“We wanted to create a brand,” he said. “To do that we had to create our own product.”
Cruising remains a popular pastime, with 24 million passengers expected to step aboard this year, according to Cruise Lines International Association, the world’s largest cruise industry trade association. And various forms of wine cruises have become popular enough that even membership retailer Costco offers them on its website.
In the cruising world, Food & Wine Trails is operating in the luxury segment of the market, working with such cruise lines as Oceania, Silversea and Uniworld River Cruises.
For example, the Starks’ and Siduris’ 12-day cruise from Lisbon in late July has a list price starting at $4,174 per person, including airfare. A tour for Healdsburg’s Rochioli Vineyards & Winery cruise, featuring three nights in Lisbon and a seven-night Duoro River cruise in Portugal and Spain, lists for $4,623, excluding airfare.
The cruise ships the wineries use tend to be considerably smaller than the massive ones that take guests to such locales as Alaska or the Caribbean. The ocean-going vessels typically hold between 600 and 1,200 guests and are likened by those who’ve been on them to four-star hotels that cater to food and wine lovers.
And who are the guests? Martin described the more than 9,000 patrons on his marketing list as people who typically spend $50 or more for a bottle of wine. Many of them fit a category he calls “the aspirationals,” one step down from those so wealthy that they possess their own yachts or private jets. In contrast to the super rich, he said, his guests are more curious, open and appreciative.
Many of them also are members of wine clubs, typically connected with the winery hosting a particular cruise.
What the guests experience are a series of planned and impromptu gatherings with the winery owner or winemaker. The schedule typically includes tastings and wine seminars, a dinner with the winemaker and, in the Starks’ case, cooking classes. On shore are the optional winery education excursions, which cost from $200 to $400 each.
Besides the formal events, other opportunities arise. On their tour, the Starks and Lees divided up and led about 40 guests on a “tapas crawl” one night in Barcelona. It was a cuisine familiar to the restaurateurs, who own Bravas Bar de Tapas in Healdsburg.
And then there are days when the guests and winemakers simply gather before dinner to share a bottle of wine that someone brings back from one of the toured wineries or from a local wine shop. Those informal times also prove valuable in deepening relationships, winery officials said.
“There’s a huge bonding factor because of that,” said Adam Lee, founder and winemaker at Siduri.
Some wine club members brought friends on the cruise, and they ended up becoming wine club members, too, Lee said.
Emily McCutchan, wine club manager for Wilson, said last spring’s tour was her first wine cruise and she heeded the advice of Martin “to make the most of every opportunity” with each guest. Her efforts included not only having a bottle of Wilson wine in each stateroom to welcome the guests but also taking time during the cruise to become better acquainted with each person.