wine glasses Why airline wine awards are a load of BS, yet still matter
Every so often, there’s an award given for an airline’s wine portfolio. It’s that time again, this time for Global Traveler’s competition. I generally dismiss these awards… and yet I pay attention. Hear me out.

For starters, let’s look at the rules:

To participate in the Global Traveler competition, airlines throughout the world that have long-haul international business-class service were invited to submit two white wines, two red wines and one Champagne or other sparkling wine currently on their international business-class wine lists, as well as the wine lists themselves. The same rules apply to the North American category for airlines that have first-class or, if not, business-class service.

The wines were coded by number and divided into flights, or categories, according to their type — for example, all German Riesling were served together, as were all California Cabernet Sauvignon — and poured in coded glasses. Judges knew only the type of wine, its place of origin and, when appropriate, the vintage. If judges felt a wine was flawed, a reserve bottle was served. The tasting was monitored by GT’s staff and professional assistants.

So, here’s why I think the awards are a load of hooey:

  • Unrepresentative wines: Good luck drinking these on board
    As indicated, airlines could submit only two reds, two whites, and one sparkler. But those wines just had to fly at some point in recent memory. They didn’t necessarily need to be in the regular rotation. I understand putting your best foot forward, but if you throw a couple big hitters into the pool, it’s an easy way to game the competition.
    Bottom line: Are these wines truly a representative sample?
  • Unrepresentative conditions: Wines at 36,000 feet taste different at 100 feet
    The palate is practically numb at higher altitudes. (It’s among the reasons why airline food tastes so bland.) For wine tasting, that means you lose a lot of the nuance in a wine when you’re above the clouds. And what tastes good — and matches your meal — at one altitude will likely taste very different when you’re back on the ground. The tasting conditions of the competition aren’t the same as the consumer’s.
  • Unrepresentative airlines: Not every airline is in the mix
    While this latest competition included a selection of international carriers, some major players aren’t even in the competition. Singapore Airlines, anyone? Virgin Atlantic? Air New Zealand? Qantas? It’s as if you held the Olympics and only invited 20 athletes. Why weren’t more airlines included? Were there fees to enter? Regardless, a wider sample would be more illustrative.
  • Nitpicking: Tasting methodology
    Why is the year of a given wine necessarily revealed to judges in a blind tasting? Nitpicky, I know, but why introduce vintage bias into the sample? (Ok, I’ll stop…)

So on the one hand, these announcements and awards are not really helpful to the traveler. (Especially not the coach traveler, who will be lucky to get a mini-bottle of Chilean plonk.) But yet… I read these things. And I think that it matters when an airline wins or performs well in these awards.

It’s not a fair competition, no, but if an airline regularly and consistently appears in these rankings, then it indicates something about their philosophy. Qatar Airways, for example, has been at or near the top more than once. That signals that, at a minimum, they are paying attention to their image among prospective wine-drinking customers. Wine has been central to several airlines’ marketing plans over the years. (See for example this mocking takedown of Lufthansa’s wine-centric marketing on

The competition may be flawed, but winning it regularly signals a commitment to wanting to be viewed as a wine-lover’s airline. Which signals a commitment to a quality experience, even if you don’t drink wine.

Will anyone choose an airline solely for the wine list, or for winning this sort of competition? Highly unlikely. But wine is part of the quality profile of an airline.

Wanting to excel in that area is something I can support, especially in this race-to-the-bottom age of travel. I just wish the competition were more representative of reality.


pixel Why airline wine awards are a load of BS, yet still matter
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8 Responses to “Why airline wine awards are a load of BS, yet still matter”

  1. Mark Ashley Says:

    Well played, beltway!

    Where can I find a nice bottle of Cuivre Reserve Château Bottled Nuit San Wogga Wogga?

  2. Dr. Vino Says:

    Was payment required to enter this award contest? It seems odd that airlines renowned for service such as Singapore Airlines were not included.

    Nice critiques overall. I would disagree, however, that this prize necessarily shows a commitment to actual wine service (or quality experience overall): given the unrepresentative nature of the methodology that you illustrate for the GT award, it seems to me more indicative of simply a commitment to marketing quality.

    As the link above shows, what is marketed does not always follow through on the tray table in front of you.

    Does anyone give an award for wine service in coach class?

  3. Dan Says:

    Dr. V, no, they don’t pay to participate. When I worked in NYC I used to participate on the judging panel regularly. I understand the critique, and of course, airlines that choose to participate (and, by the way, some of those listed as not having participated in this year’s competition have participated in past years) are going to submit the best of their selections, we’re not talking about massive winelists. Submitting 2 whites, 2 reds, and a sparkling is probably a good chunk of their list. So yes, one could suppose that they rotated in better quality wines just to get a leg up in the competition, but it’s a logistically specious argument – stop and think about what sort of commitment that would require in terms of time, investment, reprinting of winelists on all flights, etc. – and Eunice Fried, who coordinates the competition (and has since its inception), does her research in advance – she spends a big chunk of each year on this. Also, since every airline that participates is likely to do the same thing, it still says something about not only their commitment to their programs and, as you point out, marketing, but also to their particular choices. An airline that submits, as their best, complete plonk (which does happen, regularly, in the competition), rightly ends up on the bottom. I mean, if you’re invited to a competition that allows you to stack the deck (and what competition for an award, particularly in the wine world, doesn’t?), and you still can’t pull it off, it says something about the mentality of those in charge.

  4. waterintowino (waterintowino) Says:

    Twitter Comment

    heard of winery that makes 1 blend just 4 air

  5. Ben Says:

    Maybe the reason Singapore Airlines didn’t enter this competition is that they didn’t want to come in second? But don’t they serve Dom Perignon and Krug? And doesn’t JAL serve Krug, too?

    Here’s the list of winning sparkling wines, in order. You’d think Krug or Dom would come out near the top, or at least above some of these nonvintage bulk champagnes, right?

    Lanson Noble Cuvée Brut Millésime 1999
    Jet Airways

    Lanson Brut Vintage 1998, Gold Label
    Qatar Airways

    Bortolomiol Prosecco di Valdobbiadene NV, Italy

    Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV
    British Airways

    Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve NV
    Oman Air

    Nicolas Feuillatte Réserve Particulière Brut NV
    American Airlines

    Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV

    Duval-Leroy Fleur de Champagne Brut NV
    Austrian Airlines

    Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut NV
    Mexicana Airlines

    Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV
    LAN Airlines

  6. The Global Traveller Says:

    First, I’m not affiliated in any way with the Global Traveler referred here. I’m a blogger not a magazine.

    @Ben – the awards are for business class. I don’t think there are any airlines still offering Dom or Krug in business class.

    @Dan – maybe for some airlines 2 whites, 2 reds and 1 sparkling is a good chunk of their wine list. The same is not true for many higher quality airlines. For example both Qantas and Air New Zealand have lengthy wine lists they publish in a book every 6 months with little or no overlap of wines from one edition to the next, Singapore has 2 or 3 whites and 2 or 3 reds plus 1 or 2 champagnes at any given time … for each region – across their network they have a decent wine list.

  7. Wylie Says:

    Your comment about the higher altitude is either invalid or misrepresented by what you wrote. Airlines pressurize their cabins to be the equivalent of 6000-8000 feet. If your comment is true is that to say that wine cannot be enjoyed at such a high altitude? Maybe you ought to stay away from hyperbole like “practically numb” when you really mean “perceptibly different”.

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