Unique Themed Cruise Brings Wine, Stars And Seminars

Themed cruises are becoming more popular all the time as fans of (insert almost anything here) gather at sea. Music fans dominate the offerings with ships setting sail sold out with fans of Kid Rock, KISS, Blake Shelton and others each hosting their own theme cruise. Then there are fans of movies like the Turner Classic Movies cruise, now in its third year. Another one that caught our attention features music, wine and dining in a way that looks to epitomize what themed cruising is all about.

The Wine, Dine and Music cruise asks a simple question on its website: “Spend a weekend in wine country or a week on a wine cruise – you decide!” Appealing to someone who might go on a weeklong trek through California wine country, this one looks to be a good alternative that brings wine country to you. On your ship. In the Caribbean. With musical guests.Music
Featuring Kenny Loggins, Three Dog Night and others, the Wine, Dine and Music cruise will have nightly entertainment along with Meet ‘n Greet artist sessions and Jam sessions and special music performances on days at sea. For many theme cruise fans, that would be a week’s worth of fun. But there is more.

Each stateroom gets a free bottle of wine from each of the seven wineries also along for the ride, delivered nightly to their stateroom. Like a tour through wine country, the onboard programming also makes available wine tastings, wine seminars and wine club memberships. Focusing on specialty varietal wines in an experiential sort of way, those on the Wine, Music and Dining cruise are likely to meet and spend time with others sharing similar interests.

A central focus of this well planned themed sailing is to enjoy a gourmet meal paired with excellent wine, with others who appreciate the experience.

On the food front, the Wine, Dine and Music cruise features menus created by Chef John Ash (Author, From Earth To The Table), also known as the “Father of Wine Country Cuisine,” as well as food tastings by Catherine Venturini (Chef-Owner, Olive & Vine), chef recipes and lectures.

Unique to this theme cruise, and something we have not seen before, is the combination of all three elements, Wine, Music and Dining, all on one sailing. Also included is all the regular onboard programming and features with prices starting at $1029 per person. That price compares favorably to a weeklong land vacation through California wine country, minus the vineyards, making the Wine, Dine and Music cruise a good choice for budget travel too.

Sailing November 9-16, 2013, on Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas from Tampa, the seven-night itinerary includes Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico as well as Georgetown, Grand Cayman and three days at sea.

Baja California: Mexico’s Up-And-Coming Wine Destination

While many people know Mexico for its amazing tequila, a little known secret is the country also has a thriving wine destination: Baja California, or Baja for short. Although this sounds like it’s on the West Coast of the United States, this is, in fact, an area in Mexico. The Mediterranean climate makes it ideal for producing the libation. In fact, 90 percent of the country’s wine comes from the Ensenada region of Baja.

The Beginning

Mexico is actually the oldest wine-growing region in America, having produced wine since the sixteenth century when the Spaniards arrived to the country with vine clippings from Europe. Soon after, immigrants from other European countries, such as Italy and Russia, arrived to the area with their vine cuttings and planted them in Baja’s Guadalupe Valley. Baja California’s wine is rarely exported, meaning you’ll need to make a trip to the area to sample it for yourself. Some of the popular varieties you’ll find include Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Malbec and Barbera.Road Trips

When visiting Baja California, one great way to explore the different areas of the region is to take a road trip. Some suggested itineraries include:

Ruta del Vino

The “Ruta del Vino,” or “Wine Route,” connects over 50 wineries in the Baja California state. The Valley of Guadalupe, Valley of Llano Colorado, Valley of Santo Tomas and the Valley of San Vincente, as well as the port city of Ensenada and the border cities of Tijuana and Tecate are all included. Along with sipping wine, travelers can indulge in world-class restaurants, stay at luxury hotels and visit interesting museums along the way. Click here for a map of the “Ruta del Vino.” If you need a designated driver, Baja Wine & Sun offers numerous tours through the area’s wine routes.

The Baja Gold Coast

This road trip will take you through a mix of experiences, as you begin at the most visited border in the world, Tijuana, and make your way down to Catavina. You’ll also pass through Rosarito, the world’s lobster capital, Ensenada, the land of wine, and Bahia de San Quintin, the farmland capital of Baja. In Tijuana, make sure to explore the city’s cultural side through the numerous galleries and museums. Moreover, the area is known for its delicious Baja Mediterranean cuisine, so eat up and pair it with some local vino. For more information, click here.

The Path of La Rumorosa

On this road trip, you will begin in Tecate, a small city full of colonial architecture, cattle fields, beautiful mountains and renowned wineries and breweries. Moreover, the area is known for producing excellent artisanal pottery and fresh bread. Next, it’s on to Mexicali, which is historic for its settlement of the Chinese. There are many activities, like enjoying the boiling mud lagoons, learning about Mexican history in the Regional Museum, dancing in trendy nightclubs and hiking and swimming in the beautiful surroundings. You’re last stop on the itinerary will be Algodones, where you can go duck hunting, see the Colorado River’s Morales Dam or just enjoy the warmth of the sun in one of the driest places in North America. For more information, click here.

Annual Events

Every August, the Valle de Guadalupe in the Baja California region hosts their “Fiesta de la Vendimia” to celebrate the year’s harvest. Put on by the Association of Viniculture, the event lasts for about a month and showcases the best wines in the area through tastings and themed events. Additionally, there is art, music and a rodeo. This year’s event will take place from August 2 to August 19, 2012.

Top Winery Experiences

In the Baja California area there are many different experiences to be had. Guided tours, wine tastings, markets, boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, local museums and indigenous communities all help to add to this culturally rich wine destination. When touring the wineries, some top picks include:

  • Adobe Guadalupe– This adobe-style winery and bed and breakfast has been operating since 1998 on 60 acres of vineyards. Their varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Shiraz and Viognier. Tour the winery, participate in tastings or horseback ride through the vineyards. For tastings, you can make an appointment by clicking here.
  • Casa Madero– Latin America’s oldest, traditional winery has been around for over 400 years and produces some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay in the country.
  • L.A. Cetto– Established in 1974, L.A. Cetto is one of Mexico’s largest, and their oldest, wine producers. They are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for guided tours, free wine tastings and strolls through their well-manicured gardens. Their varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Grenache, Petite Verdot, Malbec, Sangivese, Mourvedre, Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Savingnon Blanc and Muscat Canelli. Additionally, they are known throughout the country as being one of the best at what they do, which can be seen through their 132 international awards.
  • Casa de Piedra– Owned by Mexico’s wine legend, Hugo D’Acosta, this winery is uniquely situated near San Antonio de las Minas. At this charming farmhouse-style winery, they make Cabernet Franc, Tampranillo and Chardonnay, and vistors can participate in tours and tastings by making an appointment.
  • Bodegas Santo Tomás– Operating since 1888, they have two locations, Ensenada and San Antonio de las Minas. Both are great for tours and tastings, which take place every hour from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then again at 3 p.m. Make sure to sample their award-winning 2000 Cabernet, as well as some of their other varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Barbera.
  • Casa Pedro Domecq– Established in 1972, Casa Pedro Domecq is the second largest wine producer after L.A. Cetto. Their many varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Barbera, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard, Savingnon Blanc and Reisling. Casa Pedro Domecq was the first commercial winery in Valle de Guadalupe, and is well known for producing wine and brandy. They are open daily except Sunday, and offer tastings and tours to visitors.
  • Vinisterra– Vinisterra operates under the idea of interfering in the process of winemaking with technology as little as possible. They officially opened in 2002, and are located in the town of San Antonio de las Minas. The winery building is unique, as it is made of thermal materials and is partially buried to maintain a naturally cool temperature. Varietals include Cabernet Savingnon, Merlot, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Grenache, Chardonnay, Viognier and Rousanne. Make an appointment to participate in tastings.
  • Monte Xanic– The vision of Monte Xanic isn’t to copy what other big name wineries are doing, but to set the standard for the industry themselves. Moreover, they aim for their wines to reflect the pride of the country and its people. Their varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Sirah, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Savingnon Blanc and Semillon. You can participate in wine tastings and tours by making an appointment.

[Images via Fir0002, Gabriel Flores Romero, Hungry Girl]

Cheese festival season has sprung: the best in the West

Spring, as they say, has sprung. In farmstead and artisan cheese parlance, that means pastures are currently abound with calves, lambs, and kids (of the goat variety), and the first milk of the season is in. That’s why March is the kickoff month for cheese festivals, especially on the West Coast because of its more mild climate. The following just happen to be some of the nation’s best.

8th Annual Oregon Cheese Festival, March 17
Hosted by the Oregon Cheese Guild and Rogue Creamery, this much-loved event features dozens of cheese, beer, and wine makers. General admission is minimal, the sampling is free, and the vibe is laid-back. The festival is held at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, just outside of Ashland in southern Oregon. It possesses the vibe of a giant farmers market, with all of the vendors gathered beneath a giant tent. Events include a “Meet the Cheesemakers” dinner (held the night before), seminars, and tastings, including chocolate and cider.California Artisan Cheese Festival (CACF), March 24-25
What better place for a California cheese festival than wine country? CACF is held every March in Petaluma (located in Sonoma County, about 40 minutes north of San Francisco) and draws over 2,000 attendees who come to taste cheeses from the West Coast, Pacific Northwest, and Rockies. Sign up now to get in on local creamery tours, special lunches, and educational seminars.

On April 7, the inaugural Washington Artisan Cheesemakers Festival will take place in Seattle. In addition to cheesemakers from across the state, expect Washington food artisans, craft beer and cider producers, and winemakers. The event is a benefit for the Cascade Harvest Coalition, a non-profit dedicated to local food security.

Can’t make the festival circuit? Try taking a class at The Cheese School of San Francisco, which is focused solely on classes and tasting events for professionals and caseophiles alike. With an ongoing curriculum of classes taught by industry professionals, offerings may include everything from “Mozzarella Making” and “Craft Brews & Artisan Beers,” to “Sheep & Syrah” and “Springtime Cheeses and Loire Valley Wines.” This is the place geek out on dairy.

Admittedly, this video isn’t from a cheesemaker in the western U.S.; it comes from renown Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. But it’s an excellent short clip on how cheese goes from cow to cheese case. Should you be fortunate enough to find Harbison at your local cheese shop, I strongly recommend you pounce upon it, because it’s simply dreamy.

[Photo credit: Kate Arding]

January is California Restaurant Month

As a native Californian and longtime former Bay Area resident, I have to confess there’s no place like home when it comes to the American food/dining/wine scene (New Yorkers, feel free to sharpen your knives…).

California’s always been progressive when it comes to food and drink, from the early days of the vaqueros and Gold Rush-era San Francisco, right up to today’s never-ending parade of talented food artisans, chefs, farmers, and mixologists. It’s only fitting then, to feature a California Restaurant Month.

In January, the second annual statewide celebration is back and better than ever. Presented by Visit California, nearly 30 destinations across the Golden State are creating special restaurant week or month-long promotions and deals, including celebrity chef, prix fixe, and wine pairing dinners, and a series of “Dine and Drive Itineraries” that map out the culinary and scenic highlights of specific regions. Included are “Wine Country Fresh,” “Food Lover’s Classic Coast Drive: San Francisco to L.A.,” and “A Taste of San Diego.” Participating regions for events include cities and counties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast, and Northern and Southern California.

If you’re worried about the calories, California Restaurant Month also offers travel tips on where the best skiing, surfing, hiking, and other outdoor activities are to be found, regardless of your itinerary. And that’s the thing about California. As my dad always said, “What other state offers so much diversity?” Whether bagging peaks, scuba-diving, camping in the desert, or having a blow-out shopping spree is your thing, California’s got it.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Stuck in Customs]

10 best wine hotels around the world

What’s better when you’re on vacation than a day at the vineyards? How about wineries that let you stay the night, as well? No more worrying about drinking and driving or figuring out transportation as these ten wine hotels offer guests vino tastings as well as a comfortable place to sleep.

Marqués de Riscal
Elciego, Spain

Situated in the middle of the Vinos de los Herederos de Marqués de Riscal’s vineyard, the hotel itself opened in September, 2006. The building was designed by world-renowned Frank O. Gehry and combines wine-growing traditions with 21st century avant-garde design. Guests can stay in one of forty-three luxury rooms and suites that include unconventional furniture, high-quality linens, and Wi-Fi internet. After the sun sets, visitors can move from the vineyards to the informal Wine Bar or a rooftop lounge with panoramic views. Another option is to snuggle up next to the fireplace and sample the myriad vinos from the hotel’s cellar.L’Andana
Tuscany, Italy

This wine hotel is situated in the heart of the Tuscan Maremma, in the 500 hectare La Badiola Estate. Along with natural beauty, the property also contains a rich history as it was once a Medici villa where Grand Duke Leopold II and his court stayed during the summers. Guests can try some of the best wines in Italy in the accommodation’s cellar, both through tastings and through the on-site restaurant’s cooking. For those who want to do more than just sample, cooking and wine classes are also offered to L’Andana guests.

Cavas Wine Lodge
Mendoza, Argentina

Located at the foot of the Andes Mountains and nestled in a 35 acre vineyard, this 14 room lodge offers peace and tranquility in nature. Guests can enjoy private pools, terraces to watch the sunset on, and an expansive wine cellar featuring 250 of the best wines Mendoza has to offer. Wine tastings and private dinners in the cellar are musts for wine enthusiasts, as is indulging in a Signature Wine therapy treatment at the hotel’s spa.

Alluvia Stellenbosch Wine Farm
Stellenbosch, South Africa

This wine farm is set on a working wine estate in the heart of the Stellenbosch Winelands and is known for challenging traditional methods of wine making. Guests can sample some of the vineyards award-winning vinos, like their “ilka” Cabernet Sauvignon and their “lisa” Cabernet Franc, partake in wine tastings, or request to have a personal chef create the perfect gourmet South African meal and wine pairing in the privacy of their room. In terms of accommodation, there are 5 luxury suites, all named after soil types from the farm with color schemes to match, and 2 self-catering houses.

The Carneros Inn
Napa, California

Located in the famous Napa Valley, the property is nestled among 27 acres of grape vines and apple trees that seem to stretch on forever. The inn is a combination of country-style and resort-luxury, including barns, silos, and cottages with modern and comfortable interiors and amenities. Enjoy complimentary fitness runs/walks through the vineyard, peruse the wine-inspired specialty items at the on-site store, MARKET, and treat yourself to all-natural and vineyard-themed spa options, like the Chardonnay Anti-Oxidant Wine Therapy Facial or the Grape Seed and Guava Manicure and Pedicure.

L’Acadie Vineyard Cottages
Nova Scotia, Canada

Right on the side of the L’Acadie vineyards are 3 bedroom and self-catering cottages. Hand-crafted soaps, picnic tables, and private verandas give the accommodations a whimsical touch, while the surrounding landscape acts as a reminder that you are in wine country. All the wines produced at L’Acadie are certified-organic, so you can rest assured that while you enjoy the fine vinos of the winery you are not consuming chemicals. Along with touring the vineyards and sampling the products, guests should visit the property’s geothermal winery and tasting bar for a unique experience and magnificent views of the land.

Wine and Spa Resort Loisium Hotel
Langenlois, Austria

Located amongst the vineyards of Kamptal, this luxurious “floating” (it appears to be lifted off the ground) hotel offers rooms with courtyard and grape vine views. The vino immersion continues with lights in the shape of corks and hallways illuminated in shades of wine. Oenophiles will also enjoy wine and meal pairings, lounging near the fireplace in the wine library, or tastings from wine cellar. A range of spa treatments involving vineyard grapes can also be enjoyed, including an aromatic grape seed bath in a wine barrel, grape seed body peels, and grape extract facials.

Patios de Cafayate Hotel & Winespa
Cafayate, Argentina

This stunning hotel is located on 400 hectares of organic vineyard, allowing guests to completely immerse themselves in wine culture. What’s really unique about this vineyard is that they participate in “zero farming”, which consists of using organic material from the soil to farm the land and lessen the impact of harmful fertiziliers and chemicals. Visitors can participate in the hotel’s harvest program, witness the crushing of the grapes, visit the wine and barrel room, and be guided through tastings with professional winemakers. The luxury spa on site is also a must, as the treatments take advantage of the healthy polyphenols found in grapes and wine. When dining on the property, chefs pair “high-altitude” wines to match the flavors of the cuisine.

Château Les Carrasses
Langeudoc, France

This luxury self-catering estate, including 28 suites, apartments, and villas, is a 19th Century Wine Domaine in the South of France. Not only will guests enjoy private gardens, terraces with barbeques, and private heated pools, but also wine tastings, classes, and events. If you’re planning on going here in 2012, you will be able to sample the first vintage of their boutique “terroir” wines.

Owhanake Bay Estate
Aukland, New Zealand

This accommodation has a lot to offer in terms of nature, as it is not only situated on a boutique winery, but also an olive grove, berry garden, orchard, and among native trees. Guests can relax on a private deck in modern yet elegent suites while sipping from a complimentary bottle of “Melina” Flora Pinot Gris. Private tours of the vineyard and tastings are available, and there are an array of packages offered to wine-enthusiasts, such as the “Island of Wine Package”, which includes a selection of wines, tours and tastings, homemade bread and local olive oil, and dinner at a local vineyard restaurant with a Mercedes to transfer you to and from the venue.