 by her great-grandfather, which produces 5 million cases of wine per year. This gives Torres’ guests the unique opportunity to compare Spanish wines to Marimar Estate wines. According to Torres, there are four elements to wine—soil, climate, varietal and the person behind the wine. “If one element is different, you get a different wine,” she explains. “Guests get to experience the flavors of Spain and meet my family. It’s magic and it’s become a mission.”
The next trip to Spain is scheduled for June 2014, and guests will take in the sights and flavors of Barcelona and the Catalan Wine Country. Guests will arrive in Sitges, a seaside resort south of Barcelona, and stay at the Hotel Calipolis. On the first full day, they’ll visit the Torres vineyards, nursery, brandy cellar and winery in Pacs del Penedes. They’ll also enjoy wine tasting and a lunch at Mas Rabell, the Torres family’s 14th century farmhouse, which has been turned into a restaurant. They’ll tour Barcelona, ending with a visit to the Boqueria market on The Ramblas. Next, guests can enjoy a relaxing day back in Sitges where they can shop, visit museums, walk the town or spend the day at the beach, followed by a gala dinner that same evening at Marimar Torres’ home.
According to club members who’ve attended this trip in years past, nothing else compares. “The Torres family in Spain would be the wine-god family, so their connections are stunning. We’d walk into a restaurant and not have corkage fees and they’d bring us food,” says Robin Holabird of Reno, Nev., who’s been a wine club member at Marimar Estate for about eight years. “We’d go again in a heartbeat. Marimar travels a lot, so she schedules it in a way that the pacing is set to the traveler’s rhythm.”
“Marimar is always the consummate host for the multisensory visit through some of Spain’s best wine regions,” adds Michael Westman, a Marimar Estate wine club member from Long Beach, Calif., who's traveled to Spain with Club Marimar multiple times. “With her in-depth knowledge of the wine industry and Spanish wine production, process, food and history, the wine enthusiast couldn’t ask for a better tour guide, but it’s the genuine love and passion for wine, family and friends that shines through. A trip with Club Marimar is so much more than a trip to Spain for wine tasting. It’s an experience with and among friends that’s truly priceless.”
Torres plans to continue these trips to Spain in the future. “It’s such a pleasure to share this experience and bring happiness to people’s lives,” she says. “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
The future of wine and travel
What can oenophiles expect to see in the years ahead for wine, food and travel? Probably more of the same.
“Wineries that are owned and operated by the proprietors such as Ferrari-Carano, Dutcher Crossing and Papapietro Perry have the most skin in the game. These are people who are involved in every aspect of production and will continue to deliver a high level of service and product to club members,” says Michaels.
According to Michaels, Flying Dutchman Travel will meet with the owners, put together a plan and take care of the travel arrangements while the owners focus on what they do best—making great wine.
Meanwhile, many wineries are already planning future trips.
“We’re already planning our 2016 trip,” says Davis. “We’re struggling whether to go back to Italy, or try the Baltics or Argentina.” As a result, Davis is polling club members to see which trip they’d prefer.
Dutcher Crossing is considering something wilder for club members. “We’re hoping to do a safari in a few years, but it takes more time to budget for that,” says Mathy.
As for Mazzocco, its strategy for trips involves rotating from New World to Old World locations. Next year, club members will have the opportunity to travel the New World on an Alaskan cruise, but plans are already underway for an Old World trip to Istanbul and the Greek Islands for 2015.
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