Wine cruises boom in popularity

Passengers drinking wine on the sky deck aboard Passengers drinking wine on the sky deck aboard the Avalon Affinity on the Moselle River in Germany. Photo Credit: Handout

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Enjoying a simple glass of wine with dinner on a cruise is one thing. Going on a wine cruise is something else, and more and more travelers are choosing to combine the vacation fun of a cruise with a theme that pleases their palates.

On a wine-themed cruise, participants get to taste many different wines, learn about them from winemakers and wine experts brought on board, drink wines paired with special meals and visit wineries and vineyards on shore. Such cruises have been around for a couple of decades, but they've really picked up steam in recent years.

GROWING POPULARITY

"Wine cruises have increased a thousandfold," says Larry Martin, chief executive of Food & Wine Trails (foodandwinetrails.com), a pioneer company in packaging wine cruises that annually books about 1,000 guests on 15 to 20 wine sailings. Expedia Cruise Ship Centers (expediacruiseshipcenters.com), another travel agency, which started offering wine cruises three years ago, now does six to eight a year, says owner Brian Murphy.

Cruise lines also are ramping up their offerings. AMA Waterways (amawaterways.com), which operates 11 cruise ships on European rivers, scheduled eight wine cruises this year but is doubling that number in 2013. Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.com) this year initiated a series of seven new "immersive European Wine Cruises" through Nov. 12 to coincide with the harvest season. Avalon Waterways (avalonwaterways.com) started wine cruises in 2006. "They took a while to catch on, but they're really popular now," said the line's marketing director, Jennifer Halboth.

And the trend is not just limited to wine travel specialists and cruise lines. Major retailer Costco (costcotravel.com) now offers wine cruises, with two still ahead this year and six planned in 2013.

THE APPEAL

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For wine lovers, it's the combination of having access to wine experts and uncommon wines with the pleasures of cruise travel and visiting interesting destinations.

"The best experience was tasting so many different wines," says Julie del Rico of Delray Beach, Fla., who went on a Food & Wine Trails wine cruise on Oceania Cruises last year. She says the group enjoyed a lot of tastings in Italy and visited different vineyards ashore. "We also had tastings in Slovenia and Croatia," she adds.

Michael MacDonald and his wife, Debbie, went on an Avalon Waterways cruise on the Rhine and Moselle rivers last year. "I like Reislings, but I didn't realize there were so many varieties," says the Connecticut resident.

Most wine cruises are not organized by the cruise lines, but by a group that makes all the arrangements for wine lectures, tastings, pairings, special visits to wineries ashore and other wine-related functions, and charges a fee in addition to the cruise fare for the wine package. Of course, only those who have paid the fee can attend these functions.

Food & Wine Trails, for instance, charges $300 to $400 more than the cruise cost for those participating in the wine events, says Martin.

Some cruise lines themselves do put together true wine cruises, and those may be open to all passengers at no extra cost. "Our wine cruises are open to all on board our ships, not just a private group," says Rudi Schreiner, founder and chief executive of AMA Waterways.

On the other hand, some sailings that are labeled "wine cruises" or "food and wine cruises" may offer tastings and pairings but really may not go in much depth as far as wine goes. Before booking a wine cruise, prospective passengers should find out exactly what wine-related events are scheduled.

WHERE TO GO

Europe is a prime locale for wine cruises, especially the continent's rivers, which bring passengers close to many storied vineyards and wineries.

The Mediterranean is another favorite, but fully wine-themed cruises also are offered in regions where no wines are made, such as the Caribbean and Alaska.

A winemaker or winery owner often sails with the group, bringing on board samples of his products for participants to try.

Tastings on board wine cruises usually involve more than perfunctory sips. Says Martin: "For example, we had tastings from each of 25 years of Chateau Montelena on a recent cruise."

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