People in the travel industry like to say there are two kinds of travelers in this world: those who cruise, and those who don’t. Jordan Fiorentini, winemaker at Epoch Estate Wines, previously fell into the latter camp.
“I’ve never been on a cruise and I never pictured myself as a cruise-goer,” Fiorentini says. In August 2020, however, she and her husband Manu will host a Danube wine cruise, sailing from Budapest to Vilshofen, Germany.
When approached by Adam Montiel, a friend and radio host of “Cork Dorks,” Fiorentini thought it would be an interesting opportunity – not to mention “one last hurrah before harvest 2020,” she says. “Personally, I love visiting new winemaking regions.”
She did field-test the idea to a few tasting-room and wine-club regulars before signing on completely, though. “They already knew about the cruise line and many had wanted to do a cruise with them in the future,” she says. “So I knew we were dealing with a high-end company that attracts those who like our wines.”
Michelle Thacher, co-owner of Thacher Winery and Vineyard in Paso Robles, Calif., will also host an AmaWaterways cruise in summer 2020. Hers will sail the Rhône from Lyon to Arles, a region that produces vintages similar to her and husband Sherman’s Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre blends.
“Most people that have booked the cruise with us have not done this before. But in this small group format, we are going to be able to get into wineries they wouldn’t be able to get into otherwise,” she says. For their demographic, both the region and the style of wine are a draw, as are the comparative tastings they will do aboard ship.
Harmony Cellars owners Chuck and Kim Mulligan are longtime cruisers. Kim says they readily agreed when approached by tour company Food and Wine Trails, which connected them with Azamara Cruise Lines. They chose Croatia as a destination because of their commitment to the Zinfandel grape, which in Croatia is known as Crljenak kaštelanski.
“With the addition of our Grandpa Zinfandel to our portfolio, our Zinfandel fan base has grown even more. We have also had a lot of our customers tell us how much they wanted to go to Croatia,” Mulligan says. And so the Harmony Cellars cruise will be focused on most things Zinfandel, with a winemaker dinner, Zinfandel seminar on board, and a library wine tasting.
In the end, Mulligan says, the aim is not “new and different ways to advertise our brand,” but rather to “leave [guests] with a better knowledge of Harmony Cellars’ wines and philosophy.”
Mulligan’s Croatia voyage doesn’t depart until May 9, 2020, but it’s part of a long line of wine-themed cruises, including Norwegian Cruise Lines’ (NCL) Meet the Winemaker Cruise Series. It’s not hard to see why. Now in its fourth season, Meet the Winemaker offers cruisers the opportunity to engage with such vintners and sommeliers as Gerard Bertrand of Languedoc Roussillon; Bob Bertheau of Chateau Ste. Michelle; Juan Munoz of Columbia Crest; and Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier.
Some NCL customers book cruises depending on who they want to meet. Salvatore Ferragamo, for example, might join them for dinner to chat about how he sustainably fights the invasive red spider in Il Borro Toscana’s vineyards. Others, of course, simply choose where they want to go (the Caribbean, Alaska, Bermuda, or the Mexican Riviera) and meet winemakers along the way.
NCL has also partnered with Michael Mondavi on The Cellars, a Michael Mondavi Family Wine Bar since 2015. The Cellars launched on Norwegian Escape and is now on three other ships, including the newest, the Encore, set to launch in November. Wes Cort, vice president of food and beverage for NCL, says The Cellars’ seminars, workshops, and tastings “allow us the opportunity to attract new cruisers and build loyalty among returning guests.” The wine cruises are popular overall, he adds. Much like walking into a tasting room, guests can be wine experts or novices.
Michael Mondavi, the founder of the Michael Mondavi Family Estate, says: “The beauty of a cruise is to relax with friends and enjoy wonderful food and beverage. As Louis Pasteur said, ‘Wine is the most natural and healthy of all beverages and nature’s tranquilizer.’ The cruise line is a wonderful environment to introduce fine wines to people.”
Still, while an introduction is admirable, the objective is, in the end, to sell both cabins and wine. AmaWaterways purchased $4,000 of Thacher wine to serve aboard the ship. In turn, they expect the winery to help market the cruise, although not without additional incentives. Thacher and her husband will get comped a free cabin for every 10 cabins they sell, and airfare for 15, Thacher says.
Naturally, a boutique winery with limited range could have trouble selling more than 20 or 30 of the 70 or so cabins. But they’re not truly expected to do more than that. Like the winery, the cruise line also has its captive audience in place. And that winds up being helpful to the winery. “There’s a subset that know and love us,” Thacher says. “But the rest could become new customers.”
Of course, “could” is the operative word. Thacher, Mulligan, and Fiorientini look at the cruises mostly as a way of firming up the bonds with their existing clientele, and perhaps even promoting loyalty as a preventive measure.
Two couples who attended Thacher’s first cruise on Celebrity to the eastern Mediterranean in May 2013 will be joining her on the Rhône next year. “They had a very positive experience,” she says. “They will never forget us. So if times get tough and they have to drop wine clubs, we will not be the first one to go.”