Flying the Winey Skies

A look at how airlines select their wines
Jun 7, 2010

I had a rather busy first quarter of the year, with a number of trips. All that time spent on airplanes is enough to wear you out, and that’s not counting the workload I have once I land.

But thankfully these days, airlines seem to be paying some attention to their wine offerings, both in the main and up-front cabins. I’ve been able to enjoy Pascal Jolivet Sancerre and M. Chapoutier Crozes-Hermitage Petite Ruche on my trips to France, as well as mouthfilling California Zinfandels and Syrahs on the way to and from the West Coast. On some long-haul flights on American Airlines, I even enjoyed my wine out of legitimate stemware, as opposed to the mini, thick-walled wineglasses airlines typically offer. (Full disclosure: I am an American Airlines frequent flyer and use them for the vast majority of my air travel.)

Considering it’s an industry where customer service seems to have degraded steadily in recent years, getting a decent glass of wine when you’ve got six hours or more to kill in an airplane seat is welcome relief. I decided to do a little digging to see how the airlines are choosing their wines.

Intervine is a Napa-based company that evolved out of the duty-free side of the travel business two decades ago. It has become the leading supplier of wine to both airlines and cruise lines, according to Lori Lynne Brundick, Intervine’s president. The company is privately held so no sales figures were provided, but Brundick rattles off the list of airlines the company supplies wine to. That list includes domestic carriers United, Delta and American Airlines, and international companies such as Singapore Airlines, Asiana, China Airlines, Quantas and British Airways. The latter certainly comes as a surprise, especially when Brundick said Intervine supplies British Airways with Champagne.

“That is pretty unique, to be an American company supplying Champagne to a British one,” said Brundick, who left the investment banking industry to join Intervine five years ago.

While Brundick gained her business chops in the merger and acquisitions sector of the tech business, she has some wine chops as well. Brundick, 47, is a certified sommelier, studied wine production at the University of California at Davis and has her advanced credentials from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

Intervine acts as a wholesaler and importer that deals with airlines, which are a separate channel in the wine industry. Airlines cannot buy from the retail distributor licensees that wine shops and restaurants can. That means Intervine has access to all wineries and isn’t shutout by a winery’s exclusive agreement with another import company for its retail or restaurant business. Brundick puts that freedom to use as she works the marketplace looking for wines to represent.

“We’re really enthusiastic about bringing high-quality producers to our customers,” Brundick said. “Wineries come to us mostly through referrals. But we’re also out in the trade at Vinexpo and other events, keeping in touch with existing suppliers as much as we are looking for new suppliers.”

“We also work with the wineries to get their wines into routes and airlines that fit their target audience, because the wineries see the benefit," she continued. "They’re getting a captive audience sale to a very discriminating audience.”

But why are airlines willing to provide better wine selections these days, when the industry is in such a cost-cutting mode?

“Clearly in the main cabin it’s about revenue production [for the airlines]," Brundick said. "But you also need to offer something that is appealing. We’ve seen that people are willing to pay a few dollars more for alternate, higher-end selections, and the airlines have seen the positive results in the main cabin.”

“In the upper-class cabins the airlines are looking more [to] passengers, because those are the higher paying, business travelers that bring in more revenue,” said Brundick. “They need to appeal to those travelers, which tend to be rather discriminating in their choice. Offering quality wines is one way to do that.”

But that cost-cutting does have an effect; the airlines are notoriously tough on pricing when it come to their wine purchases, and they drive a hard bargain. Wineries are willing to cut some margin though, if it means a sale of several hundred cases or more.

“The airlines can be really tough on pricing, but the winery is moving 200 cases at a time, maybe more, so the winery likes it,” said one wine industry executive, who asked not to be identified because of the confidential and competitive nature of price negotiations between wineries and airlines. “Plus, the passenger doesn’t see the price the airline paid for the wine. They only see the price the wine actually costs if they go look for it at retail or in a restaurant. So the consumer feels they were treated well, and the winery doesn’t lose prestige. It’s a win-win for the wineries and the airlines, because they both look good to the customer.”

Airlines are also aware of the ever-expanding wine world and the need to stay current, according to Brundick.

“I do think all of the airlines are trying to put thought into it and aren’t just looking at it as a price-only proposition,” Brundick said. “In the past it used to be a white Burgundy, a claret, a Port and a Champagne and that was it—a very traditional selection. Now the airlines are looking at all regions. Where it used to be Napa only, now it’s all of California. We’ve seen a nice shift to high-end U.S. sparkling wines rather than just Champagne. Chile used to be viewed poorly [by the airlines] and now they’re recognizing the exceptional value coming out of there, New Zealand and Australia, too.”

So where are the airlines getting their help? Intervine provides consulting services to airlines that want it, but a number of airlines are employing their own wine consultants who are charged with keeping the on-board wine selections on the cutting edge. Brundick rattles off the names: Doug Frost for United, Andrea Robinson for Delta, Steven Spurrier for Singapore Air and Ken Chase for American Airlines. They are among the more prominent wine consultants helping to shape airline wine lists, which have evolved dramatically in recent years.

Chase, 59, is a trained enologist, having studied at UC Davis and in Bordeaux and Melbourne, Australia. He also has a pilot’s license on the side. The allure of combining his passions of wine and flight was too hard to resist.

“To be a winemaker, you have to stay put in one place, and I didn’t want to do that,” Chase said. He currently works with American Airlines’ team of consulting chefs and then takes customer feedback to pick wines for both the up-front and main cabins on AA flights.

“We know from our [customer] surveys what they’re looking for, which is usually fun stuff,” said Chase. “So we have to ask, ‘What’s out there in the world that might be new?’ Or find something they might not regularly drink. We do that every month.”

Keeping the wine selections changing is important for Nicole Kapioltas, AA's manager of onboard products marketing, who handles the logistics of rotating in new wine selections.

“Wine isn’t necessarily the reason people choose to fly us,” said Kapioltas. “But when they are with us, they do appreciate it. It’s important to them, and it helps us keep them. We are getting that feedback that they’ve noticed a change in the quality of wine on board and that it’s changing frequently.”

AA’s typical purchase is 1,500 cases of a single wine, a boon to wineries in tight economic times such as now, and that supply typically lasts for 90 to 120 days. That's a major change from times past when an airline might have purchased 5,000 cases of a wine at one time, only to have storage issues down the line or wind up serving a Sauvignon Blanc meant for immediate consumption well past its time. In addition, now wines are shipped in refrigerated containers to the airlines and kept in temperature-controlled warehouses as standard operating procedure.

Chase also has to keep in mind the effects of altitude on a person’s palate when it comes to selecting wines.

“There is no chemical change in a person’s palate from flying in a compressed air cabin,” Chase said. “But what happens is, the recycled air causes one’s palate to dry out, basically after two hours. That dulls the taste and aroma senses. So we need to find wines that are juicy and fruit driven and can deliver when [served] in those conditions.”

Chase also helps develop optional online training for flight attendants to learn about the wines on their routes, changing instructional videos twice a month to keep up with the ever-changing selections. “A flight attendant can go online right now, check the Hamburg route they’re on tonight and get a pronunciation guide and other info for the wines that are on that flight,” he explained.

It’s clear there’s a competition among airlines to provide better in-air amenities, or they wouldn’t be putting so many resources into choosing and upgrading the wine service and selection. For those of use who appreciate the wine lifestyle, it’s nice to know we don’t have to give it up when we travel to the wine regions we love.

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]

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