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In 2018, captains aboard AmaWaterways’ “The Romantic Danube” river cruise welcome guests with Abacela owners Earl and Hilda Jones. ##Photo provided

Just Add Wine

Private river cruises with Oregon wine in tow

By Maureen Battistella

Wonderful wines, engaging history, superb cuisine and gorgeous landscapes in the company of experts — just a few of the delights awaiting guests aboard an Oregon wine cruise. These types of voyages remain the perfect vacation for travelers who crave an all-inclusive, fixed-price experience of unpacking once and waking up to new scenery each day.

Here in Oregon, several cruise companies sailing out of Portland offer such trips along the Columbia and Snake rivers. Perhaps the best-known Pacific Northwest wine and culinary cruise is an eight-day vacation on the 88-passenger, turn-of-the-century replica steamer SS Legacy run by UnCruise Adventures. The slow-moving, gentle river trip includes stops in historic towns and visits to a dozen wineries in appellations along the way. Sommeliers pair wines with craft cuisine, discussing the nuances of both beverage and food. The in-depth exposure to the area wineries offers an exceptional opportunity for both experienced and novice wine enthusiasts.

“There was a sparkling-wine departure, kind of a bon voyage party the minute the ship left Portland,” recalls Steve Sinkler, proprietor of The Wine Shack in Cannon Beach and owner of Puffin Brand wines; he’s traveled several times with UnCruise. “The next day, we got off the ship in Hood River, so we tasted some true Oregon Pinots and bigger reds; it was a really nice mix of wines.”

For an even smaller, more exclusive eight-day Columbia River cruise experience, Captain Jack — aka Jim Stiebritz — skippers the Northern Dream, a three-stateroom yacht that motors out of Portland. His route incorporates the Columbia Gorge AVA, including Hood River; he’s a guide on land, too, taking guests — in his van — to wineries in the Northern Willamette Valley. Back on the boat, steak and seafood meals are matched with local wines by the Northern Dream’s own chef, and like other cruise lines, all beverages, amenities, activities and port costs are included.

For those wishing to travel farther afield, AmaWaterways offers European wine cruises hosted by American winemakers. Liz Barrett, business sales manager with AmaWaterways, reports the company now books more than 60 wine excursions on the great rivers of Europe, including the Rhine, Rhône, Douro, Danube, Dordogne and Seine. Each offers a unique focus that shapes the excursions and activities of the trip that typically hosts 150 guests. AmaWaterways wine cruises depart from European ports.

“[Our] wine river cruises give participants an opportunity to experience New World against Old World wines and enjoy them side by side,” notes Barrett. “It’s a complete immersion in the region.”

From the winemaker’s perspective, AmaWaterways cruises present a win-win. Earl and Hilda Jones of Abacela Winery in the Umpqua Valley and Laurent Montalieu of Soléna Estate, Hyland Estate and NW Wine Company in the Willamette Valley hosted Romantic Danube cruises in April 2019. The Romantic Danube starts in Vilshofen, Germany, and ends in Budapest, Hungary.

The Joneses began preparing for the river cruise six months before stepping on the ship. After selecting Abacela wines for the guests, they packaged the cases for consolidated shipping overseas. “There was a wine and food pairing just with our wines — five courses — so we submitted the wines we wanted to provide; the menu was a collaborative effort with the chefs.” They also had to do some preliminary homework. She adds, “There were three seminars where we compared our wines with the wines from that region, so we had to know all about those wines and the winegrowing areas.”

For Montalieu, the cruise was a totally new experience. “I had never been on a cruise, so I wasn’t sure I was going to like it,” he admits. “But I really enjoyed the pace of the trip, and because I was the host winemaker, I made presentations and told of my own experience.”

Winemakers who travel as hosts with AmaWaterways often recruit wine club members and others who know their wines to travel with them. And because there are people from all over the world and from all walks of life on ship, the cruises are a great brand awareness opportunity, like a super wine club event for potential and existing club members. Montalieu says about 30 of the 150 guests on his cruise were already members or longtime Soléna Estate customers, such as Julie Pihl of Banks, also a first-time river cruiser. “It was fantastic,” she explains. “There were so many people who took care of you. The tours were amazing. The ship was gorgeous and clean. The food was fantastic, and you get to know all the people on the boat.”

The cruise was everything Pihl imagined, but for her, the best part of the Romantic Danube river cruise was Montalieu.  “I could listen to him every day,” she says.

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