A crew of 10 and 18 passengers set sail this summer from Bellingham, Wash., on a four-day, three-night wine cruise. The destinations: Lummi Island, Lopez Island and San Juan Island, each of which is home to at least one island winery.
The adventure: experiencing two regional wine varieties — siegerrebe and madeleine angevine — and gaining a firsthand appreciation (and a few calluses) for the muster that sailing requires.
Transportation was the Zodiac, a 160-foot, two-masted gaff topsail schooner originally built in 1924 for the heirs of the Johnson & Johnson family (of the pharmaceutical and consumer goods empire). Today the Zodiac cruises the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
“All hands on deck!” calls Chris, the first mate in charge of coordinating the crew. My fellow passengers and I scurry to our positions and ready ourselves to hoist the schooner’s main mast. Probably because of my heft, I’m called over to assist on the “throat,” the position at the base of the main mast. Towering over me is a 400-year-old timber of impressive girth, the veins of its grain highlighted by a well-varnished finish. Capt. Tim Mehrer says it was logged from a forest near Astoria to replace the original, which snapped in 2010.
My job is to haul down, hand over hand, the line attached to the mainsail, and then release the slack — called “sweating” — that is tugged back by the crew members, 10 deep, who are “tailing” the line. It is an aerobic workout unlike any I have ever experienced. Less than a minute into it, my legs and arms are straining, my heart beating double-time to the heave-ho of the deckhands. I can literally feel my calluses building with each pull. I suddenly feel very seamanly.
In what seems like eternity, but probably lasts less than three minutes, all 12 stories of the mainsail are unfurled and the hoisting line “belayed” (or secured). Everyone is winded and, taking a moment to catch our breaths, we all gaze up at the majestic sail that now draws the wind and powers the vessel. A palpable sense of accomplishment and amazement pulses through the crew, spurring us on to the second mast, which we raise with renewed gusto.
Once the sails are raised and lines coiled, the first mate calls out, “Stand down!” meaning we can relax until it’s time for another sailing maneuver — preparing to come about, tacking, jibing, heeling over, whatever. The terminology is difficult to follow, and, frankly, my mind is more preoccupied with taking in the natural beauty of the setting. We’re sailing with the wind at our backs, wine soon to be in our glasses, and it’s a great feeling.
Signs of the wines
The relaxation portion of our cruise includes reading, singing chantey songs, playing Bananagrams and cribbage, taking photographs and petting the onboard cat, Abby.
The Zodiac measures 160 feet, every inch shining with salt water-polished, hand-waxed wood and brass gleaming as brightly as the rays of sunshine on the waves.
Earlier, we departed from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal with Capt. Mehrer at the helm, setting the boat’s speed for an arrival that afternoon at our first winery stop on Lummi Island.
The captain watches over as passengers take turns piloting the boat, or charting the course using two GPS devices, which are then triple-checked on paper maps by traditional manual calculations.
Experiencing firsthand how this tall ship works is one reason passengers take this cruise. So, too, is the opportunity to hop from island to island in grand style, visiting a few wineries.
On Day 1, we docked on Lummi Island, home to Artisan Wine Gallery (360-758-2959). The tasting room features the wines made by Bellingham’s Masquerade Wine Co. (360-220-7072). Standouts are their 2007 “Effervescing Elephant” Columbia Valley Sparkling Wine and 2005 Walla Walla Valley “Les Collines” Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes for Masquerade’s wines are sourced from eastern Washington, as is the case at most of the island wineries, since the cool, maritime climate of the San Juan Islands is not suitable for most grape growing — least of all popular varieties such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon. A few grape varieties do thrive in the islands, however.
On Day 2 we visited Lopez Island Vineyards (360-468-3644), where winemaker Brent Charnley grows siegerrebe and madeleine angevine. “People always think, ‘How can you grow grapes here?’ Puget Sound itself in the lower basin is drier than Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Willamette Valley, even the German wine growing regions,” Charnley says. In fact, the first bonded winery in the Northwest was founded at the end of Prohibition on Puget Sound’s Stretch Island, just south of the San Juans. Today, Charnley is one of the premier regional growers of madeleine angevine, a white wine grape with many of the same characteristics as sauvignon blanc. The marine influence — a combination of cool air, water, rainfall and growing season — makes a luscious white wine with citrus notes and crisp acidity that pairs nicely seafood, especially oysters. As the saying goes, “What grows together, goes together.”
The other grape that grows well in these cool climes is siegerrebe, a cross of madeleine angevine with gew¬£rztraminer, which produces a breezy wine with just a touch of sweetness and perfumed aromas of clove, anise spice, lychee nut fruit and pink grapefruit.
Siegerrebe and madeleine angevine grapes are also grown and made into wine at San Juan Vineyards (360-378-9463), our stop on Day 3. It was interesting to compare tasting notes on the wines from all three days. Personal preferences aside, everyone agreed that these white wines were worth bringing back on board for further taste testing.
Also on San Juan Island, we visited San Juan Island Distillery (360-472-1532/360-378-2606), makers of gin featuring locally foraged botanicals. They also make a Navy-strength gin clocking in at 57 percent alcohol that literally evaporates on your tongue, and tasty ciders, too.
On the last day, we sailed back to the dock at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, allowing time for reflection. The sailing life is alternately relaxing to the point of boredom and intensely physical.
Being on the water surrounded by the natural beauty of the San Juans is certainly a romantic lifestyle resplendent with amazing sunsets. It’s also 30 captives engaged in a constant struggle with the elements and operating in a confined space, requiring discipline and skill, not to mention sleeping in a bunk the size of a casket and sharing three tiny yet thankfully completely functional communal “heads” (bathrooms, that is). No wonder sailors have a reputation for drinking. Without a doubt, the wine and spirits portion of this trip kept the passengers as buoyant as the wooden ship itself.