Northern California boasts alfresco wine-tasting venues aplenty, but the most memorable way to sample merlot in the great outdoors is aboard a sailboat. And the Chardonnay II, anchored in Santa Cruz Harbor, is a grand vessel for a seafaring, wine-tasting adventure. At sunset, yet.
This gleaming white 70-foot charter yacht hosts an array of sunset sails that include wine or beer tastings, pizza charters and even a Taste of Santa Cruz, which gets local restaurateurs involved. As we waltz up the gangplank on this particular Friday evening, ready to sip some wine, Captain Joseph Rodgers, his crew and a local winemaker are there to greet their guests — families, groups of friends and a bachelorette party, chaperoned by the bride’s mother.
With 49 passengers aboard, every seat and open deck space is filled. We listen to a brief safety talk, then the crew casts off. Right off the bat, we get our first marine animal sighting — two playful harbor seals splashing around the boat.
We drift past the jetty jacks — enormous stones that look like giant jacks — and the lighthouse and head out into open water. A nearby buoy is a safe haven for more adorable harbor seals, hanging on for a rollicking ride as the ocean ebbs and surges.
The westerly winds are blowing 12 to 15 knots, but Rodgers expects the wind to shift to the east soon, which will be perfect for real-deal sailing, heeled hull and all. But there is plenty of time to sip wine before then.
Roudon-Smith Winery owner Al Drewke, a sunset wine cruise regular, introduces the first wine, a grenache blanc. This Rhone Valley white grape makes a light, refreshing wine, a perfect kickoff for the evening, he says.
“This is a wine tasting, not a wine guzzling,” the captain cautions, as the crew pours wine into biodegradable plastic glasses — just in case one goes overboard.
Music enhances the festive mood as we pass the Giant Dipper and the other illuminated rides of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, then scoot by the long pier, close enough to see the sea lions gathered beneath.
Our second wine is Roudon-Smith’s 2011 Duet, a rustic and fruity cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc blend. As Drewke chats with each passenger, platters of cheese, salami, veggies and dip are passed around.
We’ve been cruising along slowly for about an hour when the captain asks, “Are you ready to really sail?” The boat comes about and briny air fills the sails, the boat heels steeply to starboard, and everyone hangs on for the windswept ride.
As the winds die down, the setting sun signals our last wine, a 2012 Santa Cruz Mountains merlot, the grapes sourced from a Corralitos vineyard not far from Drewke’s Watsonville winery. He invites us all to visit him there, once we’ve returned from the sea.
That return comes all too soon, the two hours flying — or rather, sailing by. Heading back to the harbor, we have a clear view of The Crow’s Nest restaurant, outlined against the darkening sky.
As the sun sets on this seafaring adventure, we return to the dock just as the lights around the harbor are flickering to life, a nice welcome back to terra firma.
Chardonnay II: This Santa Cruz yacht runs two-hour winemaker charter cruises on Friday nights through October. Wear boat-safe, rubber-soled shoes; no high heels allowed. Adult tickets $60, children ages 4-14 are $30.50, under 3 free. Find details on this and other Chardonnay II charter sails, including beer excursions and pizza charters, at www.chardonnay.com.
O’Neill Yacht Charters: This Santa Cruz-based catamaran company offers 90-minute sunset cruises that showcase local wines ($40) or craft brews ($40); www.oneillyachtcharters.com.
Incredible Adventures: Two-hour sunset and wine-tasting cruises on San Francisco Bay ($55); www.incadventures.com.
San Francisco Sailing Co.: This sailing charter offers a variety of outings, including a Golden Gate Bridge sparkling wine cruise ($60) and a sunset sail with wine and beer ($55); www.sailsf.com.
Wine by Sail: This San Francisco-based company offers private chartered wine and food cruises on San Francisco Bay and the Petaluma or Napa rivers. The Petaluma cruise includes a winery tour stop. Charters start at $175 per hour with a three-hour minimum; www.winebysail.com.
Wine Tasting on the Bay: Two-hour sunset and wine-tasting cruises on San Francisco Bay ($60); www.sanfranciscobayboatcruise.com.