Choosing the right wines for fine dining at 30,000 feet – in-flight service – Beer, Wine & Spirits

Choosing the right wines for fine dining at 30,000 feet – in-flight service – Beer, Wine & Spirits – column

Mort Hochstein

Choosing the right wines for fine dining at 30,000 feet

When it comes to picking wines for in-flight service, Richard Vine, consultant to American Airlines, is generally acknowledged as the hardest working and most qualified in the industry. I have yet to attend a major wine gathering or national judging without encountering Vine. Given encouragement by management, which wants to use every advantage it can to fill seats, Vine has fashioned a program that has set new standards for the wine side of airborne dining.

Imagine creating 40 different wine lists for domestic and international venues. That’s the key part of Vine’s job, as he supplies wine for American’s passengers, who put away better than a quarter million cases of wine in 1990. More than 70 percent of that was gratis to passengers in business and first class, so the figures give a good picture of what guests will drink when cost is not a factor.

Vine, interviewed at the World Vinifera Conference in Seattle, where we appeared on a marketing trends panel, reports that consumption on AA has increased every year for the seven in which he has been directing the airline’s program. Here are some of his observations.

“I don’t see any letup in passenger demand for Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, on both domestic and international flights. If there is customer burnout on either of those wines, it’s not showing up with us.”

Merlot, he says, is “the hottest ticket in town, but it is tough to get in the quantities we need.” Vine noted a recent issue of Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wines gave one or more stars to 17 Merlots, and that 16 of them were in limited supply. He is currently studying the possibility of adding Rhone and Italian varieties from American vineyards but is concerned that availability of those types would be even more limited than Merlot.

Zinfandel, while moderately popular on American’s domestic routes, gets virtually no call on international routes. Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is soft on this continent but steady with active demand on flights to Germany and Switzerland.

Vine sees a steady increase in consumption of Sauvignon Blanc. “Vastly improved winemaking technology,” he says, “has given us some astonishing whites from this grape, and I believe Sauvignon Blanc will surprise us all in the next few years. We should also see great improvement in Semillon in the future, but to a lesser degree, since the public is not yet very familiar with this varietal.”

Reisling remains a puzzle for Vine, just as it does for restaurateurs and retailers. “It’s a tough sell for us domestically, but it goes very well on our routes to the United Kingdom and, of course, Germany. The new Meritage blends,” he says, “get only a lukewarm reception, certainly far less in comparison with their component varietals, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

Passengers in First Class on American can choose from nine wines and those in business from seven. Wine lists are custom designed to the country’s American serves. Here, for instance, is a recent first-class list for the airline’s Australian flight:

Pommery Cuvee Madame Louise Champagne, 1985; Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino Sherry; Far Niente Chardonnay, 1989; Seppelt Black Label Chardonnay, 1988; Mondavi Fume Blanc, 1987; Lyeth Sonoma Meritage Red, 1985; Wolf Blass Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot, 1984; Knudsen-Erath Vintage Select Oregon Pinot Noir, 1986; and Graham’s Malvedos Vintage Port, 1978.

Paying customers can expect to see normal service in 187-milliliter bottles. The small size, still much in demand as a souvenir of flight, works best in the main cabin from a logistical and service standpoint. Vine, a purist, might like to have wine served from standard 750-milliliter bottles, but that vision is just not practical. American moved 900,000 cases (48 count) of the minibottles and expects to handle more than 100,000 cases before 1991 ends.

Like any restaurateur on the ground, Vine tries to train staff but runs into time problems. “It isn’t realistic to expect definitive wine knowledge to emerge from an intense six-week program of flight attendant training, which focuses on essential operational and safety requirements.” American now regularly sends bulletins to flight attendants to update them on menus and wine lists, with suggestions for wine and food pairings. “Somehow,” he says, “we must advance from the |red and white’ syndrome.”

To realize that goal, he is preparing a series of audio-video presentations for the airline’s learning center, designed in a show-and-tell format with easily remembered names and terms. After that Vine hopes to produce more specialized advanced versions for retraining exercises.

Vine, a former winemaker and executive of Great Western in New York state, is now a professor of enology at Purdue University in Indiana. He taught for many years at Mississippi State and has been a consultant to wineries along the Eastern seaboard.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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