Keep Your Wine Program Afloat and Cruise to Success

White wine being poured into a wine glass
Images: Princess Cruises

Along with formal nights in the dining room, decadent chocolate desserts and elevated culinary experiences, there is the expectation on a cruise ship of a good drink. That can take many forms: a glass of bubbly to celebrate leaving port, a Mojito on the pool deck on a relaxed day at sea, or a grippy bottle of red with filet mignon at one of the ship’s specialty restaurants. And whether or not they decide to spring for an all-you-can-drink package or order libations à la carte, cruisers expect a good selection of thoughtful, high-quality wine, spirits, cocktails and beer. That’s where Bob Midyette comes in.

As the corporate director of beverage options for Princess Cruises, Midyette (who has also had food and beverage stints with InterContinental Hotels Group and Royal Caribbean International) is responsible for selecting and updating drink lists for the line’s 17 ships. Currently, he is collaborating on an updated wine list with Doug Frost, one of only four people in the world to hold both the titles of both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine. Set to be unveiled in the coming months, this list expands Princess’s current offerings by a third (which translates to around 140 wines in the dining room) and augments the depth and breadth of regional and global representation.

“This large-scale change allows us to broaden our appeal to not only our North American guests, but to guests from around the world as well,” Midyette says. “Additionally, we have worked to ensure that many of the more notable producers (at all price points) are represented so that selection is approachable in price, but guests who wish to explore a wide range of price points can do so.” That means including the usual spendy suspects like Lafite, Petrus and Grange, as well as notable offerings from China and Ao Yun. After the initial rollout, he anticipates making other changes about once every two years.

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One unique aspect of Princess’ wine lists is a robust collection of Super Tuscans, that unofficial category of Italian wines that combine Sangiovese with native Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and whose bottles often obtain cult status among oenophiles and collectors. Princess’s million-dollar cellars hold 25 out of the world’s 29 Super Tuscans.

“At Princess Cruises we value and honor our rich Italian heritage,” Midyette says, adding that they are a source of pride for the brand. (The Princess Italia was one of the line’s first ships.) “We are able to share insights on the collection via wine tastings, and our staff, many of which are from Italy, are passionate about speaking to the specifics of the wines that a guest may inquire about or enjoy with dinner.”

Super Tuscans are available ship-wine, and are especially popular at Sabatini’s, the Italian trattoria available on board that specializes in freshly made pastas like buckwheat pappardelle with Nebbiolo-braised beef cheek and torchietti with foraged mushrooms and rosemary oil. Dishes like these are perfect with those hearty red Tuscan blends, even if it’s 85 degrees and sunny outside, and the next port of call is Grand Cayman. After all, what is a cruise (with its decadence and legendary sprawling midnight buffets) but a suspension of reality, succumbing to the whims of your cravings, no matter the time of night or day, season or reason.

Princess Cruises wine service and bottles - Keep Your Wine Program Afloat and Cruise to Success

The line also has the largest collection of Opus One, the Napa red blends that began as a collaboration between Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux and Robert Mondavi. All wines are stored in dedicated, temperature-controlled spaces, and generally speaking, high turnover of bottles precludes the need for preservation systems. On some locations on some ships however, staff has installed self-serve Napa Technology machines that let guests choose from a variety of pours; these machines use nitrogen to both preserve the wine and move it from the bottle to the glass.

Guests on Princess Cruises have the option to savor wines over dinner, in various lounges onboard or at Vines Wine Bar. They can also book a table at various winemaker’s dinners created in partnership with the Mondavi and Frescobaldi families, at a Grapevine Wine Tasting, and hosted maître d’ wine club events.

Chef's Table Lumiere event by Princess Cruises - Keep Your Wine Program Afloat and Cruise to Success

Midyette also works closely with corporate chef Pierre Marie Leprince on food and wine pairings, including the Chef’s Table Lumiere. This special offering (available at an upcharge) is available on three of their ships (Royal, Regal and Majestic Princess), and begins with a tour of the galley along with hors d’oeuvres and Champagne. On a recent sailing, Nicolas Feuillatte Brut was sipped alongside tuna crudo, foie gras terrine, lobster tail and caviar blinis, goat cheese torte and panko-coated prawns.

Next, guests move to a custom-made glass table surrounded by the “curtain of light” that lends the dinner its name and provides a soft, shimmering wall of privacy. The meal continues with a five-course dinner whose menu is updated periodically, often more by itinerary changes than by seasons or dales, Midyette says. (Contrary to what people may believe about kitchen staff picking up supplies and ingredients at each port, Princess stocks their ships before setting sail with everything they’ll need for the entire itinerary.) At the table, guests may start with a dish like risotto with tiger prawns and portobello mushrooms, paired with Danzante Pinot Grigio. “Double Impact” Surf & Turf (lobster tail, phyllo-rolled crab leg, pork medallion and beef medallion) may get paired up with a duo of options: Oberon Merlot from Napa Valley and Errazuriz White from Chile’s Valle de Casablanca.

A late harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Errazuriz is the perfect liquid accompaniment to a cheese course, with acidity to offset the its richness and just enough residual sugar to not come across as cloying. And Princess works with notable chocolatier Norman Love on its Chocolate Journeys desserts, which generally end the Chef’s Table Lumiere, like the chocolate praline timbale with hazelnut mousse; a glass of tawny port draws out those rich nutty notes.

The international staff on board—whose home country is noted on name tags—receives wine education through the UK-based WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust). “Through this program a trainer visited every ship regardless of destination, to train, test, and certify,” Midyette says. He’s happy to report that more than 99% completed Level 1, fleet-wide; those who passed will be working on Level 2 training this year.

Day-to-day, Midyette supports global operators as they face challenges like weather, guest demographics, repositioning to and from extreme markets like China and Australia, and changes in culinary and beverage trends. Above all, he ensures his team makes sure ships have what their need for staff to give vacationers the best experience possible.

As for his overarching philosophy? Well, that’s simple. “Don’t run out of wine! We can’t get a delivery if we are in the middle of the ocean.”

Key takeaways:

  • If you’re uncertain about wine, collaborate with someone knowledgeable who understands your brand to curate your program.
  • Today’s wine drinker, in particular Millennial guests, is adventurous. Offer regional wines but also add interesting, unique and rare global selections to your list.
  • Offer the usual suspects in order to make your guests feel comfortable, but offer a variety of wines at various price points to encourage exploration and sales.
  • Keep up on popular global wine trends. For example, Super Tuscans continue to spark guest interest.
  • Value and stay true to your brand’s culture and story, and create wine lists that speak to who you are as a business.
  • Many guests visit you to take a break from what’s going on in their lives. They likely view your operation as a place to satiate their cravings. Anticipate and deliver on their expectations—this i a cornerstone of hospitality.
  • Your wine inventory is an investment; store it properly. Re-order what works and don’t be afraid to abandon wines that aren’t selling. You can avoid needing to invest in preservation systems and techniques if your wines sell quickly and in great volume; dead inventory just burns up cash and resources.
  • Wine by the glass is increasing in popularity in demand. Plan accordingly.
  • Educate your staff in general wine knowledge and service, provide information about your specific wine list, and bring in reps to further that education.
  • Do the same for your guests to keep them engaged and convert them to repeat customers.
  • Host wine events to engage with your guests, generate revenue, and become the local wine hot spot.
  • Guests have made it clear that they’re interested in Champagne and other sparkling wines.

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter and Instagram @kmagyarics.