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Food and wine connection

Food and wine connection – Singapore Airlines Ltd.’s wine service

Ann Walker

How well does your wine travel? You don’t hear that question much these days since the wine business has turned global. But the question came up, with a thoroughly modern twist, while interviewing consultants for Singapore Airlines (SIA) recently in Singapore where they were working on wine selection for that international line.

The modern twist to the old question is will a particular wine taste as good at the end of a 10 hour flight as it did at the beginning? Another way to put it might be, how does the wine pair with long distance jet travel? Never mind how it goes with steak or fish. That’s one of the key considerations for the consultants when they offer their recommendations to SIA buyers.

Singapore Airlines spends $19 million annually on wine service. This year, SIA has 75 planes flying, with 61 more on order for future expansion. That works out to about $250,000 per plane. In addition, the airline has some $5 million invested in reserve wines to be poured in the future. These wines are at the moment all from Bordeaux and Burgundy. They are wines that the consultants thought should be part of SIA’s service but were too young to be offered. (At time of writing the Singapore dollar was worth roughly 80 cents against the U.S. dollar.)

In talking to the consultants – Anthony Dias Blue from the United States, Michael Hill-Smith from Australia and Steven Spurrier of the UK – a composite of the kinds of wine SIA is looking for developed. The wines should, for the most part, have soft tannins with fairly forward fruit, with a firm structure.

“Some of Singapore’s flights last up to 14 hours. That’s a long time in the air. We look for wines that will continue to taste as refreshing at the end of the flight as at the beginning,” Blue said.

Hill-Smith pointed out that much of the enjoyment of wine is derived from the aromas and since the environment inside a jet cabin tends to dry out the nasal passages, delicate aromas might be lost in a short time. In other words, the wine must have a little upfront punch for the nose.

Choo Poh Leong, manager commercial supplies for SIA, said, “We take our wine selection very seriously. We believe it is an important part of our service and we try to offer a full range of wines.”

Leong said the airline would buy up to 30,000 cases of a wine selected for coach class service and up to 2,500 cases of wine for First Class or Raffles Class (Business) service.

How does a wine producer go about getting wine on the SIA wine list? First, the wine must be submitted for tasting. The wine consultants do not suggest wines. If various criteria are met, then the wine is tasted blind by the consultants. They taste about 1,000 wines a year during two tasting sessions in Singapore. In September or October, wines from Australia, the U.S. and other New World wines are tasted, including South Africa. This year, for the first time, wines from Chile were tasted. In February, wines from Europe are tasted.

After the preliminary selections by the consultants of wines they feel meet the needs of the list, the wines are unmasked and discussed. A final “short list” of wines is then presented to SIA and further discussion then takes place.

“Most of the time, they accept our recommendations,” Spurrier said. “And price is not a primary consideration.”

Of course, if the consultants offered two wines of roughly equal quality and one was significantly cheaper than the other, the bottom line would no doubt be considered.

Blue said the wine selected for coach, Raffles and first class service did vary. For coach service, consultants are looking for wines that are good value and perhaps somewhat off the beaten path. For Raffles class, the wines tend to be bolder, more experimental while First class passengers are a little more traditional in their wine choices.

He added that the consultants have been successful in moving the airline away from the “Cabernet-Chardonnay” syndrome. “There is a greater willingness to look at alternate varietals and areas,” he said.

Currently there are wines offered from Australia, California, France, Italy, New Zealand and Portugal (Port) but nothing from the Pacific Northwest, South America or Spain. And the French selections are all from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Varietal selection is also limited. There is, for example, no Merlot or Pinot noir from California, no Sauvignon blanc – nor is there a dessert wine other than Port.

Blue said the panel would welcome wines from other regions – Chilean wines were tasted for the first time this year – and other varietals and if the wines were good enough and factors of pricing and availability were met, he was sure they could be included. He also noted that in this year’s September tasting, high-end California wines of good quality were in remarkably short supply, a fact which he attributed to the shortage of fine wine grapes in California.

Blue added that because of the shortage, some top producers may have decided to simply not sell to the airline. “However, others recognize the great public relations value to have a wine served in First Class. We were able to find the wines we needed.”

Singapore Airlines traces its beginnings to 1947 when Malayan Airways was founded. The system became Malaysian Airways in 1963 and Malaysian-Singapore Airlines in 1966. In 1972, MSA split into Malaysian Airlines and Singapore Airlines. About eight years ago, SIA realized that if they were to continue to attract the kind of business flyer they wanted for their global routes, they were going to have to offer added value beyond the latest in modern aircraft and on time arrival. Wine selection was recognized as an attainable “added value” and the airline hired the present wine consultants.

First Class passengers are currently given a choice of 11 wines, with some changes, depending on the route. Business or Raffles Class passengers are being offered 13 wines and nine wines are offered in coach class. All wines are poured from 750ml bottles and there is no charge.

SIA cabin crews are given wine appreciation classes as part of their training and they also attend wine tastings conducted by one of the airline consultants. As well as the wines, a fairly standard selection of spirits and beers are also offered. This year, the consultants were tasting a number of 50 year old Cognacs which will be poured in flight in 1997 to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the company.

There is also consideration given to pairing the in-flight wines with the airline food service. Roland Sager, the manager of Food & Beverages for SIA, said he expected that more attention would be paid to that area in the future. He added that as airline competition increased, the food and beverage selections would become more important.

“Even the American lines are beginning to realize the importance of a good food and wine program. We’ve got to get better and better to remain competitive,” Sager said. He added that SIA was working on a program to “put the romance back into travel and wine is certainly a part of that.”

SIA’s First Class wine list was judged the best in the world by Decanter Magazine in 1995. The Raffles Class list ranked among the top three and the Economy wines were also well placed.

But Sager is more concerned about what the passengers think. “They are the final judges. We have to make them happy,” he said.

Resource:

Choo Poh Leong, Manager Commercial Supplies, Singapore Airlines Ltd., Airline Transit Center, P.O. Box 501, Singapore 918101. Tel: 011 65 542 3333. Fax: 011 65 545 6083.

RELATED ARTICLE: IN THE KITCHEN

Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS) is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, founded in 1973. SATS supplies more than 50 airlines that fly in and out of Singapore’s Changi Airport, the major air hub of south Asia. SATS prepares over 50,000 meals a day in two catering centers at the airport.

Yap Kim Wah, SATS chief executive, said that wine is truly becoming a part of the food culture of Asia and that trend is having an effect on the kinds of meals SATS turns out. One step he has taken is to bring airline cabin crews into the kitchen for briefing on a regular basis, after they have received wine training.

“The reports on wine and health impressed us here in Asia, so we are anxious to learn as much about wine as possible. We all love food,” he said, “now we are learning about food and wine together.”

Ann Walker is a food consultant and caterer. She specializes in matching food and wine. She can be reached at: Tel: (415) 460-9885. Fax: (415) 460-9886.

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