Three times a year, James Cluer, one of about 300 masters of wine in the world, flies to Frankfurt from Napa Valley for a blind tasting of as many as 100 wines.
Over three days, he and other wine experts drink and debate and eventually narrow the list down to three wines. "Sometimes it's surprising who wins," he says. "It's not always the big brand name that comes up on top, but it's the quality."
Those wines eventually end up on Qatar Airways flights, where first and business class passengers have a choice of as many as 12 wines and economy class passengers can choose from five.
At a time when airlines are complaining of high jet fuel prices and charging for any service, there's one amenity they won't cut back on: wine. Airlines across the world buy millions of gallons of wine each year and hire sommeliers and masters of wine to craft elaborate menus.
Most airlines would not disclose how much money they spend on wines, though Qantas says it invests more than $19 million in the Australian wine industry each year. But they do say the investment is worth it because it helps them foster loyalty among their most profitable customers: first class and business class travelers. A good wine list can also get them bragging rights. Airlines are constantly vying for accolades such as the Cellar in the Sky awards by Business Traveller magazine, which Qantas has won for two straight years.
"In the grand scheme of cost, these kinds of programs do not make a huge impact on airlines," says Adam Weissenberg, vice chairman and leader of Deloitte's U.S. Travel, Hospitality and Leisure practice. "Obviously any addition of cost does cut into airlines' margins, but nowadays airlines are chasing the higher-paying, more lucrative business and first-class traveler."
A few examples of how much wine is consumed up in the air each year: Alaska Airlines serves 150,000 gallons. United buys about 710,000 gallons. Air New Zealand customers drink more than 6.5 million glasses of wine each year, which equates to about 650,000 bottles.
On most U.S. airlines, wine is only free for first and business class travelers, though Delta Air Lines and U.S. Airways offer complimentary wine on international flights during meal service in economy. The wine consultants admit that the quality of wine improves the higher you go up in class.
"Each level of service, each class of service is going to receive wines that we hope will be perceived as commensurable," says Doug Frost, a master of wine and wine consultant to United Airlines. But, he says, he's been able to find great wines at any price range.
Airlines are constantly experimenting with their wine programs even in economy. Starting Oct. 27, Lufthansa will begin offering a wider selection of wines in first class, giving passengers a fourth white and a fourth red. United is testing out the selling of half bottles of wine in economy for $15.99 on flights from New York's JFK airport to Los Angeles and JFK to San Francisco. Earlier this summer, Spirit Airlines began offering wine in aluminum cans for $7 each, $12 for two cans, and $16 for three.
Airlines have been turning profits in recent years and can spend money on food and beverage as a result. At the same time, passengers are demanding better options.
"I think the modern airline passenger is very, very food and wine savvy," says Ken Chase, American Airlines' wine consultant. "To match the demand of customers being thirsty and knowledgeable, we have to deliver in all the cabins."
That's why some airlines have hired celebrity chefs to curate in-flight meals. Air France has had Joel Robuchon create dishes. Qatar has a rotating menu with dishes from such notable figures as Nobu Matsuhisa. Richard Sandoval and Top Chef star Marcus Samuelsson have worked with American. And Iron Chef Michelle Bernstein has made meals for Delta.
Some airlines are also offering upgraded meals for a fee in coach class. Passengers flying in coach on international flights on US Airways, for instance, can pay $19.99 for a "DineFresh" premium meal with a glass of wine.
So it makes sense that they would try to pair those meals with high-quality wines, says Rick Lundstrom, editor-in-chief of PAX International, a trade magazine focused on travel catering.
"The rise of the celebrity chefs on airlines and these high-profile wine consultants are going hand and hand with each other," he says.
But serving wine in-flight comes with unique challenges, wine consultants say.
For one thing, people's palettes change at 30,000 feet.
"The most significant challenge to in-flight wine service is the low humidity in the cabin," says Russ Brown, director of in-flight planning and development for US Airways. "Most food scientists and vintners agree that this lessens passengers' ability to smell food and wine."
To counteract that, airlines tend to go with wines with bold flavors. "It's hard to enjoy delicate wines at 30,000 feet," says United's Frost.
But sometimes those wines have higher alcohol contents, which some consultants try to avoid.
On Qatar, Cluer tries to go for lower alcohol levels to prevent intoxication. "If we see an Australian Shiraz at 15.5 or 16% alcohol, it's possible we might eliminate it because we can't have passengers intoxicated on board because we are serving powerful red wines," he says.
But Lufthansa Airlines serves wines with higher levels because, the airline says, alcohol appears weaker at altitude.
Storage is also an issue because aircraft have limited space and temperatures are not always ideal.
"We will always have challenges on serving at the right temperature," Chase says. "It's gotten better over the years, but it's certainly not perfect and that's because airplanes are not built as wine cellars."
The wine consultants even have to pay attention to the types of glasses the wine is served in. Air France, for instance, uses stemless glassware because turbulence can sometimes knock over glasses with stems.
Chase believes more airlines will switch over to stemless glasses. He also sees carriers embracing wine bottles without corks.
"We've become a very friendly screwcap airline, and our flight attendants love it," he says. "And the customers have no problem with it."
Nancy Trejos, USA TODAY