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Published:  23 July, 2008

The standard of airline wines has improved dramatically since the Seventies, when Hock and Claret topped the in-flight menus. But how are today's airline wines selected and packaged, and what do carriers and suppliers predict for an immediate future overshadowed by war and economic uncertainty? Jack Hibberd takes to the skies

According to David Lindsay of Lindsay May PR - who, in a previous life, worked as a British Airways trolly dolly' - the vinous options available in the First Class cabins of the 1970s were somewhat limited. It was Hock, Burgundy or Claret back then,' he says. But, just as consumers have ditched the once obligatory duo of Blue Nun and Black Tower for the latest Australian blockbuster, the wines now served at 30,000 feet increasingly reflect a soft, fruity, New World bias. It was only when people like Peter Nixson at BA realised the difference between tasting a wine at ground level and tasting it at 8,000 feet, which is the pressure at which cabins are set, that we saw the move towards fruity, less astringent wine,' says Lindsay. Lindsay also remembers the problems of getting around limited stocks of certain wines: I was on a BA flight from Australia once and we served Australian wine, because we were running out of what we usually had. But before we got to Heathrow we had to pour it down the sink, as it wasn't supposed to be on board. I think we had the cleanest sinks on the fleet, with the amount of stuff we were getting rid of.' Maybe it was Lindsay's early sampling campaign that kicked off the consumer's love of Aussie wine, then? In more recent times - now the average punter knows what he or she likes - airlines have moved to accommodate their customers' wishes, particularly the frequent flying grandees of Business and Upper Class, who won't put up with the airborne equivalent of own-label Claret. British Airways' own research has shown that the quality of food and drink is only the sixth most important factor when someone books a ticket, but once they are standing at the gate, dreaming of foreign beaches or, more likely, a boring conference in Berlin, the importance of the quality of in-flight consumables is second only to the attitude of staff. The move to fruity New World wines in Economy Class, and to more palatable premium wines in the upper echelons, has been well-documented in both the trade and consumer wine press. But how do airlines select their wines, and what does the future hold for those who supply them? The flag carriers are the most discerning when it comes to wine choice. Apart from BA's Peter Nixson, the carrier's oft-quoted wine and beverage development manager, palates hired by Britain's most famous airline include the holy trinity of Jancis Robinson MW, Michael Broadbent MW and Hugh Johnson. However, it is Singapore Airlines (SIA), which spends S$26 million a year on wine, that has probably the most rigorous selection process. Its triumvirate of experts - Steven Spurrier (from the UK), Anthony Dias Blue (USA) and Michael Hill-Smith MW (Australia) - conduct two formal tastings a year in Singapore, at which up to 900 bottles of wine and Champagne are tasted. We send out a tender document to which anyone can apply, although we do suggest suppliers,' says Spurrier. A vintage and maximum price for each wine is stipulated, and individual suppliers put forward their wines. For example, we get 50 to 60 samples of white Burgundy and the three of us taste them all blind, marking them out of 20, and we produce a short list of six or seven wines. We then unwrap them,' he says, and bonus points are given for the reputation of the producer. In an airline environment, "brands" are quite important in conveying quality. But they have to do very well in the blind taste too.' Most of the major airlines, Lufthansa, United and of course BA, go through a similar - if less convoluted and romantic - process, and all hire experts to ensure quality. When it comes to the budget and charter airlines, however, it seems that long-drawn out selection processes are not the norm. Rodger Craig, owner of airline wine specialist In-flight Solutions, says that they like to keep it pretty straight: a decent wine at a price point where they can make a decent profit'. And it seems a lot of the buyers are following the retailers, and increasingly the consumer, into the less well-known wine areas. We get asked for wines from the Languedoc, Chile and Argentina,' says Craig. Places where they can go and get, say, 1,000 cases of good wine for a lot less than they would have to pay in traditional regions.' Gill Pearson, sales director at Wines 4 Travel, a subsidiary of H&A which deals in quarter-bottles for the travel industry, agrees: As well as changes in what the consumer prefers - varietals they can trust - the simple truth is that bulk wine from the New World is cheaper and of higher quality. The stuff we are getting from Chile at the moment is really competitive.' She hasn't seen a surge away from the Old World, but a consistent, gradual move. The majority of the wine we sell in the [short-haul] market in which we operate is now from the New World.' Probably the biggest recent change in how an airline chooses and operates its wine offering was made this year by Virgin Atlantic. After a lengthy decision-making process, the entire wine department was tendered out to Patriarche Wine Agencies, a UK subsidiary of the famous Burgundy producer. Jenny Groom, Virgin's in-flight services manager, explains: We used to put the wine list together ourselves, but earlier this year we decided to put it out to an agency with the right expertise.' Virgin doesn't have any contact with producers anymore: as Broom says, the onus is on Patriarche to deliver our "wine vision"'. Keith Isaac MW, general manager and buyer at Patriarche, calls it a joint way of working. Virgin can make requests to us over value, style, variety, whatever; we try to find wines that fit in with their vision.' It seems a sensible way to work for a smaller-sized and long haul-only airline. Virgin could have gone the same way as BA and hired expensive consultants, but Virgin doesn't have anything like BA's volume of passengers - as Nixson says, one thousand departures a day, 180 destinations and 65 bonded stores around the world'. Isaac says the benefit of working with Virgin over the other carriers which Patriarche sells to (including BA, and duty-free shops) is that smaller parcels can be bought. It's a lot easier to find good Premier Cru Chablis when you are looking for a few hundred cases, rather than three or four thousand.' Groom says that Patriarche has also taken over staff training and the writing of tasting notes for menus, and for making the whole presentation of wine more visual'. This is something in which most of the major carriers have also invested. BA pays for some staff to undertake the WSET Certificate programme, while a few airlines go a step further - such as Delta, which puts staff through a seven-day course that covers both food and wine.

Gloss and glass Although airlines seem increasingly confident that they are getting it right with regard to what they put in the bottle, the question of what to put around it is one that has not been satisfactorily resolved, on a number of fronts. Although the march of the quarter-bottle (18.75cl) on short-haul and chartered airlines seems almost complete, the decision on what to use on long-haul flights, due to weight considerations, divides the carriers. As Spurrier says, We have dallied with quarter-bottles, but the weight factor was unacceptable. It would have been 35% more expensive to bottle in 18.75cl.' Virgin considered a number of different options, from litre bottles to quarters, before deciding to revert to the 75cl, due to a combination of weight benefits over smaller bottles and the ease of service over larger ones. And the other area of contention? To PET, or not to PET. The weight advantages of plastic bottles are obvious, but so are the drawbacks when it comes to the perception of quality and of shelf life. As well as the weight saving, which can be as much as 40%, PET can be compacted,' says Roger Harris of Roger Harris Wines, and a director of Paul Sapin, the quarter-bottle specialist. But of course, the image of glass is much higher.' Harris says that his company had considerable interest' in quarter-bottles after 11 September (the safety advantage of PET is another attraction), but few customers actually converted and only about 5%' of the business is currently in PET. Over at Wines 4 Travel, the bulk of the business is selling wine in PET quarter-bottles', according to Pearson. This reflects our customers - short-haul operators such as easyJet and Go, who have been using PET for a long time.' The shelf life is only six months in the semi-permeable PET, one of the reasons why British Airways, which has to take wine around the world to meet demand on its routes, prefers to retain its glass bottles. But there seems to be no problem for most airlines that have a shorter turnaround of stock. Virgin has decided not to go down the PET route either, but Groom says that doesn't mean we won't use it in the future'. By then, however, the choice may be easier. A multiple barrier' PET has been developed that seems to address both of PET's shortcomings. Our supplier is doing some research now on the new bottle and it looks like it's going well,' she says. Wine should last over a year, instead of six months, and the quality of the new bottle is much higher: it is stiffer and seems more like glass. If the tests go well, we would consider moving all our PET production to the new bottle.'

The future of flying After 11 September, doom and gloom filled the skies. Although United Airlines now looks like it will spend Christmas embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings, other airlines appear in better shape. Virgin admits it has suffered on its trans-Atlantic routes over the past year and Singapore Airlines was affected by the Bali bombing, but predictions of significant casualties in the sector appear wide of the mark. Rodger Craig reports that although last September did hit the airline wine sector badly (calling it a nightmare for some' when American carriers cancelled pre-set orders), overall, the sector is performing fairly satisfactorily. You have to remember that there are two parts to the airline sector, and although many of the scheduled airlines tightened their belts, the low-cost sector is increasing its passenger numbers,' says Craig. Ryanair reported an increase of almost 300,000 passengers in October 2002 compared to 2001, while easyJet recently put in a massive order for an extension to its fleet. And according to Craig, this is where the growth will come from: Low-cost airlines were originally aimed at the students and other low-wage earners, but now everyone is using them. The move away from complimentary wine has changed the industry significantly and will continue to do so in the future. On-board sales are a major earner for them, and this area is not even fully exploited.' Back over among the flag carriers, the recent cost-cutting exercise by BA, which made headlines when it restored the struggling giant to profitability, reputedly included drink budget cuts (although Nixson was unavailable - and therefore unable - to comment on this matter). Concorde's grounding after the Paris crash caused BA to sell off some of its Premier Cru and fine wine stock to Farr Vintners (rumoured to be in the region of 1 million in value), but other sales on this scale are unlikely, unless the world economy crashes and the airlines empty their First Class cellars. As Isaac says, When it comes to cost-cutting, it's easier to cut lobster from the menu than Champagne. But I'd still prefer it if there wasn't another war.' Many in the industry would surely echo that sentiment.