Would You Drink Airline Wine Even When You're on the Ground?

Joel Stein
·5 min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned - Getty Images
Photo credit: Hearst Owned - Getty Images

From Town & Country

After more than a year of lockdown, I thought I’d felt every longing. I was wrong. Not once did I yearn for the wines served on airplanes.

American Airlines believes I do not know myself. They also have a bunch of extra wine inventory. So, they launched American Airlines Flagship Cellars, allowing you to enjoy the very wine they serve onboard from home.

Looking at a photo on the American Airlines Flagship Cellars website of a smiling woman in a gray suit receiving a champagne glass from a flight attendant’s tray, I was tempted. I’m not crazy enough to book one of those flights to nowhere or have airplane meals delivered to my house or pay to eat an inflight meat on a parked jet, but maybe I could throw down a white tablecloth, dig up some cloth napkins, turn on a romcom, bake chocolate chip cookies, and drink some American Airlines wine.

I asked David Gibbs, the co-owner of Los Angeles’ Augustine, which Food & Wine named one of the 10 best wine bars in America, what he thought of the selections. “The weird thing about it is, they’re offering normal wines that anyone who flies first class could likely find in their local wine shop, or even upscale supermarket,” he said. “No private label, no special cuvee. Not sure how much traction they’d get with that unless they offered much steeper discounts. At those prices, you could find things like the Truchard and even the Bouchard Aine et Fils at Costco a little cheaper.”

Photo credit: Fox Photos - Getty Images
Photo credit: Fox Photos - Getty Images

He was wrong about the lack of traction. When I went back to the website, most of the wines had become “temporarily unavailable.” The $99 monthly subscription for three bottles was in “limited supply.” Port, the drink I cannot turn down in first class any more than the ice cream sundae, was long gone.

Staring at the happy, champagne-sipping businesswoman with the window seat on the website, I scrolled down to read that American has won Global Traveler magazine’s top airline for first class international service wines every year since 2015, beating Air France and Singapore Airlines. I got a case.

It arrived with a large, colorful, thick poster, just the size, if I remembered correctly, of a tray table. It stated, “Let every sip take you on a premier journey” and had a photo of a passport and a card that read, “You don’t have to wear pants.” I was worried about what our post-pandemic world will be like.

Photo credit: Vinesse Wines
Photo credit: Vinesse Wines

Each wine came with an airplane-menu-sized sheet of tasting notes and very specific food pairing suggestions: “a veal roast or cheesy gratin,” “exotic Far East dishes or salmon tartare” and “oysters, lobster, or caviar.”

On a Friday night, I imagined flying to Key West to visit my mom and presented my lovely wife Cassandra and 11-year-old son Laszlo with the first class menu on an American flight. Then, because there was no way I was cooking eight different dishes, I used the classic flight attendant line, “I’m so sorry, we just ran out of that” and gave them beet-marinated salmon with hummus and pickled vegetables, followed by a mixed green salad with oranges, and chicken parmesan with pesto spaghetti.

Before dinner, I blasted “white noise airplane sounds” on our Sonos speakers and warmed up some mixed nuts in a tiny bowl. I gave Cassandra a small pour of the 2016 McRostie Sonoma chardonnay ($19), followed by the 2016 Starmont Napa merlot ($27). “It tastes like a big, middle America wine,” she said of the merlot. “I might buy it for when your mom visits. It would go well with a steak.”

Photo credit: Ward - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ward - Getty Images

These were not wines we’d buy. They were basic. They were wines at the bar of a corporate event. They were wines so desperate to please that they practically say, “excuse me” when you uncork them. But they were well made. Clear. Hard to think about but easy to drink about. Wines that could stand up to what the dryness and low pressure of a cabin does to diminish our lack of smell.

I’d been spending so many nights making elaborate dinners and rooting through our cellar for the perfect pairing, eager to manufacture one hour of the pandemic day that was different, that these wines tasted great. They felt like that tiny airplane blanket. Like a warmed hand towel. A simple comfort. Like normal.

David suggested the Castelnau champagne ($37) for the smoked salmon and salad, and the 2005 HALL merlot ($40) for the chicken parm. Laszlo paired his meal with the airplane classic “apple juice with ice.”

I drank some of the HALL as I cooked. The conventional wisdom that alcohol affects you more on a plane because of the air pressure might be true, but it’s truer that the HALL is 15.8 percent alcohol. “Remind me to get the HALL next time we’re flying,” Cassandra said.

Changing silverware for each course didn’t feel silly. It felt civilized. Proper. So did the wines. I suggested eating dinner with our shoes on, and, as on a flight, that was too much to ask.

I refilled our glasses, got three small blankets, and went upstairs to the three-seater sofa to watch We Bought A Zoo. Then we headed to sleep, content. The only disappointment was that when we woke up, we were still in the same place.

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