Cruising California's Wine Country

A local discovers an unusual way to tour Napa and Sonoma wineries-by cruise ship.

cruising in Napa River's wine country

From the ship's deck, passenger Bill Gallagher gets a leisurely look at homes lining the Napa river.

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After five years of living in Sonoma, Calif., I had gone winetasting by car, by bike, by foot, even by horse—but it had not occurred to me to go winetasting by ship until the brochure for Cruise West's three-night Culture of the Vine excursion arrived in my mailbox. Nor had it occurred to the alleged experts on the subject: A glance through a half-dozen wine country guidebooks did not reveal any mentions of "ship" or "boat" in the "Getting There" or "Getting Around" sections. So it was in the spirit of adventure that I boarded the 51-stateroom Spirit of Endeavour at San Francisco's Pier 54 one afternoon last September, along with some hundred other passengers from around the country. Our four-day itinerary called for us to cruise San Francisco Bay at night, and, after Captain Jim Armstrong had ferried us as close as possible to the wine country, take motor coaches to some of the area's wineries during the day. We were to visit three wineries in Napa Valley one day and three in Sonoma Valley the next.

As we sailed up San Francisco Bay on the first night, guest expert Marcy Roth, who owns Bacchus & Venus wineshop in Sausalito, Calif., gave us a down-to-earth introduction to winetasting. From the dinner menu I chose a mustard- and herb-encrusted rack of lamb and later, with no floor-show entertainment in the offing, I borrowed the original Thomas Crown Affair from the ship's video library and retired to my stateroom.

The ship continued north across San Pablo Bay and entered the mouth of the Napa River. My admittedly imperfect understanding of this waterway (which starts north of Napa and meanders through marshy flatlands mostly out of sight of major roads before flowing into San Pablo Bay near Vallejo) was that its narrow, shallow dimensions made it ideal for canoeing and little else. But, actually, ships like the Endeavour can travel several miles up the river.

At 11 p.m., the roaring of the engine's thrusters announced our arrival at Cuttings Wharf—the navigable limit for the ship—near the Napa-Sonoma county border. Turning a 217-foot vessel with an 81/2-foot draft around in a channel that's about 20 feet deep and 300 feet wide is a noisy proposition. It is also, as Armstrong told me later, "a real challenge."

Fortunately, getting to our first destination the next morning was easier. After a 20-minute bus ride, we arrived at our initial winery stop, Napa Valley's St. Supéry. Omar Cruz, our guide at the winery, gave us a tour of the facilities and delivered a talk on the labor, science, art, luck, and, above all, money that go into winemaking. "If you want to make a small fortune in winemaking," he joked, "start with a very large one." While we tested the Smellavision—a device by which one sniffs various wine aromas such as cedar, black cherry, and grapefruit through a plastic tube—Cruz told us that America's annual wine consumption is only two gallons per capita compared to Europe's 14 and that, for all its fame, Napa Valley produces only about 4 percent of California's wines. At the end of the tour, we sampled a few of St. Supéry's contributions, including a justly praised sauvignon blanc.

Our next stop was on the Silverado Trail at Cuvaison, where we sat in cool caves dimly lit with candles for lunch—in my case, filet mignon paired with a 2000 merlot. Then we drove down the valley for a tour and tasting at Markham Vineyards. Like Cuvaison, Markham is known for its merlots and cabernets. Because the winery doesn't freely pour its very best reserve vintages at the tasting counter, I learned that the best way to taste these expensive wines is either to order wine to go—as fine as the shipboard cuisine is, it is best enjoyed with a good bottle you bought that day—or to do as I did and hover near somebody who is brandishing a credit card. So it was that I got to try Markham's velvety 1999 reserve merlot and jammy 1999 reserve cabernet sauvignon.

As we were leaving Markham Vineyards, Bill Gallagher, a jeweler from Southern California who was among a group of four couples who travel together every few years, shook his head in pity at a rental car in the parking lot. The stressed-out couple in the front seat struggled with a road map before turning around and leaving. "That's exactly how I didn't want to experience the wine country for the first time," said Gallagher as we boarded our bus for an easy 45-minute ride back to the ship.

Back on board, we headed south on the Napa River past a string of houses I never knew existed. People came out to their decks to wave. The reed-lined river is usually the province of waterbirds and small pleasure craft; the Endeavour, by far the largest ship to ply the channel, must be a bizarre sight to those who live along its banks. Imagine glancing out your window and seeing the equivalent of a four-story building slowly float by.

After sunset, we dined aboard the ship on gourmet preparations of local ingredients and breads from my favorite Sonoma bakery, Artisan. In the dining room, picture windows offered views of the twinkling lights of bay communities.

That night, we dropped anchor just east of the Carquinez Bridge, and then the next morning cruised into a berth at the decommissioned naval base on Mare Island, where buses were waiting to whisk us to our first destination on our day in Sonoma Valley and environs.

Domaine Carneros is a winery I had driven past many times without stopping. It turns out I had missed both a great tutorial on sparkling wines—our guide imparted such tidbits as the fact that Madame de Pompadour once said, "A lady can drink champagne all night and remain elegant"—and some yummy stuff called Le Rêve, Domaine's tiniest-bubbled bubbly.

Next we visited the unapologetically touristy Viansa Winery, where we lunched on plastic-boxed chicken salad and heard a tour guide declare reverently that we swirl wine before sipping to "volatilize the esters." We then headed toward Glen Ellen for our last stop of the day, the Benziger Family Winery, where we took a tram-ride tour and sampled a 2000 estate cabernet and a 2001 reserve chardonnay. On our way back to the ship, the driver of our motor coach skipped both the town of Sonoma and Highway 12 through Sonoma Valley north of Agua Caliente. I was disappointed for the other passengers, because they had missed one of the most beautiful drives on the planet.

But that was about the extent of my disappointment with the cruise, except for one other very small thing. After the captain's farewell dinner Sunday night, I joined Bill Gallagher and his traveling companions up on the bridge deck in air so balmy we could have been bobbing in the water off Acapulco. We were anchored in the middle of the bay off Pier 54, where we had started. Alameda was to port and the sparkling skyline of San Francisco was aft—blocked from view by the fantail.

Despite our mostly-in-jest request to a crew member to rotate the Endeavour 90 degrees, so we didn't have to get up from our deck chairs to view the San Francisco skyline, the vessel remained solidly anchored as it was. But after a few bottles of Le Rêve and Benziger reserve cabernet sauvignon, seeing even an unobstructed Bay Bridge didn't seem so important. Long after midnight, having collectively made a liar of Madame de Pompadour, we all wandered off to our cabins, each of us hoping not to volatilize too many esters before sunup.

At 6:30 the next morning, we were rousted from our tiny-bubble dreams by a gentle voice on the intercom urging us to get our luggage out the door by 7 a.m. After returning the unwatched Thomas Crown Affair, I quietly sipped coffee in the lounge with other bleary-eyed people. After some 65 hours and 65 nautical miles, passengers hugged and exchanged email addresses.

Sometimes you have to travel great distances for an unusual experience that you don't want to forget. Sometimes you don't have to travel far at all.

Photography by Kelli Anderson

This article was first published in March 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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