S.S. Legacy sailing on the Columbia and Snake rivers

Theme Cruise: Grape Expectations

By Judi Cuervo

It’s 10:30 a.m. and I’m at the 20-acre Mt. Hood Winery, Oregon’s 2016 Winery of the Year. In the glass before me is a gold medal–winning 2015 Estate Pinot Noir that bears aromas of ripe cherry, pomegranate, and raspberry accented by subtle cedar overtones.

I swirl. I sniff. I sip.

I’ve become really good at this since boarding UnCruise Adventures’ S.S. Legacy for a 7-day Rivers of Wine–themed sailing down the Columbia and Snake rivers. Since our departure from Portland, Oregon, our diminutive, 86-passenger vessel has transported us downriver, navigating the locks that dot these historic waterways, past magnificent, ever-changing vistas that bring this region’s wines their unique and diverse characters. From the lush, green hills of the cooler, rain-drenched west to the desert-like eastern area, grapes — so many varieties of them — thrive, just waiting for creative winemakers to transform them into superb, and often award-winning, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling, merlot, and more.

I’d been intrigued by UnCruise Adventures’ almost-all-inclusive S.S. Legacy (tours and all beverages are included; gratuities are not) ever since her 2013 debut. A replica coastal steamer filled with period furnishings and charming turn-of-the-century accents, her most popular sailings follow the path of Lewis and Clark’s legendary Pacific Northwest expedition.

This week, however, our exploration focuses not on the two explorers, but on the glorious varietals of five American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), or United States grape-growing regions: Columbia Gorge, Walla Walla, Red Mountain, Columbia Valley, and Willamette Valley. We’re visiting 10 wineries in seven days and are being treated to evening wine presentations and wine pairings during the sumptuous meals that S.S. Legacy turns out.

And, between sips, we’re learning things. Seriously.


Wine 101

The superb wines produced in Washington and Oregon are the result of the superior soil and landscape created from millions of years of volcanic eruptions, moving glaciers, plate tectonics, and the Missoula floods that deposited grape-loving silt all over the region at the end of the last Ice Age. A climate defined by long warm days (up to 15 hours of daylight in the most northern areas) and crisp nights creates an ideal environment for grapes that will produce balanced vintages (heat bringing up a grape’s sugar and cool developing the fruit’s acid) while gentle winds preserve acidity in warm years and prevent rot in rainier ones.

For those seeking more practical knowledge about their favorite libation, April Reddout, S.S. Legacy’s extraordinary guest wine host who also serves as wine program director at the prestigious Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, Washington, regularly dispenses the industry’s “dirty little secrets.” For example, that “reserve” designation that typically adds about ten bucks to a bottle in your local wine shop? It’s close to meaningless, indicating only that the wine is a favorite of the particular winery’s winemaker and not a declaration of superior taste or quality.

And don’t bet the farm that the alcohol percentage on…

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Photo: UnCruise Adventures/Peter West Carey

Judi Cuervo is a New York City native who fell in love with cruising in 1976 during her first sailing aboard Carnival Cruises’ Mardi Gras. Twenty years later, she began her freelance cruise writing gig and, since that time, has covered mass market, ultra-premium, riverboat and expedition ships for regional, national and international publications as well as cruise websites.