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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Foggy Bridge Wine Cruise: Marin County Meets Fantasy Island

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2007 at 9:00 AM

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The Foggy Bridge Wine Cruise has been sailing San Francisco Bay less than a month, but already most of the cruises -- offered for evenings and Sunday brunch, $130 a pop -- have been booked solid. As we stood in line on Pier E, next to the Ferry Building, and looked around at the crowd, it made sense why: Foggy Bridge knows their target demographic. Silver hair, and lots of it.

Urged by the pamphlet to "dress as if you are having Sunday brunch with the president on his yacht," most guests were formally clad, with a few of the snappiest dressers wielding Panama hats and folded handkerchiefs -- a little cheesy, but then, it's not so different than any other theme party.

Being welcomed aboard the USS Potomac, known as FDR's "Floating White House," there's a certain Fantasy Island-meets-Marin County tone, helped along by the sight of a tall, dashing gentleman in a white tuxedo, eyeing the great blue unknown (San Francisco Bay) through a pair of massive binoculars from atop the ship, his silver hair flapping boyishly in the breeze.

This is Steve Bronte, one of the men behind Foggy Bridge Wine Cruise. Looking every bit the refined former Marine pilot that he is, Bronte describes his passion for the enterprise as such: "I'm a connoisseur of wine, food, music and conversation. So I thought, what better way to bring them together?"

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The Potomac itself has quite a tale to tell. For history buffs, cruising around the bay on this beautifully restored craft will be worth the ticket price alone. Besides serving as Roosevelt's home away from home -- where he recorded some of his famous fireside chats -- the yacht has, among other distinctions, been owned by Elvis Presley, been seized for drug running, served as a ferry between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and undergone a failed attempt as a floating disco.

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Amid the teak decks and antique furniture -- all of it boasting a museum-like, presidential air -- two wine tasting stations are set up in the main galleys of the ship, offering nine varieties from California vineyards, including Sapphire Hill, Wild Horse, Atlas Peak and Dry Creek, among others.

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Helped along by an excellent, personable wait staff -- better than most restaurants -- the wine certainly flows freely. And while a more cultivated tongue might find much to reflect upon in the Meritage, the Pinot Noir and the Fume Blanc (I heard they were all excellent, by the way) the most I can honestly say is that they tasted and felt damn good going down, which is no slight to the wines.

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Sapphire Hill winemakers Tim Meinken and Anne Giere were also on hand to answer questions and talk up their wines, which they do with such a singular passion and sparkling enthusiasm that, for a moment, the distinction between wine expert and plain old wino didn't seem to matter. The wine, of course, helped to melt away all of those differences and soon enough everyone was freely prattling away.

The Hors d'Oeuvres, created by French Brasserie Left Bank, were constantly replenished and whisked around on silver trays by smiling staff members, making them easy to snag and even easier to eat -- no small feat given the challenges of being tipsy on a smallish craft in rough waters.

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The selection, paired with various wines, included caramelized onion and leek tarts, thin slabs of smoked salmon on toasted brioche, tender skewers of beef with mushroom and pearl onion and raw oysters dressed in a light, vinegary mignonette -- all conveniently self-contained, none of them requiring so much as a napkin, much less a fork.

After about the ninth or tenth glass (tasting portions, mind you), my companion and I swayed up to the top deck to take in the amazingly vivid sunset, framed by the Golden Gate Bridge -- a wonderful way to see San Francisco.

-- Words And Pictures By Brian Bernbaum

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