Updated August 21, 2018
Looking for a wine-themed river cruise? Instead of traveling to Europe (the go-to destination for such cruises), consider the Pacific Northwest instead.
In addition to its abundant natural beauty, the Pacific Northwest is also a major wine region, and river cruise lines operating in the region are taking advantage of their proximity to dozens of vineyards. Cruise lines sailing the Columbia and Snake rivers pay homage to the region's wine country with tastings onboard as well as excursions to one or more wineries. A few lines have also added wine-themed cruises to their itineraries. The varietal push comes as the long-underappreciated wines of the Pacific Northwest are having their moment.
"Our wines are becoming more and more well-known," says Maureen Lee, retail operations manager for Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington. The winery, named by Wine Press Northwest as the 2015 Northwest Winery of the Year, overlooks the Columbia River and hosts tastings and cellar tours for Un-Cruise Adventures, American Cruise Lines and Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic.
Winemaker Kevin Correll, owner of Barrage Cellars in Woodinville, Washington, serves as an occasional onboard expert for Un-Cruise Adventures and echoes Lee: "People are beginning to discover these wines. They are pretty good and they are a good value. You can get 90-points plus wines for $35. The wine geeks I've talked to onboard are pretty floored by the prices they're seeing."
The wine country in Oregon and Washington is situated on the same parallel as Burgundy and Bordeaux in France. The climate, soil and long growing season (April to October) make this part of the Northwest a great host for grape vines. The countryside is varied, ranging from the arid, golden hillsides of eastern Washington to the lush, moisture-rich slopes of Oregon. Winemaking there has surged in the last decade, with 850 wineries in Washington and nearly 700 in Oregon -- many of them boutique operations producing award-winning wines. Oregon is known for its pinot noir and pinot gris while Washington is associated with big reds like cabernet sauvignon and syrah and whites such as riesling and chardonnay.
Cruise lines operating on the Columbia and Snake rivers are American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic and Un-Cruise Adventures. The season runs from April to December, with only one of the four lines offering a specific wine-themed itineraries.
Un-Cruise Adventures owns the Pacific Northwest wine-themed cruise market right now, with seven wine-themed sailings slated for 2018 and six wine and food itineraries in 2019. The cruises -- onboard S.S. Legacy, a replica turn-of-the century steamer that accommodates 88 passengers -- include a guest wine expert and visit up to nine wineries. One of the excursions is to Walla Walla, Washington, considered one of the top 10 wine regions in the world due to its distinctive micro-climates, rich volcanic soil and abundant river irrigation. All excursions are included in the cost of the fare.
Local wines are offered onboard S.S. Legacy's themed sailings and there are tastings at happy hour. A popular element of the themed cruises are the dinner wine pairings, which match local wines with regional, seasonal dishes. As an example, one June dinner featured roasted Oregon halibut served with a citronette of fava and heirloom tomato, paired with a Reustle Vineyards Gruner Veltliner; another paired up a Joel Gott Pinot Noir with lavender- and coriander-cured duck breast served with a blackberry and pinot noir jus.
Un-Cruise Adventures' wine-theme cruises begin and end in Portland, Oregon; departures are mostly concentrated in the fall months of October, November and December.
American Queen Steamboat Company's American Empress doesn't offer wine-themed cruises but on every cruise aboard the 224-passenger paddle wheeler, passengers are treated to a wine tasting or wine-pairing dinner hosted by a local vintner. Regional wines are complimentary during dinner, giving guests the opportunity to try seven reds and seven whites. Featured are the wine regions of the Walla Walla Valley, Red Mountain, Yakima Valley, Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and Willamette Valley. Cruises that sail to Richland, Washington, offer a shore excursion through the Red Mountain Viticulture Area that includes tastings at three wineries as well as a stop at a distillery.
American Cruise Lines does not have specific wine themed cruises, although the itinerary does include a stop at a local winery.
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic also has no wine-themed sailings but it does pay homage to the Northwest's wines with a complimentary excursion to Maryhill Winery and a robust onboard offering of local wines, including Adelsheim, Arch Terrace, Cooper Mountain, Columbia Crest and Hogue Cellars. The Columbia and Snake rivers sailing takes place on Sea Bird, an expedition ships with 62 passengers). Guests who overnight in Portland for a post-voyage extension also have the opportunity to take a half-day tour of Willamette Valley, calling on three different wineries.