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Wines of Washington Cruise Onboard HAL's Zaandam
Day 1: Pre-Cruise Stay in San Diego/Embarkation
Day 2: Wine 101 at Sea
Day 3: Second Day at Sea
Day 4: Disembarkation in Vancouver
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Day 2: Tuesday, Wine 101 at Sea
Wine 101 at SeaZaandam, along with all of Holland America's midsize ships (which include the R-class, named after Rotterdam, and the S-class, in honor of Statendam) are some of the nicest vessels afloat if weather forces you inside. Indeed, today it did. The wind was whipping across the deck, temperatures hovered around 50 and the rain flew sideways.

It was just the type of day to sleep in, have breakfast in bed, catch up on movies, head to the spa for an unhurried massage, swim in the gorgeous main pool -- which is protected from weather by a glass roof -- and do a crossword puzzle in Explorations Cafe.

It was also a great day to hang out in Zaandam's just-like-the-Food-Network Culinary Arts Center, which was one of the epicenters for "Wines of Washington" activities. First up: a panel discussion on Washington wines. This was followed by a cooking demonstration -- with wine pairing and sampling. All this took place before lunchtime.

There was a winemakers' lunch in the Pinnacle Grill (these are the only optional extras for the wine enthusiasts; lunch is $45 per person and dinner is $95. Price includes wine). And we rounded out the day with a sensory tasting -- challenging whatever senses still existed on our overworn palates.

It almost felt as if I were back in school, cramming. But wine and food experiences are a heck of a lot more fun than Botany 101. Here's a roundup of the most memorable interchanges and interactions:

Although Washington State has its mega wine production companies (such as Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia), much of its producers are smaller boutique operations and as such a bit more personal. Indeed, both Jeff Gordon of Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards and Tom Hedges, of Hedges Family Estates, run family owned and operated companies in which the grapes used are grown at their own vineyards. It reminded me of earlier days in Napa and Sonoma when the companies weren't so ... slick.

Washington's wine industry is much younger than those of California (northern and central) and Europe. Chateau St. Michelle, now its powerhouse winery, was the first to really push forward with vine growing and wine production, and that wasn't until 1967.



For those of us not all that exposed to Washington wines it may come as a surprise that much of the production is well east of misty, rainy Seattle; in places like the Columbia Valley, in the southeastern part of the state, it's quite hot and dry -- at least three seasons of the year. Unlike most of California, the region does occasionally get a snowstorm during winter. "It's an almost perfect viticulture area," says Hedges Family Estates' Tom Hedges, "except for the little quirk in which it gets cold once in a while." Really cold. Temperatures can fall to as low as 20 to 30 below zero.


All the winemakers emphasized that their wines reflected, in the European tradition, the ground in which their grapes grow. "You get the taste of the land," says Chateau St. Michelle's John Sarich, "so the wine has a place." But these days everyone says that about their wine. And not knowing Washington well, it was hard to understand the concept. How does Washington soil produce grapes that taste differently from that of Napa?

Hedges, which produces a silky smooth Three Vineyards cabernet/syrah blend that was so delicious I was trying to buy a bottle to take home, gave my question a good collegiate try. In his case, the grapes are grown on the southwest slope of Red Mountain (one of Washington's smallest designated viticulture areas) which is "low nutrient and low yielding," he says. As a result, there's a "dusty, pencil-like, dark chocolate" quality to it -- as opposed to being light and fruity."

Jeff Gordon gamely attempted an answer as well: sagebrush-covered slope overlooking the Snake River in southeastern Washington's Columbia Valley. That terroir -- or land -- gives his wines a spicy quality.

What are the "hot" varietals coming out of Washington? All pretty uniformly agree that syrah and merlot are stalwarts and, adds Gordon, "Riesling has gone crazy." Next in line: The region is just now producing Italian varietals such as dolcetto and sangiovese. "Five years from now we might be talking about them," Hedges says.

Editor's note: Washington claims some 30,000 acres of vineyards and nine American Viticulture Areas; these include, in addition to Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Columbia Valley, Walla Walla Valley, Puget Sound, Red Mountain, Columbia Gorge, Horse Heaven Hills, Wahluke Slope, and Rattlesnake Hills. The Washington Wine Commission is a great next step resource to learning more about the state's wine industry.



After a break for lunch created by Chateau Ste. Michelle's Sarich with, sigh, more wine -- and then a sensory tasting in which small drops of scent, ranging from lemon to anise, were distributed in shot glasses and we were asked to identify them -- the thought that "too much of a good thing" is, well, too much, kept running through my mind.

Following a particularly involved (and cerebral) discussion about the impact of acidity on palate and food tastes, I began to realize that I really just want to enjoy wine. I don't want to overthink it. It would seem that fatigue is beginning to set in. But here's the thing: attendance at any of the events is not mandatory. You don't have to go to everything. You will not be graded, you cannot fail.

Who's to know if you slip off to play bingo, don your swimsuit for a soak in the whirlpool, or simply curl up in your cabin for a restorative snooze?

I'm not saying whether I did ... or didn't.



Tonight is the captain's gala dinner, typically the most formal night on any Holland America cruise. What's weird in this case is we're only onboard for three nights in the first place (and two of them are utterly casual). So it's like having the captain's gala welcome -- and farewell -- at the same time.

The traditional baked Alaska parade was a perfect example. Usually this occurs on a cruise's last formal night -- and by this time passengers have bonded with their waiters, have consumed enough grub to expand waistlines using measurable methods and know the a-to-z about the lives of their cruise-long dinner partners.

Here we'd barely gotten to know our waitstaff, hardly knew the other participants in the "Wines of Washington" program, and had spent so much time listening to lectures and watching demos that we really didn't eat all that much (even today's gourmet lunch in the Pinnacle Grill was moderate in size). So when the lights dimmed, and waiters began dancing through the dining room, each carrying a baked Alaska festooned with sparklers, the ceremony felt a little off-kilter. Particularly during the presentation of chefs via a voice on the squawk box -- one that in overly sentimental tones waxed lyrical about friends we'd made and the memorable experiences we'll never forget, I started to laugh. It struck me as perversely funny. We'd literally been onboard for about 24 hours. It's a bit too soon for such drama; she was obviously reading from the regular 7- to 10-night cruise script.

Also I never understand why cruise lines like to tell us how many meals their chefs prepare each day in their galleys: 6,000, in this case. After the first "ooh" and "aah," the idea of one kitchen making thousands of dishes speaks more to quantity than quality and it seems incongruous that a line would want to emphasize the former over the later. Funny thing: At the disembarkation talk the next day, the cruise director told the assembled throng that the meal count was 7,000. Is it possible that 1,000 extra meals were consumed on our final day?

Tomorrow's another full program as we chug our way up the tumultuous Pacific coast -- and I'm determined to try to experience a little bit of the cruise while I'm on the cruise, yet still take advantage of the good stuff.

Image of wine glass and bottle appears courtesy of Hedges Family Estates; Washington wine map appears courtesy of the Washington Wine Commission. Image of grapes at the vineyard appears courtesy of Gordon Brothers Family Vineyards.
Day 1: Pre-Cruise Stay in San Diego/Embarkation red arrow Day 3: Second Day at Sea

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