For those of us who love to whet our wine palate through premium wine tastings, the dilemma of designating a driver has always been a downer. Someone in the group needs to abstain from the pleasures of the vine. However, that problem is now easily resolved as UnCruise Adventures provides the perfect solution with its wine-themed cruises on the Columbia River, a defining river border between Oregon and Washington providing easy access to a host of award-winning Pacific Northwest wines.
Steering the boat and driving the bus to the vineyards is left to the professionals. All you do is sit back and experience the beauty of the land as you whisk by on the mighty Columbia River. For those of us who love wine, it doesn’t get any better.
I experienced UnCruise and the Rivers of Wine itinerary, with fruit of the glass ranging from award-winning Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays of Oregon to full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots of Washington. My seven-night cruise on the S.S. Legacy, built in the style of Victorian wooden coastal steamers of the mid-1800s, started and ended in the evergreen city of Portland, Ore. It proved to be most convenient for planning round-trip airfare.
Drinking great wine with great food was an onboard nightly event. Our sommelier, Chris Arora, a dashingly handsome young Canadian who represents the best of a new breed of knowledgeable and friendly wine experts, gently coaxes and expands your data base of oenology by mining your preferences and tastes. He was both approachable and encouraging rather than stodgy and judgemental, the latter being traits I often associated with sommeliers. That has totally changed after meeting Arora.
Built and launched in 1983 by the now defunct Cruise West, the ship was acquired by UnCruise Adventure and renovated into a replica coastal steamer. The S.S. Legacy debuted in August 2013 with the look-and-feel of a Victorian ship with a western-theme mixed in such as at the Pesky Barnacle Saloon.
With four decks on the S.S. Legacy, guest capacity maximum is 88 along with a crew of 35. Registered in the United States, passengers have elevator access to three of the public decks. The crew is quite dedicated and most will know you by name within the first couple days.
Klondike Dining Room (Deck 1/Main Deck) – All onboard meals are served here at fixed times. The open-seating arrangement includes six-person booths and eight-person round table in the middle. Wine is paired with dinner entrées by the resident sommelier. Over the course of the week, we complemented our premium wines with entrées such as halibut, salmon, king crab legs, pheasant, chicken and steak. Vegetarian selections are available daily.
Pesky Barnacle Saloon (Deck 1/Main Deck) – Stocked 24/7, the saloon with a wrap-around viewing balcony is a popular gathering place for board games and more. The self-serve bar has a variety of premium brands.
Grand Salon, Bar, & Dance Floor (Deck 2/Lounge Deck) – The Grand Salon is where enrichment talks, briefings, happy hour along with hors d’oeuvres, and early morning coffee can be had. The bar features special mixed drink cocktails daily and comes stocked with premium spirits, fine wines and microbrews.
Massage Rooms, Bow Viewing Area (Deck 2/Lounge Deck) – Private massage rooms ensure quiet comfort during your complimentary massage.
Rooms (Decks 1, 2, & 3) – There are six categories of accommodations, ranging from 110 square feet Master cabins to 297 square feet in the Admiral cabin. Every room opens onto the deck, as there are no private balconies, and includes private bath with shower and a flat-screen TV. Amenities such as body wash, shampoo and conditioner are stocked in dispensers. A sink with vanity lighting includes an outlet.
Bridge, Hot Tubs, Fitness Equipment, Sun Deck, Owner’s Suite (Deck 4/Bridge Deck) – Wellness classes occur early every morning on the top deck. For those who prefer cycling to nowhere, exercise bikes are available as are two hot tubs on the bridge deck.
The sailing is all-inclusive with escorted tastings, tours, pairings and presentations from special hosts and wine experts throughout the week. Some are onboard experts who can be conveniently pestered for their knowledge to your heart’s desire. The cruise also includes gourmet dining, unlimited wine, an open bar with premium brands including liqueurs for coffee, and a 24-hour self-serve liquor bar.
The cruise itinerary plows guests through five American Viticultural Areas in the Oregon/Washington wine region: Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla Valley, Red Mountain, Columbia Valley and Willamette Valley.
One special night we had a vertical tasting, comparing various years of the same wine. Another night we discovered newfound delights with Zinfandel and Rosé wine, while yet another was dedicated to effervescence and bubbly.
The chosen stops for our wine cruise on this variegated itinerary included Springhouse Cellars, Mt. Hood Winery, Basel Cellars, Dunham Cellars, Terra Blanca Estate Winery & Vineyard, Maryhill Winery, Sunshine Mill Winery and the Wine Shack. (These selections may vary slightly with each cruise). Each visit normally includes a tasting of between four and eight wines along with a vineyard and/or cellar tour where applicable.
As you sail the Columbia, Willamette, Snake and drive by the Palouse rivers, you learn about the unique terroir of the region and the local varietals. After a week, I emerged with a newfound appreciation of how stressed grapes are miraculously turned into that hedonistic delight designed to scintillate the senses and tweak our tongues. Along the way, I enjoyed the company of vintners, fellow wine connoisseurs and our onboard sommelier who greatly enhanced my tastings through his tome of acquired knowledge and science.
The Wines of Washington
According to the Washington State Wine organization, the state ranks as the second largest premium producer of wine in the United States, with upwards of 900 wineries and 350 plus number of wine grape growers. Over 40 varietals are produced in 14 AVA’s. And while it may be only No. 2 in wine production (behind California), the number of wineries are growing every year, producing some of the best wines in the United States, if not the world.
Because of Washington’s varied climate, which is cool on the coast and dry in the interior, a variety of wines are grown and produced. The top three whites include Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris while the top three reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
But it’s in Eastern Washington were reds reign supreme, even though this area is one of the highest latitude wine regions in the world. Hot days and cool nights, glaciated soils, and irrigation add up to an award-winning combination that defy the northerly orientation.
In particular, Walla Walla is one of the top ten wine regions in the world. Shaped by the terroir, distinctive micro-climates, rich volcanic soil and irrigation, the combination has led to some of the best reds out there.
My undisputed favorite is Terra Blanca where I had the privilege to meet the owner/winemaker Keith Pilgrim and to taste the 2010 J.T. Grey Cabernet Sauvignon. I gave it a 10 on a 10 scale, and tasted smoky blackberry with complex interactions of plum and grounded cedar. The taste was divine and my regrets I couldn’t afford the $112.50 bottle tag. I’m still dreaming about the heavenly taste.
Another stand-out is Basel Cellars with its full-bodied red wines. Smooth tannins and supple texture create ripe fruits that are the hallmark of Walla Walla. The abundance of sunny days greatly adds to the intensity of flavors. And what’s not to love about their architectural masterpiece? Seems to be a story book page straight from Provence.
The Wines of Oregon
Factoid: Although Oregon produces only 1% of the country’s wine, in 2015 and 2016 it earned 20% of Wine Spectator’s domestic 90+ ratings.
According to the Oregon Wine Board, “Oregon is a world-class wine region with 18 approved winegrowing regions, nearly 700 wineries and more than 1,000 vineyards growing 72 varieties of grapes.” Most of them are small and decentralized, hand-crafting and small production for excellence.
Pinot Noir is the flagship varietal predominantly grown in Oregon and accounts for almost 63% of production. However, the diverse geography and microclimates throughout Oregon also yield Pinot Gris (12.9%), Chardonnay (5.6%), Riesling (2.6%) and Syrah (2.2%).
The Itinerary & Tours – More than Wine
To round out our wine education, onboard heritage guides provide history, culture, geology and educational entertainment throughout the sailing. Crew members added to the fun by rolling out their other personae through period clothing typical of the day.
Natural beauty surrounded us throughout the cruise, from a stop at Multnomah Falls, the tallest in Oregon, to the stark beauty of Palouse Falls. We even had a couple hours to shop and stroll through historic Walla Walla.
A Cautionary Note Regarding Wine
A word of caution from someone who learned the hard way: it’s easy to let the premium wine tastings on shore as well as the onboard hand-crafted cocktails, and sommelier-selected dinner and dessert wines surge ahead of your metabolism. The solution? Act like a professional and learn to sniff, swirl, and spit with the best of them. After all, that’s what the spit bucket is for. You might pleasantly discover that by increasing your tastings and avoiding the serious side effects by swallowing too much, you will develop a better palette for the subtleties, flavors, textures, and noses of the wines.
Besides premium wine-tastings at various vineyards and cellars, the cruise includes gourmet dining, unlimited wine, an open bar with premium brands including liqueurs for coffee, and a 24-hour self-serve liquor bar.
There’s a focus on wellness with a hot tub, fitness equipment, yoga mats for morning sessions, and a complimentary massage for every guest. (Yes, you read that right). Roundtrip transfers and baggage handling, port taxes/fees, interpretive shore excursion and onboard presentations, entry fees to parks, museums, wineries, and other historical venues are all included. The exception is that tips are extra and are charged at the end of the cruise, a standard practice for most river cruises.
- Sommelier and guest wine expert join you on board for the week
- Winery tours and tastings in five Washington and Oregon AVAs: Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, Columbia Valley, Willamette Valley
- Lunch at Terra Blanca Winery & Estate Vineyard
- Maryhill Winery vineyard and cave tour
- Explore Palouse Falls canyon and Multnomah Falls
- Discover Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
- Convenience of sailing roundtrip Portland, Oregon
- Airport transfers
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