Thursday, November 03, 2005

Flying The Not-So Wine Friendly Skies

I've always wanted to know how the airlines picked the wine you get on a flight. I've had some ok wine, but mostly bad ones. I found this interesting article on the process. For the full story use the link in the title.

Have wine with lunch (if there is lunch) on one of America's airlines these days and you might be surprised at what you end up sipping.

You might fly tourist and get a wine that would retail for $12.98 a bottle. You might fly first class and get one that would sell in stores for $4.99.

Some will be wonderful, some will make you want to go back to beer.

And unlike the case with airline food, they won't let you bring your own wine.

Still, it's likely that the airline went to a lot of trouble choosing it for you.

A blind tasting at The Miami Herald of about 20 wines served in tourist class by U.S. airlines in those little 187-milliliter bottles (about one-quarter of a regular bottle) found major fluctuation. On a scale of 1 (pretty bad) to 5 (really nice), the wines scored from 1 to 4, with half of them scoring only a 1 or 2.

The tasting was done by this reporter, who is also The Herald's wine columnist, and Fred Barger, a veteran wine consultant and salesman at Crown Wine & Spirits.

There also is big variation in how the airlines choose the wines. Some ask for submissions from wine brokers and hold tastings to narrow down as many as 350 offerings to half a dozen. Others have a single wine expert who ferrets out wine bargains from California to France to Australia.

At US Airways, for example, executives ask their vendors once a year to submit the wines they carry, and the airline sets up a blind tasting of about 350 wines, says Michael Stubbins, the airline's food and beverage manager. About 325 of those wines, in the higher price categories, are considered for first class, and about 25 more inexpensive wines are considered for tourist class.

The tasting is done by a panel of seven or eight sippers including American execs, top-ranking frequent fliers, sometimes wine experts. For first class, American picks the top 10 wines out of the 325 and negotiates price, making the final selection of two to four wines in terms of price and quality, Stubbins says.

For tourist class, it picks the top three of the 25 and negotiates for price.

But times are tough, and budgets have shrunk.

"With all airlines this year, the cost of product really is the prime driver," Stubbins says.

In first class, he adds, US Airways four or five years ago served Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails in shops for up to $50 for a full-size bottle. Today the airline serves Canyon Oaks merlot from California, which retails for about $4.99.

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