Going Beyond 'White or Red?'

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Humorist Art Buchwald once quipped that when it comes to knowledge of wine, he does what almost everybody does. He fakes it.

That pretty much describes our captain on a cruise some years ago aboard the since-retired World Explorer Universe. At the dinner table one evening, the sommelier dramatically presented the captain with a bottle of jug wine, then offered him the twist-off cap which he ceremoniously sniffed and pronounced "perfect."

It seems to lend credence to the oft-uttered comment from Bob Dickinson, the wine-connoisseur president of Carnival Cruise Lines, who says that when it comes to cruising, "you have people who don't know the difference between Blue Nun and a very cold sister."

Many passengers, though, seek the best wines at sea with an almost religious fervor. And Dickinson happily points to a growing number of aficionados who not only know their wine but for whom it is an essential element of the cruising experience.

Our New Jersey neighbor Keith La Rue, who cruises two or three times a year with his wife on upscale lines -- and whose private cellar at home has 600 bottles -- always requests a line's wine list prior to choosing his cruise. "To me, a cruise is like going to a very fine restaurant every night, and I want to make sure a meal isn't ruined by a poor selection of wines," he says. "We're all a lot happier now that ships have so much to offer in the way of wine."

Many high-end lines, of course, boast about their wine lists, and with good reason. Respected publications like Wine Enthusiast frequently praise lines such as Crystal, for example. ("It pays the best overall attention to wines," the magazine has stated, offering "the most coveted wines in the world.")

Similarly, at luxury line Windstar, "the wine list plays a critical role in delivering first-class dining," says Sandra Scragg, Marine Hotel Operations Manager. "Wine is a big hobby for many of our cruisers -- they know their stuff, so we couldn't make it without an 'A' wine list."

The wine selection on most boutique lines lies with the hotel director, maitre d' or sommelier. On larger lines, it rests with the corporate food and beverage team or with wine consultants and sometimes directly with vintners. Holland America confers with a "tasting panel," follows major magazines' wine reviews and ratings, and evaluates sales volumes before making selections. On Celebrity Cruises, the process is a bit more direct, with master chef Michel Roux overseeing the selections.

The assault of mass-market lines on the oenologist pedigree translates into a flood of fine wines in unexpected places, as on low-priced Carnival, where Dickinson's personal expertise reigns supreme, particularly as it concerns the line's reserve list.

At Norwegian Cruise Line, passengers increasingly prefer red wines, especially those from Bordeaux, and white wines from Burgundy, says Peter Tobler, the line's vice president of food and beverage operations. "A growing international awareness of Italian, Californian and New World wines has also exploded during the past ten years," he says.

Regardless of which end of the spectrum your line floats, the goal, of course, is to provide passengers with a rich variety of wines from a diversity of regions and in price ranges that are affordable to the occasional sipper and high-end enough for the affluent connoisseur. On the 19 lines we surveyed for this article, a bottle of popular wine such as Nathanson Creek Chardonnay or a Riesling from the Columbia Valley would set a cruiser back $14 to $30. A classic wine of repute, such as a 1979 Chateau Petrus, could excite the palate at $950 on luxury line Seabourn; or a 1959 Chateau Lafite Rothschild can be savored for $3,100 on Crystal.

However, Celebrity's wine list might make any connoisseur drunk with envy. Sampling a bottle of Heidsieck Monopole Champagne 1907 (recovered from the bottom of the ocean on the wreck of the Jonkoping, a Swedish merchant ship sunk in 1916) tips the scales at $7,000. And batten down the hatches if you want to down a magnum of Chateau Petrus 1949. This nectar of the gods will add $12,400 to Celebrity's collection plate.

While ordinary folk might gag at such steep price tags, these are the exception, not the rule. Luxe line Radisson Seven Seas, for instance, considers only five percent of its wines expensive for its well-heeled passengers and Cunard about eight percent. On European line Peter Deilmann Cruises, which proffers a number of gourmet river cruises, that percentage rises to about 23; on Celebrity less than a quarter of its wines dent your wallet and, on Carnival, only 25 percent of its 138 selections cost more than $75.

In all cases, the cruise lines assure us they are not gouging passengers. In fact, for the most part, they claim that prices aboard ship are lower than at a shore-side restaurant. According to Dickinson, "a typical restaurant has a three-and-a-half to four-times markup on fine wines from their wholesale prices... But in our case [on Carnival] because we're trying to encourage people to try wine and enjoy it as part of their vacation experience, our markup is typically two times."

Other lines echo that. Volume seems to be the reason. On Carnival for example, which carries three million passengers annually on 17 ships, folks dine, on average, for six nights. And while not all of them will order wine with dinner, "that's the equivalent of serving 18 million people a year," Dickinson calculates. "I don't know a restaurant in the country that does 18 million people a year," he adds. Translation: Few restaurants can compete with those numbers. Nor can they compete on price, Dickinson asserts.

Price is not the only consideration for a cruise line when selecting vintners. Itinerary also plays a key role for many, especially the boutique lines like Silversea, which operates four small vessels with worldwide itineraries. "Our wine list includes wines from areas we travel to," says spokesman Brad Ball. "And we purchase additional wines locally in certain wine-producing countries."

On ResidenSea, the world's only ocean-going condo where apartments go for more than $7 million, the wine list reflects the many wine-producing regions that the ship will visit in the next couple of years (including South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, North America, Europe and Israel).

Even mass-market lines are likely to stock their wine cellars with regional varietals. Princess' culinary team ensures that its menus reflect the ship's itinerary. "Our wine list is conveniently diversified to complement every meal," says spokeswoman Susanne Ferrull. And Disney's ships, which sail primarily in this nation's neighborhood, boast more than 100 different wines from around the world.

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Nonetheless, to the consummate connoisseur (to say nothing of the ultra-rich), even the best selections on board are, on occasion, insufficient. On Seabourn, we were told, one famous rock star had a helicopter fly in his favorite wines and boosted his onboard wine tab to $32,000 for the week.

While this is not common, meeting the exacting needs of some passengers is not solely the domain of lines that cater to the very wealthy. Holland America's Food and Beverage Manager Steve Kirsch says his line handles special requests all the time. "This is providing service," he explains.

Uniworld, a premier river cruise and tour company that operates a bakers' dozen vessels in Europe and Russia, recalls specially flying in a sweet German wine for a passenger. When Crystal failed to include Domaine de la Romanee-Conti on its wine list, it immediately corrected that lapse when a passenger requested it. The winery, a Crystal spokeswoman says, happens to be the most exclusive and "elite" property in Burgundy, producing by far the most expensive and rarest wines; a bottle can retail on shore for as much as $3,532.

On one occasion, Celebrity really went the extra mile. At the conclusion of one cruise, the line delivered 10 cases of Domaine de la Berle -- a private-label wine, available exclusively on Celebrity -- to a passenger's home, because "this particular guest said he absolutely must have a bottle on ice on his deck at home every day," says executive chef Michel Roux, who produces the wine.

To help less-experienced passengers select wines, Holland America arranges its wines in categories ranging from the sweetest to the driest. On Windstar, wines are listed from lighter and fruitier in taste to those that are heavier and more full-bodied.

On some lines, special wine lists grace the ships' alternative dining venues. For instance on Holland America, the Pinnacle Grill features wines from the Pacific Northwest along with a cluster of cabernets to support the steaks on the menu; in its Odyssey and Marco Polo restaurants, eateries with an Italian flair, the list is heavy on Italian wines. The Chops Grill steakhouses on Royal Caribbean International vessels focus on the big red wines predominantly from North America, with a small selection of Australian, French, Italian and Spanish wines.

Not only can passengers choose from a large selection of wines on most ships -- ranging from about 50 to a tad more than 350 -- but they're imbibing them in large quantities, too. On Continental Waterways' tiny 20-passenger barges, for instance, where wines may quite literally come with the territory, shipboard wines are selected by the daughter of fourth-generation vintners from Burgundy, and consumption averages a bottle per day per passenger, according to CEO Guy Bardet. (Good thing these passengers aren't driving!)

Each Carnival "Fun Ship" opens 1,000 to 1,300 bottles per week; on Cunard's 1,791-passenger QE2, more than 1,300 corks pop; and Crystal passengers tuck back some 2,600 bottles. Radisson passengers imbibe a modest 30,000 bottles annually, while Princess' empty around 700,000, and Royal Caribbean's about 900,000.

And when it debutes in January 2004 as the world's largest, longest, tallest, widest and most expensive passenger ship ever built, the Queen Mary 2 will also boast the largest wine list afloat -- some 350 labels, ranging in price from $20 to $2,650.

With the clout conferred by such large numbers, cruise lines get their pick of the vine. In fact, some lines offer wines not readily available at establishments shore-side. Carnival's list includes several wines considered hard to come by, such as those of Far Niente and Opus One, as well as older vintages like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild 1983 and 1985. Cunard offers passengers Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Special Selection and Seña, a Chilean red wine. On ResidenSea, "The Hanzell chardonnay from Sonoma is in limited production, the La Tache is mostly sold to collectors... and the Silver Oak cabernet sauvignon is of cult status," the line told us.

Princess' special wine list, called Maitre d's Special Reserve Wines, showcases a collection of exclusive wines produced in limited quantities such as Carneros Creek. And Seabourn treats its passengers to the likes of New Zealand's Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.

As a result of the spirited interest in all things wine, it's a veritable wine-dark sea out there. According to Cruise Lines International Association, there are more cruises now than ever that offer wine-related sailings and excursions designed to educate the uninitiated or to refine the sophisticated palate of the connoisseur.

Some cruises squeeze the most out of port calls when visiting regions well known for wine, such as Bordeaux, where passengers visit vineyards and wineries to quench both their thirst and their curiosity. This year, Silversea's wine series program includes 13 such cruises in Europe and the Med hosted by experts from establishments such as Kendall-Jackson, Domaine Carneros, Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery, and Castello Banfi.

Crystal, arguably the apogee, celebrates its Food and Wine Festival at Sea's seventh year. It also recently introduced exclusive Wine & Champagne Makers dinners nightly, on Serenity, its new vessel that debuted in June. Going beyond mere lectures and tastings, the dinners create a total experience designed to enrich, educate and even surprise the most sophisticated aficionado, according to the line. "With participation from some of the world's most renowned winemakers including Frederic Heidsieck of the revered Louis Roederer Champagne House, passengers are privy to historical anecdotes" - e.g., how Roederer's Cristal became the Champagne of the Tsars - "and then enjoy the vintage later that evening with some Russian Beluga caviar."

Even without wine themes per se, ships these days routinely focus more on vintage vino as a sign of appreciation of the finer things in life. There are enough tastings afloat to make you tipsy. Many lines invite passengers to educate their palate during informal wine tastings that appeal to all levels. These events may be overseen by a ship's own expert sommelier or by specialists, vintners and vino virtuosos brought aboard for this purpose. If they're offered ostensibly to educate, introducing the opportunity to sample wines from different regions of the world, they also are designed to lighten your pocketbook and induce you to buy.

Royal Caribbean offers wine tastings on most of its vessels. Last year, RCI introduced Vintages, a California-style wine bar on Navigator of the Seas, where passengers can experience wine minus the intimidation factor. Vintages offers "essence" tastings, interactive games, wine-related board games, seminars on how to navigate the wine list and tastings that pair chocolate and cabernet. Sounds positively painless.

Indeed, the rituals associated with wine tastings can seem snobbish or downright odd to ordinary folks (considering all the posturing, swirling and spitting-out that goes on at them). But not to worry; they aren't as daunting or mysterious as they appear.

At one shipboard wine tasting we attended, Brent Simpson, managing director for Napa Valley's Rutherford Benchmarks at the time, offered this advice for novices: Don't be intimidated; the intent of a wine tasting is simply to expose the taster (that's you) to various flavors and nuances in each different wine.

Above all, be relaxed and let your taste buds be your judge. "The taster is the final judge, not the group," Simpson said. "There's no mystique about it; just have fun."

Finally, if you ever wondered about the origins of the wine-bottle-breaking tradition on a ship's prow prior to its maiden voyage, it dates from pre-Christian pagan rituals. The wine was supposed to ensure the safety of the ship. Later, for the same purpose of bringing luck, Vikings lashed slaves to the prow. Hey, wine tastings seem a lot less daunting by comparison, wouldn't you say?

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