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 DrVino.com.)
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.