Mondavi Sets Sail

It took a face-to-face meeting with R. Michael Mondavi, chairman of Robert Mondavi, A Family of Wines, to confirm a suspicion I've always had about myself -- no matter how large, new, or luxurious the cruise ship, I will get seasick.

It's true that I operate under Kavetchnik's Law: If it's going to happen, it's going to happen to me. If it's hot soup, it'll be dropped on my lap. If it's spoiled shellfish, it'll be my nose that discovers it. If it's Norwalk, it'll be my ... well, you get the point. So naturally no one else I spoke with during the two-day debut of Royal Caribbean International's Navigator of the Seas, the first cruise ship in recent history to have Vintages, a wine bar, on board, felt the slightest bit queasy. (At least, not as a result of the movement of the ship.)

But there I was at a press conference on a cruise to nowhere except bad weather, at the left-hand elbow of the head of the venerable Robert Mondavi Winery, with the opportunity to ask him any question I liked. Such as, how 'bout that case of '92 Robert Mondavi Reserve Cab that I've been keeping for a decade now, that critics and writers alike tell me has reached potential? Should I hold it or fold it? Or, are you going to be stocking Vintages, the wine bar that so prominently features your family name, with Super-Tuscans from the property you recently purchased in Italy? But all that came to mind was, Am I going to throw up on your lap?

Not that Mondavi might have minded overly much. After all, he does have a wry sense of humor, evidenced by his comment about the entertainment featured on board: "Ice dancing goes great with white Zinfandel." All I would have had to do is confess to being hung-over after experimenting with mass consumption at Vintages the night before, which was only slightly stretching the truth -- the free-pour of Mumm at the champagne bar, Mondavi wine pairings at the inaugural dinner, and after-dinner single-malts in the casino likely contributed. (Note to RC designers: You might want to think about adding seatbelts to the stools at the blackjack tables. No doubt it was unstable construction that made me pitch off one during a hand.)

But any phrase containing "consumption" would have caught Mondavi's attention, for they are indeed words he, the winemakers, and Royal Caribbean are aiming to live by. "We want to bring wine to mass America," confirms Maria Sastre, vice president of total guest satisfaction for Royal Caribbean. "We would like to demystify the wine experience, to educate but also entertain. Our wine education program will be innovative, fun, contemporary. It won't be boring."

In other words, it'll be cutesy. One of the logos is "How Merlot Can You Go?" But while the collectors might be the ones who would appreciate the Ornellaias and Opus Ones of the world, it's middle Americans the Mondavi Family et al. and Royal Caribbean want to see enjoy limbo references and moderately priced Merlots with meat loaf every night. And one way to do that is to introduce the cruising demographic to a solid wine program in the middle of the Caribbean, where vacationers are as captive an audience to brand inundation as a preschooler is to Tonka and Mattel via Nick, Jr.

To wit: The Navigator doesn't just have an ice cream parlor, it has a Ben & Jerry's boutique. It doesn't feature a diner that serves hamburgers; it highlights a bona fide Johnny Rockets. Needless to say, perhaps, Royal Caribbean approached Mondavi, Beringer Blass Estates, and Niebaum-Coppola, arguably the biggest monikers in domestic business, to join up, and in armed forces terms, Mondavi was the one who signed up for a double tour of duty; even the Chilean and Italian wines that are on the menu are from a 50-percent-owned-by-Mondavi property.

"We have a philosophy of partnership in joint ventures," Mondavi explains. "We don't want to take over. We want to enhance." Hence the 50-50 split in foreign wineries, rather than an edgier 51-49.

Adam Goldstein, executive vice president of brand operations for Royal Caribbean, agrees. "We are the leading contemporary brand, and so we look for partners with outstanding product delivery. In that way, we create things that neither brand could create on its own -- one plus one equals three."

The advantages to both companies are pretty clear. The current research suggests that 55 percent of cruise passengers are female, and that 65 percent of wine buyers test positive for XX. Putting it plainly, breasts are best, at least when it comes to parting girlz from the stuff they keep close to the chest -- money. Moreover, if one of the gimmicks that Royal Caribbean is using to teach consumers about wine -- a "little black book" called Meet Your Match that ladies can employ to record favorite vintage-cheese pairings -- is any indication, then the demographics also say lots of these travelers are single. And hungry for something a little less filling.

Most telling? Vintages is located in the position on the Royal Promenade that on all other Royal Caribbean ships is occupied by a sports bar. Which left one sector of the cruising population to watch the UM-Virginia Tech game in the jazz bar, where there were at least as many female fans as male.

Here's how serious these folks are about bringing wine down to basics: Vintages took two and a half years to complete. Even after certain design elements, such as the tables, were in place, Sastre and company decided after a trip to Napa Valley they wouldn't work. Sastre explains the reconsideration. "The room needed to be warm and inviting. During our time in Napa, we saw soft elements of color, natural tones in furniture. We thought to align to a more traditional wine-tasting room."

The rest of the décor is all about immersion, and I'm not talking gross tons of ship. (That'd be 142,000, in case you're curious.) Photos of Robert Mondavi Himself, his relatives, and his properties line the walls. Televisions display virtual tours of Napa Valley vineyards, cellars, and tasting rooms, conducted by Mondavi and Ed Sbragia, winemaster of Beringer Vineyards. Blown-up reproductions of well-known wine-bottle labels coordinate with a color scheme that's supposed to be reminiscent of harvest. It's a virtual advertisement that -- hell, I'll just say it -- drew me in like a trout to a fly. Hence the hangover, er, seasickness.

Storage was also an issue that needed to be solved. Lining the walls, Vintages has pull-out bins, resembling wine cases, that can hold about twelve bottles each. All told, the ship will carry 600-800 bottles, comprising 24 different vintages, for every seven-day cruise. Guests will have daily access to the evening's dinner menus in order to pre-order bottles from the wine bar and have them delivered to the main dining room or one of the specialty restaurants. "Wine Tenders," not bartenders, mind, have been specially trained to recommend bottlings to those who don't know just what would pair properly with the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet.

Even without the marketing push, no one expects the concept to be a loser. After all, when 3114 people are on board per double occupancy every week, the ship's a bit full. There're only so many places people can sit and have a drink. Surely the seats will fill accordingly.

Then again, I didn't foresee getting seasick and having to wear a Scopolamine patch for the rest of the cruise. Nor did I anticipate putting in my contact lens after slapping said patch on and accidentally dilating my pupil to a degree I've only achieved with the help of certain unapproved pharmaceuticals.

But there's always a stomach-settling, mouthwatering side, which for me was master chef Rudi Sodamin's goose liver pâté with black winter truffles and figs. For Mondavi, it's something a lot more basic. "If all else fails," he notes, "we can play Spin the Bottle."

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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