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04.03.2011

Airline Wine: (Nearly) Everything You Wanted To Know

airline_wine.jpgSo there I was, sitting in Business Class on my way across the country, courtesy of an all-too-rare-these-days upgrade (thanks to my lowly status), and the option of having a glass of wine with my lunch arose. Always up for an adventure, I ordered the Merlot, and gamely tucked in, when I had the chance.

It was awful. The sort of wine that I didn't want to have a second mouthful of.

The wine had just underperformed my very low expectations, which I thought was hard to do. You see, it's been a long time since I had what I thought was a decent glass of wine on a domestic airline. Most of the time I don't have the option of a glass poured from a 750ml bottle, so I don't drink wine while flying. On those rare occasions when I do fly Business Class, it's usually internationally, and I admit to being spoiled by some of the Asian airlines in the early 2000s which spent a lot of money on their wine programs.

But here and there I grab a glass on a plane between our coasts, and generally I have the sense that the state of wine above 30,000 feet in this country has gone, er, downhill, from a point that wasn't that elevated to begin with.

So as I stared at that Merlot, gently slopping over the top of my glass through the latest rash of turbulence, I found myself wondering how the hell the wine gets on the airline in the first place, and what sorts of constraints (I imagined there must be a lot of them) would result in me having that specific glass of Merlot in front of me at that particular point in time.

I knew where I could get the answers to my questions. I had met sommelier Doug Frost at the Taste of Washington wine event several years ago, and he seemed like an approachable guy. We had a good, if short, conversation while waiting for our respective taxis one day at the hotel we were staying at.

Frost, who is one of only three people in the world who hold both the Master Sommelier and Master of Wine titles, has been the worldwide wine consultant for United Airlines for several years now.

He graciously agreed to answer my questions by e-mail about the hows and whys of airline wines (at least in the context of his client, United), and if we're lucky (and he stops in to see how this thread develops) he might answer some of yours left in the comments as well.


How long have you been choosing wines for United?
I started choosing wines for United a little more than seven years ago and have been the sole wine and spirits consultant during those seven years.

Have you or do you work for other airlines?
No, United is the only airline for which I've consulted.

Can you please describe the process of selecting the wines? Where do you find them and how do you evaluate them, and then how do you (or others?) decide which ones end up on planes?
The selection process begins with a typical rfp tender; sent out to all available vendors/importers/wineries. The rfp sets out the price range, the grape(s), the country or region of origin, the vintage range and the style of wine that is being sought out. We require of the wines that they exhibit balance in style (no excessive alcohols, tannins, and such) and without noticeable flaws (we look for VA, EA, Brett, H2S and the like). We go through written wine offerings covering hundreds of wines, and I cut that number down based upon an agreed upon count and my best guess at the likelihood of the wine's success in subsequent tastings. Next we set up a preliminary tasting; it might be a few hundred wines, it might be five or six hundred. In some years that has been a blind tasting; of late, it is not. Out of that group, I choose about 100 wines for the final tasting - not a predetermined number but that's how things usually go. Finally, the tasting group (comprised of purchasing, beverage, culinary and logistics management, as well as an occasional guest either from among the Global Services ranks or outside wine professionals) tastes the wines blind and selects the wines that will be boarded, dependent upon the price and the availability.

When you say all available importers distributors, do you really mean, every one in the country?
Well, there are only a few brokers who specialize in such work: they each handle many wineries and importers. There are a small group of wineries that sell directly, and there are a relatively small number of European wineries that wish to do business with airlines.

Would you be willing to share more details about the RFP? Like the price ranges, or how you describe the specific styles?
Sorry, I'm not allowed to share pricing information. The style issue is easy: like I say, we offer one each New World red and one Old World red, as well as one New World white and one Old World white; and one of the reds is light to medium-bodied (generally Pinot Noir or Syrah/Grenache based) and one is full-bodied (Bordeaux variety-based). One white is Chardonnay and one is non-Chardonnay (Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, some such).

How DO you determine what to put in that RFP? What's the thought process behind the selection of the RFP contents? What drives your sense of which wines should be on the list?
In First Class, we need classic names and character. In Business Class, we can step outside the classics to a degree. Throughout all classes of service (First, Business, Domestic First Class, Coach Class), I need overt fruit more than anything else. I concede that somebody can complain about my choice, that they may find some of the choices simple and perhaps boring, but my greatest wish is that there is always fresh, well-preserved fruit. And I try to bear in mind what my predecessor, Bob Thompson, used to say (I paraphrase): that most travelers feel hassled and harried and we want that glass of wine to change a traveler's day, to slow it down and make it better.

What kinds of constraints do you have in both determining the pool of wines you have to choose from, and then your final selections?
Price is of course a constraint. Perhaps surprisingly, over the last seven years I have not had my budget trimmed, nor have I been under any pressure to save money in any of the cabins or categories. The biggest constraint is often availability: we buy hundreds if not thousands of cases of any particular wine and often the wineries have, by the time the selection process is completed, decided that they aren't willing to part with so many cases. Perhaps more importantly, we're trying to place all wines in a "style matrix": New World wines with Old World wines, full-bodied and powerful against lighter-bodied, softer wines.

Do all the planes have the same wines at the same time, or do you put certain wines on certain routes? What strategy is there, if any, for determining what wines end up on what routes?
Most international flights carry the same wines at the same time, but we typically change the wine selections every two or three months (depends upon the class of service, and the velocity of the wines). We also have changing wine selections on domestic flights (First Class) and PS flights (in Business Class) and will at times offer wines that are selected for their routing: Chianti into Italy, Shiraz into Australia, Malbec into South America and such.

Do you select all the wines, or just those for business and first class?
I participate in and help guide the process of selection of all wines aboard United flights.

How do you decide (or do you) which wines end up in first class vs. which ones are in business class?
Price is of course part of the selection and categorization of the wines we board. We also try to be smart about matching wines to the class of service. For instance, we see First Class International wine selections as requiring a classic structure and provenance. Business Class passengers may be willing to try less familiar wines, so we have boarded Albarino, Chianti, Ribera del Duero and the like in Business Class; we haven't yet done so in First Class.

I have the impression that the quality of wines available on US Domestic flights has gone down significantly in the last 10 years. Do you think that's true? If so, is it just another symptom of the cost cutting we're seeing everywhere, or something else?
I'd have to repeat what I wrote before [editor's note: I submitted this claim to Frost in our private correspondence leading up to this interview] : I would respectfully disagree. I have greater leeway in pricing than I did when I began, and there are more interesting wines available now than a few years back, when I was less adventurous in the selection process. I think that consumers are far more savvy today than they were five years ago, and we're trying to keep up with them. I believe that we have done so but it's a challenge to stay in front of trends and prejudices.

What's the hardest thing about being the wine buyer/director for an airline?
Our biggest challenge is logistics: we ship and board wine in many ports around the world: Japan, England, Argentina, Australia, many cities in the US and Europe. Trying to change the wines on a standard time frame in all those cities is a trip. Further because of these logistical challenges, we are selecting wines to be boarded sometimes as much as a year later. We have to be very smart about the appropriateness and the stability of those wines.

What's the best wine on United right now in your opinion?
Tough one: Henriot Brut Millesime 1998, Cuvee Diamant Brut, Brocard Chablis Premier Cru Vaillons 2007, St Supery Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Grahams LBV 2003

* * *

What other questions would you have?

Comments (24)

Benito wrote:
04.04.11 at 12:34 AM

I wonder about the impact of the tasting environment on the wine. For instance, I go from a humid Memphis at about 300ft above sea level to a dry environment with cabin pressurization that mimics about 7,000ft. Additionally, there has been some study of how the noise in an airplane can impact your sense of taste:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11525897

Part of me thinks, "Hey, just serve wines that are made and consumed at a high altitude, like those in Colorado and Switzerland!" ;)

Seriously though, I would be interested to see a series of blind tastings done on the ground and in the air over a couple of weeks to see if there is a significant difference. It also seems as though it's difficult to properly enjoy wine when you're stressed or uncomfortable, two factors that are regrettably more and more a part of flying.

Scott wrote:
04.04.11 at 7:21 AM

It seems to me that, at least in domestic, one of the major restraints is that the winery must be willing and able to bottle in those individual serving size bottles. Not to be too snarky, but the types of wineries who fit that description tend to, well, suck.

Doug Frost wrote:
04.04.11 at 8:02 AM

Benito - I'm very convinced that altitude and especially lack of humidity in the cabin has an impact upon the wines. Wines at 30,000 feet have less oomph to them, if nothing else is measurable. So that's why I really focus upon making sure there is lots of fresh fruit. It would probably be ideal to choose wines that have some residual sugar for the same reasons, but I'm sure that would turn off a significant number of customers.

Scott - I don't think those wines suck; I really don't. I'll admit that they are (or can be) boring, simple, fruity and little else. But I've put Hayes Ranch Chardonnay (we serve that) in blind tastings and had smart people tell me it's high quality California Chardonnay. Reds at those price levels and in those little bottles tend towards even more simplicity, I suppose. But the biggest complaint I hear is that the red wine is cold. Yep, busted. We load them with the other drinks and they're chilled. But I'd rather my wine is too cold than too hot.
Doug

04.04.11 at 8:19 AM

Alder: Have you ever tasted a wine on an airplane that you have tasted before on the ground? (I realize this is difficult with liquid restrictions, etc.) If so, how did it compare?

Duane wrote:
04.04.11 at 10:05 AM

Good Article Alder. Here was my (somewhat cynical) takeaway - 1) we only deal with those who mass produce wines, 2) We don't care much about the wine's uniqueness because our passengers only want to get a buzz, 3) We spend whatever it takes as long as it fits within our wine budget (that hasn't been reduced from whatever it was when we were serving that awful wine before), 4) I'm only a cog in the wheel so don't blame me - wines are selected by a committee based on an RFP that goes to a few brokers who specialize in "airline wines."

I've had good wines on United International first class, so I know it can be done. But that was years ago. I've never had a good wine in Coach or Business.

BaroloDude wrote:
04.04.11 at 10:11 AM

great post Alder. And thank you Doug for responding to commenters!

I have been happier with Spanish and Southern Rhone and German/Austrian wines on airplanes for some reason.... i usually steer clear of Cabernet and italian wines just because my palate is more developed there, and the wines are more likely to disappoint... fwiw.

Wine Harlots wrote:
04.04.11 at 10:55 AM

I'm always in steerage, so the safe choice is a Heineken.
Unless of course, I'm wanting a Barbie-sized bottle of vinegar.

Jim S. wrote:
04.04.11 at 11:37 AM

Thanks for the great conversation, Doug and Alder!

Elizabeth wrote:
04.04.11 at 4:07 PM

First off, I'm glad to see more creative selections in domestic first class -- especially non-Chardonnay whites. However, I have one pressing question: Why, why, why are the poor coach passengers stuck with Redwood Creek, which could easily pass for paint thinner? I'd sooner drink Two-Buck Chuck. The premium selections in coach are not half bad, though -- is there any intention of continuing or expanding that program?

04.04.11 at 7:23 PM

The Claude Val Languedoc blend I had on Air Canada last year -- coach to France! -- fits the specs that Mr. Frost mentions: a modern take on the Old World, plenty of fruit, and quite good given that a 750 ml bottle costs $10 or so in a US shop. I thought it worked dandy, given my expectations. I never order drinks on a domestic flight, let alone pay extra for lunch, so I cannot comment on those wines.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
04.04.11 at 9:52 PM

Rajiv,

I'm sure that I've had a wine on an airplane that had had tasted before at some point, but I wasn't thinking about it at the time, and it was probably so long ago that I'm not able to offer any thoughts on the possible effects of altitude.

Jim Coley wrote:
04.04.11 at 9:54 PM

Re: wineries going into this format - it's actually not a bad branding move, especially if the wine lands in 1st or business class.

Re: The average consumer on an airplane - wants to not hate the wine. Not to say one should look for the lowest common denominator, but there are more non-wine-geeks than geeks in any flight's cabin, and the former are more important to impress than the latter.

Doug is right about the difference between "suck" and "mediocre."

Peter McCombie wrote:
04.05.11 at 9:52 AM

I judge the Business Traveller magazine Cellar in the Sky competition for business and first class wines and am therefore very interested in this topic, but we judge on the ground.
Steven Spurrier, one of Britain's best tasters and consultant to a major airline says on the effects of altitude and air pressure on wine: “The person changes much more in the air than the wine does. I have tasted a wine from business class the evening before flying ... and tasted it in the air, and it is the same wine.”
Jim Harre, who is one of the panel who selects wine for Air New Zealand has done a bit of digging. He says that while little formal research has been undertaken in this field, there are three main effects on wine and our sensory perception of it: the reduced pressure of the cabin; the dryness of aircraft cabin air; and the way the wine is stored and handled. The cabin pressure on an aircraft is normally set at a level that is lower than you would find at sea level. This difference in pressure has little effect on us when we are healthy
The reduction in pressure does affect the volatile components in the wine, causing them ‘boil off’ at a far greater rate comparative to sea level. The most abundant volatile compounds contribute to the fruity aromas perceived in wine. It is worth noting that the concentration of a compound is not necessarily proportional to its intensity, for example only minuscule amounts of trichloroanisole (TCA) one of the compounds responsible for cork taint can be easily detected (threshold of between 1 and 5 parts per trillion). Also the synergy between compounds present in a complex mixture such as wine can result in them having a quite different aroma when they occur singularly or in slightly different proportions.
It would therefore follow that by changing the pressure, the possibility of changing the intensity of different components is increased thereby changing the aroma of the wine. So while the fresh attractive aromas of wine can be enhanced at lower air pressure, so too can the odour of wine faults, especially when those compounds creating the odours are in small enough concentrations to be viewed in the positive, by adding to the complexity of the wine when tasted at sea level.
That's all a way of saying Doug is right: you need fruit.

Jason wrote:
04.05.11 at 12:39 PM

You didn't answer your own implied question - how do airlines end up with such crappy wines?

The answer is that they take the lowest tender offer....

Mark S wrote:
04.06.11 at 5:40 PM

I am a very frequent UA flier, throughout Asia and the US primarily.  So it is interesting to see Mr. Frost's comments here (kudos to him for his honesty and transparency).  As I have the frequent opportunity to have a glass (or 3) in the air, I almost always decline, mostly because I don't like being buzzed in the air unless it's early on in a 12+ hour flight.  I am thankful to be upgraded to first class often; it is more than I deserve.

In any event, I find it remarkable that the airline uses an RFP process to select wines.  Mr Frost's position (and the way he is marketed in Hemispheres, UA's in flight magazine) suggests that he would be able to select wines of personal interest to him (with all the expected parameters concerning availability, style, price, etc) and then perhaps direct a procurement team to secure the wines.  One might also expect him to offer something interesting to the domestic markets UA serves (a Washington wine into/from Seattle for example).  

Typically, the selections are indeed generic and boring - seemingly aimed at the lowest common denominator wine drinker.  Which is fine for a coach seat on a domestic flight.  But not first or business on an international (typically longer and more expensive) route.  But lo and behold, Mr. Frost allows us to understand that procurement, logistics and marketing personnel are all involved in the final selection.  No wonder we end up with the selections we get.

Mr Frost, in all honesty how can you continue to present yourself as the Wine and Spirits Director for United if you do not have the ability to ultimately determine what is served onboard?   This is misleading to customers like me (Global Services) and, quite honestly raises questions as to why UA even bothers with a wine 'program'.  Why not let some accountant in procurement select from a Constellation spec sheet?  

Respectfully,
Mark Sinnott
Seattle

Alder Yarrow wrote:
04.06.11 at 9:09 PM

Mark,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. It's not my place to defend Doug, as he can do that himself, but I do know enough about the wine business to say that in most situations it is far from an ideal world where a sommelier can get any wine he wants for his restaurant, let alone get any wine he wants in quantities that would make it possible to serve, say, on every domestic flight in first class for a month.

Don't underestimate the complexities of the supply chain involved here, not to mention the kind of constraints that a corporate purchasing system, combined with the ass-backwards interstate alcohol shipping laws, might place on someone. It's hard enough for a sommelier in Chicago, for instance, to get ahold of a couple cases of a certain Napa Cabernet they want, let alone get 2000 cases of it distributed to all the major air hubs that supply United flights.

Mr. Frost can hardly be blamed by starting his wine selection with a narrowed down list of wines he can actually get his hands on in the right quantities and markets instead of wasting his time going after things he'd never be able to get. And I'm sure United wouldn't pay him for such fruitless exploits.

Doug Frost wrote:
04.06.11 at 10:05 PM

To all - thanks for your comments and your passion about this; I think wine is worth this much conversation. I just hope my responses are taken at face value: I don't speak for the airline; I speak for me. But...BUT....but, let's address these one at a time:

Duane (and others): I'm not a cog in a wheel. I drink wines and write about them and United lets me participate in the wine selection process. It's a process and I'm not the wine dictator for anybody much less a big company like UAL. BUT...I have participated in the selection of virtually every wine we've boarded for seven years and I personally selected each one or at least said yes. I stand by that decision even if some people don't like the wines. I chose them because I do like the wines.

Mark: Alder's right; I have to spend my tasting time (on their dime) where it counts. But I go after wines all the time. A lot of the recently selected wines were the result of a conversation with one of the vendors in which begged them to go get that particular wine, or because I asked the winery to join in the process.

Peter: nice explanation for a complicated matter. It makes sense the way you describe it.

Elizabeth: yes, I know the Redwood Creek Cabernet is not some people's cup o tea. I'm sorry. We gotta work on that.

All: I'm sorry that I appeared to be dodging the responsibility. Just explaining it as best I can. But I get that you're not happy and we are trying to improve things even in the midst of the merger. Thanks for giving a damn enough to write about it.

lori wrote:
04.07.11 at 11:48 AM

Alder, Thanks so much for writing about this topic. Totally enlightening and as always a good read. I'll definitely be thinking about it next time I fly United. In the meantime, I'll stick with IPA in a can on Virgin.

Mark wrote:
04.08.11 at 10:26 AM

Interesting stuff. I wonder if perhaps, casting a wider net so to speak with those RFP might help. My company isn't hard to find and we've never seen anything of the sort.

If the requests are only going to the major distributors (which is my guess and I don't begrudge them for doing it that way) most of us know exactly the types of wines which area available.

It's an interesting process, I do wish the airlines would take a more proactive role in seeing wine and beer as ways to increase revenue and upgrade those offerings. They could have some higher quality wine selections available, or try a few regional choices. Plenty of great vintners on both coasts, many of the winemaker personal labels would be massive upgrades in terms of quality as well.

Mark wrote:
04.08.11 at 10:27 AM

Forgot to mention-Doug....I'm really impressed at your willingness to come into this space and have the discussion. Bravo!

Jesse Porter wrote:
04.08.11 at 8:36 PM

What's most troubling to me is the emphasis placed in the interview above -- and, even more disturbingly, in the comments section -- on wine service in First and Business class, but not in Coach (which is of course where 90% of any airplane's potential wine consumer base is located).

I wrote a piece in 2008 in which I made reference to a quote from Rodney Strong's then-VP of Marketing: "people [say] that nobody pays attention to what they drink on the airlines, and I think that might be the case in the back of the bus, but up front people are a little more savvy.” They are? Really? The antiquated idea that wine knowledge and appreciation are somehow linked to wealth or social class is, I think we can all agree, an outdated and comically elitist one. (However, it's one that seems to be shared by at least one commenter above, who opines that "generic and boring" wines are "fine" for "coach seats on a domestic flight." I assure you, Mark, that the majority of the oenophiles in my social circle, nearly all of whom exclusively fly coach, would disagree.)

The airline industry, and the wine consultants employed by it, seem inexplicably unable to acknowledge the possibility that some of the customers in coach might actually know a thing or two about wine. From the various "experts" consulted in the piece I link to above, who all summarily dismiss coach passengers as basically unsophisticated enough to care what they're drinking, to the hapless AA steward who informed me that they offered "red and white" and questioned whether or not any specificity beyond that even mattered, the entire industry continues to demonstrate that it can't be bothered to address the concerns of 90% of its passengers. I'm surprised that readers of this blog seem to share that indifference.

Christopher Robinson wrote:
04.10.11 at 11:58 PM

Cathay Pacific add one more critical dimension to their wine selection which I think is very important and deals with a lot of the issues raised about the effects on wine at such heights and cabin conditions. They reduce their wine selections down to say 8-10 wines and then they fly them to see how they perform after they have been subjected to flight conditions. And I have been told this process of flying the wines does have a significant taste impact. From what I recall it tends to emphasize the tannins of certain wines, but not all. Some wines also tend to close down and lose that very obvious fruit they have on the ground. The CX consultants are therefore more concerned with how a major wine order would perform after shipment by air. Any wonder even their Economy wines are simple but quite enjoyable. And CX often have one-off specials in Business which are always knockouts, always a little unusual and certainly often courageous e.g. roses, chianti's and loire sweet whites

Bill Ellis wrote:
04.16.11 at 7:32 AM

I suspect, but do not know, that another factor may have a significant effect on wine taste and aroma perception on long (high altitude) flights - ozone. Ozone is a strong and rapid oxidizer, and it can be high on flights without ozone catalysts (which decompose the ozone). See http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es702967k
Many of the aroma and flavor ingredients in wine are terpenes and terpenoids, which, being unsaturated compounds, are very susceptible to rapid oxidation by ozone, losing their pleasant character. Just this organic chemist's hypothesis.

Kathy wrote:
04.25.11 at 11:46 PM

I tend to prefer Champagne at whatever altitude...

Singapore offers Dom Perignon in first (along with other high ends). Air France offers Champagne in coach and seems to have lowered the quality in its reds.

It's been my experience that pairing is probably more important in coach than in the other classes - together the wine and food help each other as neither is innately fantastic.

Doug, in the first class selection, do any wineries decline to participate because of what the altitude/ozone etc. does to a wine or a passenger?

Bill (and others), what does altitude/ozone etc do to taste buds?

Thanks, Alder.

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