Delta’s Master Sommelier Talks About Mile-High Wines
By Marcy Gordon
Forbes Travel Guide Correspondent
While travelers often visit cities in search of good wine, now you can sample many regional selections before your plane has landed in your desired destination. Although the high altitude creates challenges, airlines are getting more creative with their in-flight offerings by working with star chefs to create dishes that pair with wines selected by sommeliers for optimum enjoyment at 30,000 feet.
Delta is one such carrier that’s upping its game. It’s enlisted the help of Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson, one of only 18 women in the world to hold that title in addition to three James Beard Awards. We talked to Robinson about her work with Delta’s Winemaker Series and what makes a great in-flight wine program.
What are the challenges that face the wine experience at 30,000 feet?
Your senses are dulled at altitude, making it difficult to appreciate the complex scents and flavors wine has to offer. In addition, the lower atmospheric pressure — versus tasting on land — means all of those flavor molecules are jetting past your sensory receptors so fast, you miss a lot.
Given the conditions, what types of wines do best at high altitude? Are blends favored over single varieties?
That’s the art — choosing wines with enough expression and presence on the palate to overcome those conditions, without seeming out of balance. I find both varietals and blends perform well — the trick is in choosing the right ones. Pinot noir is surprisingly successful; given its subtlety, I might have thought otherwise. Rioja Gran Reserva is another big-hit red. Argentinian Torrontés and sauvignon blanc are well-suited whites. You have to be careful with lots of new oak and lots of tannin.
What trends do you see emerging for in-flight programs?
Featuring specific wines as opposed to making it an after-thought, even in economy, seems to be on the rise. I think in-flight is following on-the-ground trends in that customers are more and more open to trying wines they haven’t heard of, as well as up-and-comer grapes and regions.
You consult for Delta on its wine program. What does that entail?
I work closely with our chefs, Michelle Bernstein and Michael Chiarello, and with the leaders in in-flight service choosing the wines for Business Elite, international economy and our wines for purchase in economy. Delta’s Winemaker Series launched last fall and features ultra-premium California white and red wines from iconic labels, up-and-comers and authentic family wineries with a story. For example, we featured Merry Edwards’ sauvignon blanc and Heidi Barrett’s La Sirena syrah this past spring and over Mother’s Day — two women-made wines from two of California’s most prominent wine women.
What would be your ideal in-flight food-and-wine pairing?
Spanish Manchego cheese and Rioja Gran Reserva, or French champagne and aged Gouda.