Air Whines: Pitiful airline wines

Nowadays, airline travel is a pain. As I’m herded through the cattle line into coach class, I glare greedily at the smug “Platinum” or “Elite” passengers clutching their glasses of free liquor. When the chosen liquor is wine, my curiosity naturally gets piqued. But then I stop and wonder if the attendant jealousy is merited. After all, would I really want what they have in their glass? Or should I settle for what I get in coach? Or should I just drink bottled water?In domestic coach, $4 normally buys me a nondescript 6-ounce pour of white Zinfandel, Chardonnay or Cabernet. But why does the wine suck so bad? Granted, airline seats are a haven for “haves vs. have-nots” in the sky. Some people are paying $4,000 a ticket, and that should buy more than a bigger seat and better food. But isn’t my $200 worth stocking decent drink? I mean, I am paying for the glass.

To be fair, there are plenty of issues dealing with wine on a plane. Most airline wines are purchased in bulk through national accounts, so the wineries involved need to have enough production to satisfy an airline wanting to pacify tens of thousands of passengers. Another issue is the lack of storage space. Offering a whole slew of wines isn’t feasible, as well stocking enough to quench 400 thirsts.

But I also uncovered a wine snob issue. The major airlines I contacted — Delta, American and Continental (United and Northwest didn’t return e-mails and calls) — all confessed their belief that the coach passengers are not wine savvy enough to merit access to the “good” wines in the front cabin. And the proof lies in the airlines’ choices of wines.

When flying Continental, business and first class passengers swirl excellent French Bordeaux from Chateau Palmer and Piper Heidseick Brut Champagne, while coach cattle swill Sutter Home Sauvignon Blanc and Gossamer Bay Cabernet Sauvignon. Uh … bottled water, anyone?

To its credit, Continental includes their “Elite” status frequent fliers in their blind taste tests to decide their wine list. While the airline’s efforts to include its customers is laudable, don’t they think coach class would appreciate an upgrade as well?

Delta handles its wine program in a completely unique fashion. To launch the successful Vinum wine program, Delta hired a wine consultant, Ken Chase. Now in its sixth year, the focus has been primarily on the elite classes; Delta does blend and label its own line of wines for coach class. Designed solely with the wine novice in mind, Chase blends three wines that are fruit forward and approachable, and includes a different “wine tip” on every 187-millilter bottle.

American has a better idea. Although the airline does reserve the better wines, like Villa Mount Eden Zinfandel and Graham’s Six Grapes Port, for First Class passengers, it serves Penfold’s Chardonnay and Rosemount Shiraz from Australia, great value wines, in business and coach.

Southwest, in its true “no frills” style, sticks with a simple line of wines from the Trinchero Family Estates winery in California. Called Sycamore Lane, it’s only available to “food service” accounts, like airlines and stadiums and such.

Admit it, most of us would rather be sitting and sipping comfortably in first class, where service is actually delivered with a smile. But I cannot say the wine is worth the price of admission, except when you’re upgraded for free.

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