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Restaurant Talk: Cruising for Wine

Cristian Pirvutoiu and Andrea Ziff welcome wine aboard at Celebrity Cruises
Photo by: Omar Ramirez
Cristian Pirvutoiu (left) and Andrea Ziff hoist a glass to better wine on cruises.

Emma Balter
Posted: July 28, 2017

Wine has taken to the sea. In recent years, cruise lines have worked to refine their menus to attract traveling gourmands and wine lovers who expect to eat and drink well no matter how many thousands of nautical miles away from land they may be. Today, cruise companies hire dedicated beverage professionals to craft wine lists that rival those of fine on-shore restaurants, in addition to offering on-board tastings and seminars, and shore excursions to vineyards.

Celebrity Cruises has been a leader in wine; nine of its ships harbor Wine Spectator Award of Excellence–winning dining rooms. At the helm of Celebrity's wine initiatives are senior corporate manager of beverage operations Cristian Pirvutoiu and wine and beverage consultant Andrea Ziff.

Pirvutoiu, 42, is originally from Romania and is a veteran of the cruise hospitality industry. He started at Celebrity Cruises in 2007 as a bar manager, working his way up to his current position. Ziff, 42, is a self-described "Florida girl" who worked at distributors Charmer Sunbelt Group and Southern Wine and Spirits before taking a consultant opportunity at Celebrity Cruises in May 2016. They are both based in Miami, where Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises' parent company, is headquartered.

On dry land, Pirvutoiu and Ziff spoke with assistant editor Emma Balter about the logistical challenges of managing a ship's wine list, and the one job requirement for being a sea-sommelier.

Wine Spectator: What goes into a cruise-ship wine program?
Cristian Pirvutoiu: We are a culinary brand, and of course wine is part of the dining experience. We're looking to bring destinations on board. Our ships being all around the world, we're trying to bring varietals that are specific to the location that the ship is in, but we also have a core wine list that is available on all the ships, trying to keep a balance between various parts of the world.
Andrea Ziff: Greece would be a perfect example. We don't typically do a lot of volume with Greek wines throughout the fleet, but when we have our Celebrity Reflection relocate to the Mediterranean, we will then begin to source Greek wines for that particular itinerary.

Wine Spectator: Can you describe some of the logistics of keeping the ships stocked?
CP: We're holding about 40,000 bottles of wine for a voyage; we have up to 600 different wine labels on board. They're managed by a team of on average 20 sommeliers per ship, led by a cellar master or head sommelier. We have various warehouses around the world, so we make sure we have a place the ship can replenish the wine so we have a certain amount on board that fills the need of our guests.
AZ: It's a lot of communication with the ships. As new wines are coming into the program, we taste [at the home office] and make those decisions, but then it really becomes part of a reliance on our on-board teams to keep us updated with the quality of the wines as future vintages come out.

WS: What are some food and wine activities that you offer on board?
CP: There's a program on board that is called "Chef's Market." When the ship is in a port, the executive chef goes out with guests and they buy local fresh produce from the market. They bring that produce on board, and the chef makes a dinner using those products. In the same way, sometimes we have local wines brought from outside that they will pair with the food that our chefs are preparing, and that brings that destination on board.

We do a lot of tastings and educational seminars. "Blendtique" is a concept where our guests become winemakers. They can blend their own wine using four different grape varieties. We can also bottle the wine on board and label it with a private label with the name of the guest, or whatever their preference is. Not only that, they can continue to order those private blends to their homes.

WS: What kind of training and education do you provide your staff?
AZ: There is a very developed wine education module that is currently in place for on-board training. We're currently building out another module that focuses more on guest experience and guest interaction with our beverage team.
CP: We started an education program with the Court of Master Sommeliers. We have about 25 of our sommeliers and cellar masters that have been through the Introductory Level I. The plan is that by 2018, we'll have all our cellar masters going through the first level of the Court of Master Sommeliers.

WS: What are the qualifications you look for in dining staff for your cruises, and are they any different than those of an on-shore restaurant?
CP: As long as they don't feel seasick, they're good to go! Life on board is a bit different from life on shore. Living on a ship is like living in a small village, where everybody knows everybody, and it's like a small family. The service should be excellent no matter if you are on land [or] on a cruise ship. Ship experience, it's nice to have, but it's not a must-have. We like to bring fresh eyes from outside the cruise industry, sommeliers that worked in fine restaurants [or] they've been involved in winemaking processes. It's a tough life, sometimes, for the crew members, living in the same place for six or eight months, but the focus from the moment that they leave their cabin until they come back, is the guest.

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