Mile-High Chug

Small airlines make flying friendlier with better wines.

I fly a lot. Not the "buzzed and ready for action" euphemism, but I frequently shove myself into a steel tube and travel at 507 miles-per-hour above the clouds. The seats are so close I can smell the lavender-scented shampoo on the chick a row up. On a recent early morning flight out of Reno, the rumpled guy next to me reeked of Scotch. I suppressed nausea as his snoring floated fetid, alcohol-soaked breath into my face. The flight attendant kept throwing pity-filled glances my way — an airline employee with a heart.

With headlines declaring airline bankruptcies, union strikes and job losses, it's a miracle anyone has a good attitude. But the little guys, generally labeled "low cost" by the industry, are making more strides to create happiness at 35,000 feet — in part by stocking better wines.

Most airlines charge $4-$5 for a 6-ounce glass of wine. In days gone by, this would buy a mini-bottle of vile white zinfandel, chardonnay or cabernet. A few years ago, the major airlines confessed to me that serving good wine to déclassé coach (aka "cattle class") passengers wasn't worth the extra dough, and thus limited decent wine to the first- and business-class passengers.

To be fair, stocking and serving wine on a plane isn't exactly easy. Most airline wines are purchased in bulk through national accounts, so the wineries involved need to have enough production to satisfy an airline serving tens of thousands of passengers. Another issue is the lack of storage space. Offering a whole slew of wines isn't feasible. It's a delicate balance, and I think the little guys have figured it out.

Jet Blue gets my first kudos, aligning themselves with the hip California brand Twin Fin. This wine is decidedly drinkable, with pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon being my favorites. Jet Blue has even appointed a "low fare sommelier" to its ranks: Josh Wesson, co-founder of Best Sellers, a chain of innovative, low-cost wine shops.

The best budget airline ever, Song — now being assimilated by its ailing parent company, Delta Airlines — serves wine by Bonterra Vineyards, an amazing organic winery in Mendocino County, Calif. I'm not sure if Delta will adopt this program, but at any rate the parent airline currently serves a really good Chilean chardonnay from Vina La Rosa, as well as their Cabernet Sauvignon. Gotta say it's looking better for me as I fly back and forth all the time to Delta's home hub in Atlanta from my home hub in Tampa.

Airtran, unfortunately, hasn't quite gotten with the wine program yet. Although its friendly flight attendants serve with a smile — I had one the other day who called everyone "sweetie" or "honey" — the swill they're slopping leaves plenty to be desired: avoidable Sutter Home, Sycamore Lane and Gossamer Bay at last look, but perhaps Airtran will also upgrade soon.

The major airlines continue to serve great, free stuff in business/first class, like Stone Cellars Chardonnay and Carmenet Merlot on Northwest. But is it worth the $600 upgrade to drink better wine?

I write this column on yet another flight, cramped with my laptop mashing my tummy. I wear Road Warrior on my chest and drink a thankfully upgraded glass of wine.

Recommended Wine

Smashed Grapes 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon California Fruit-tay you might say, approachable and fun like the name suggests. Nothing complicated, with loads of red berry fruit and a friendly, earthy finish. Sweetness = 3. $10. 3 stars

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