Log In / Join Now

Bring Humanity Back to Flying

Is it so hard to serve decent wine?

James Suckling
Posted: January 17, 2006

What is it with airlines and wine? Why do they do such a lousy job with vino? Anything better than plonk in plastic cups is the rare exception. Don't they think that their customers deserve a good glass of red or white to get them through one of the worst experiences in modern transportation?

The thought occurs to me every time I board a plane to go somewhere—and that's often. I fly nearly 150,000 miles a year. Most recently I was on my way from Madrid to Mexico City on Iberia, and although the 2004 Torres Penedès White Viña Esmeralda (a blend of Muscat and Gewürztraminer) was pleasant, I couldn't help but think that the airline could do better. And I was upgraded to business class; God knows what was poured in economy. The reds in Iberia's Business Plus class were worse: an off vintage of LAN Rioja and an agro-industrial Merlot from Navarra, so boring that I intentionally forgot its name.

One point in favor of Iberia was that the airline served the wines in real wineglasses. Of course, the stem was short, but it was a small tulip glass. Moreover, you could swirl the glass in your hand without spilling half the contents over the person in the adjoining seat. Most of the time airlines use glasses that resemble cheap fruit juice glasses or, worse, plastic cups. It's hardly worth drinking wine at all in something like that.

We have all heard excuses why wine service is so abysmal in the air. Space and cost are the main ones. They say that they don't have the space on board for good glasses, or full bottles of fine wines. And the prices for something decent are just too high, airlines say. Even though they buy thousands of cases of each wine, and you'd think they could get some serious discounts.

But why make the effort anyway? The aircrew needs its energy to treat customers as rudely as possible. The majority remind me of my seventh-grade teacher, who used to whack my hands with her ruler for speaking out of turn: "White or red, sir; what do you mean, 'the Bordeaux'?"

I was once scolded on an American Airlines flight for requesting the steak for lunch. "Didn't you hear that we have no steak today?" demanded the hostess. "Don't you know that we are on the verge of bankruptcy? We only have the chicken left!"

I jokingly asked her if she needed some cash to make sure that they could fill the jet's fuel tanks before leaving. "I wouldn't want to run out on the way," I said with a smile. She was not amused.

Still, airlines publicize their wine service as an incentive to choose their flights. I recently read that JetBlue was upgrading its wine service. The airline is now offering 2004 Twin Fin Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from California. If that's an upgrade, then I would have hated to drink the wine on board before. Nice try, JetBlue.

Every once in a while I run into flight attendants on American Airlines who're really affable. They provide good service and try their best. A few have even confided that they enjoy wine and food.

I have even had some good wine experiences at 35,000 feet. A couple of glasses of 1995 Lynch-Bages this year on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong comes to mind. Or a few years back when I ran into a friend on a British Airways flight to London from Hong Kong, and we secretly drank a bottle of 1990 Latour during the first few hours into the flight. (Airlines generally frown on bringing your own.)

Unfortunately, those experiences seem few and far between. Most of the time flying is a pain. It's a shame, because JetBlue's claim to "Bring Humanity Back to Flying" could be easily achieved with a little better wine service.

I would love to hear your comments on the state of air travel and wine. Post them in the thread that I started in our Wine Conversations forum. We may not convince the airlines to serve better wine, but at least we can let off a little steam.

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.