Contemporary air travel is often an exercise in lowered expectations. First, airlines eliminated free checked baggage. Then, they stopped serving meals. Now a passenger can’t even get a tiny cup of coffee without paying a fee on some airlines. When will the madness end?
Fortunately, several airlines have flipped the script and are investing in their food and beverage programs. Many airlines employ wine consultants to curate beverage programs, and a select few have partnered with some of the big guns of the wine world: Master Sommeliers. While it’s unlikely that passengers will see any red-pinned professionals manning the beverage cart anytime soon, first- and business-class travelers on Delta, United, and Hawaiian Airlines now have the luxury of practicing their tasting skills in-flight.
Being a Master Sommelier in the air has different challenges than on the ground. The dryness of the cabin affects the olfactory system, making it difficult to discern flavors and scents, and airplane cabin pressure causes aroma molecules to travel faster than they would on the ground. Sweetness and fruitiness are diminished, and harsh structural components like tannins are heightened. Altitude and dehydration exacerbate the effects of alcohol, so 15 percent ABV booze bombs aren’t the best choice in-flight. Overall, fresh, acid-driven wines with intense fruit or oak flavors often work best for airline wine programs.
Don’t expect these Master Sommelier-curated airline wine programs to include the latest cult Cabernet Sauvignon or single-vineyard Champagne, though. Quantity is a key factor in airline wine programs. Delta serves 2.5 million bottles of wine each year in its premium cabins alone. Unlike a standard wine program, for which a Master Sommelier could change the selections available at a moment’s notice, an airline wine program must feature wines that have large quantities available across the U.S. The entire production of a small winery might not be enough to satisfy an airline wine program.
These three Master Sommelier-curated airline wine programs are taking mile-high beverage programs to new heights.
One of the most robust sky-high wine programs belongs to Delta. The airline employs Andrea Robinson, MS, to curate selections in the airline’s luxury business-class cabin, Delta One. Robinson, who passed the MS Diploma Exam in 1996, estimates that she tastes about 3,000 wines a year, and updates the airline’s seasonal wine lists annually. Different selections exist for different routes, with several options of white, red, sparkling, and dessert available on each, but Robinson aims to include wines that refresh, yet have plenty of intensity.
Current selections include Louis Latour “La Chanfleure” Chablis (average retail price: $25), Champagne Jacquart “Mosaique” Brut ($35), and Quinta do Noval 10-Year-Old Tawny Port ($30). Robinson notes on Delta’s website that Rioja is a popular selection in-flight, its bold fruit and oak flavors popping despite high altitudes; one Rioja offered is the La Rioja Alta “Viña Ardanza” Rioja Reserva 2000 ($50-$100).
Delta also offers premium passengers the opportunity to hone tasting skills in its airport lounges, Delta Sky Club. Focusing primarily on classic regions, white wines are split between “crisp and refreshing” and “ripe and luscious,” while red wines are divided into “subtle” and “bold.” Robinson also includes taste-along videos for Delta Sky Club’s core wines on her website.
Doug Frost, MS, MW, passed the Master Sommelier Diploma exam in 1991, following it up with a Master of Wine diploma in 1993. As a wine and spirits consultant for United Airlines, Frost selects wines for the United Polaris first-class and business-class cabins, seeking out selections that have bold flavor and will appeal to a wide variety of tastes.
First-class wines include Imagery Estate Winery Sauvignon Blanc ($15) from California and Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir ($28) from Oregon, while business-class passengers choose from Wente “Morning Fog” Chardonnay ($15) and Colby Red Blend ($12), both from California.
Hawaiian Airlines keeps its wine program true to the airline’s name, employing Hawaii’s first Master Sommelier, Chuck Furuya, MS, who passed the exam in 1989. Hawaiian Airlines’ wine program isn’t as high-end as some others, but it is the most democratic. Furuya’s selections are offered in all cabins: gratis in first class, and available for purchase in economy.
While selections vary from flight to flight, current options on North American flights include Flor Prosecco ($15) from Veneto, Italy and Tensley Wines “Los Padres” Red ($20), a blend of Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Grenache from California’s Central Coast. Those flying to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport can try the Mohua Sauvignon Blanc ($13) from Marlborough, New Zealand or the more offbeat Sella & Mosca Cannonau Riserva ($14), a Grenache from Sardinia, Italy.