What Exactly Happens When You Drink Wine on a Flight

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Chalabala

As a leading wine educator, Napa Valley resident and one of only 23 women worldwide to have been appointed Master Sommelier, it goes without saying that Andrea Robinson knows a thing or two about grapes. But in her role as Master Sommelier for Delta Air Lines—the one she has had for the past decade in which she’s tasked with choosing all the wine served on board—her level of expertise has become (ahem) elevated. Knowing what wine to choose from the ground is one thing, but adding 35,000 feet of elevation, low air pressure and varying temperatures—all of which dull taste buds—makes Robinson’s job that much more challenging.

Fortunately, her years of wine and culinary education and previous career as a business analyst have given her the tools to handle narrowing more than a thousand bottles into a fitting wine list of about 60. Robinson reveals what she drinks on a plane, what really happens to our palate and why she thinks travelers are smarter than ever when it comes to wine.

What happens to our ability to taste when we fly?

It’s a few different facets. One: It’s a drier, less humid environment than terra firma, and one of the key things required to perceive flavor is moisture and vapor. When those are dehydrated more than normal, they’re more muted in their ability to perceive flavor.

Andrea Robinson

In addition, the drier environment causes the vapors of the wine themselves to dry up more quickly. When you swirl a wine glass, the objective is to create a cloud of vapors that carries aroma; the aroma triggers the perception of flavor. If you can’t smell as well, you don’t get the same flavor perceptions, the intensity and expressiveness.

Part two is low pressure. The vapors dissipate faster, because of the cabin pressure, so you have less concentration and therefore don’t have as much flavor intensity available. That might affect your own sensory receptors, as well as the physics aspects of how they get on your palate in the first place.

So given these limitations, what wine works on a plane? What do you look for in wine?

The wine itself has to have what I call presence on a palate—meaning, the balance has to be there. You also have to have a notable level of concentration and complexity for the wine to taste special in-flight. (You want people to take a sip and say “wow.”)

The third factor is what I’ll call tenderness. There’s a textural gentleness or softness. There are certain wine categories that have that and some that don’t have it until they’re bottled. For example, with red Bordeaux or Spanish Rioja, we look for a certain bottle age or wines from “softer vintages,” where the tannin properties are lower. So in-flight, It doesn’t come across on the palate or too harsh or too gritty texturally. Some wines are great on the ground and may taste great with oysters, but in the air, it could be tart. For red wines, a well-integrated tannin structure is really critical so you don’t exacerbate the natural conditions of the aircraft cabin.

(image: David Ahn)

When you found the wines that worked, did you stick to them?

We evaluated the styles that work in-flight about nine years ago, but if there’s something we haven’t worked with before or if there’s a category that’s emerged, matured or evolved, like Chianti or pinot grigio, I’ll go back and revisit it.

Do people constantly ask you what they should be drinking? Where do you generally steer them?

It’s starting to resonate with people that when it comes to wine you don’t need to spend a lot for it to be good. That’s the biggest thing people want to ask, so I go there and tell them about getting a good value for their money. Or [they’ll ask] practical things like, How will it keep after I open it and is a screw cap OK? It’s fun to catch people at all stages of their wine journey, whether it’s the beginning or if they’re drinking premier cru and geeking out over soil types. It’s way more exciting than investment banking—that was my first job. [Laughs]

Do people generally play it safe when they order wine on flights? Is there anything you wish you could tell passengers?

People know enough to know that they might be surprised or things might be unexpected, so we tell people to taste as many as they can. We tell them not to miss the dessert wines. [Laughs] The dessert wines are some of the most beautiful at altitude—they’re exciting and decadent. People often pass on them, but when you’re in-flight, you’ve already paid for it. Go ahead and taste the port! In Delta One, the premium cabin, all wine and fine spirits are included, and in international economy, we offer complimentary wine .Domestically, first class has wine included, and in economy, wine is for purchase.

(image: anouchka)

What do you tend to drink when you fly?

If I’m flying internationally, I almost always go for French Champagne. It shows beautifully at altitude, and for me, I like lower-alcohol wine. (I’m pretty petite, and a typical French Champagne is 12.5 percent ABV, whereas a typical California chardonnay might be 14 percent.) So I like that aspect, plus it’s delicious and refreshing. It has all the things I want on a plane. I want something to wake up my palate.

What should we drink on a plane?

In terms of the categories that show well, or to give a reference point, if you’re a rosé drinker, you’re probably going to love it on board—it really shows well. If you’re a chardonnay drinker and you can find a wine from the Central Coast of California or Monterey or Santa Barbara county, those are stronger regions in terms of American chardonnay in-flight.

In terms of red, if you normally drink a big bold red, open up your mind to something else. Pinot noir is a rock star at altitude, for one, and Spanish Rioja reserva and gran reserva. The complexity that comes from extra time in the bottle is a big surprise to people. That’s a category people should pay attention to in general. Oftentimes, on restaurants wine lists, it’s a steal.

Are you seeing a shift in the way people are drinking, not just based on what you’re offering? What’s been the biggest surprise in your job?

The biggest surprise has been the embracing of the atypical wines. Chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet—there was an expectation that if you had a good version of any of those, it would do well. But what is a surprise is the category of wines that aren’t necessarily well-known. I’m doing a white Portuguese dry wine, but this is such a delicious wine, and this category (vinho verde) is something that people are experimenting with. Ten years ago, would I pick that? Probably not. Last summer, we did a white Rioja, and people went crazy for it. The embracing of new, cool and different is wonderful. It gives me more to play with.

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