The right wine at 30,000 feet

Selecting a good vintage that pleases the most people is cash-strapped airlines' aim

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Finding the perfect wine to complement a fresh cut of beef or delicately prepared seafood can be a challenge.

Choosing the correct wine to accompany a menu that has not been determined, and knowing that bottle ultimately will be served in a pressurized cabin 30,000 feet in the air requires a special touch. Or at least an expert's palate.

Doug Frost sips thousands of wines each year, looking for the few hundred vintages he will choose to serve aboard United Airlines flights.

"We hope to board those wines that everyone is going to find tasty, and those who really pay a lot of attention to wine are going to get excited about," said Frost, the airline's wine expert.

A satisfying glass of wine on a long trip is one of the small comforts that United and other airlines know customers expect. And the pricier the section of the plane, the higher customers' expectations.

In recent years, cash-strapped airlines have stopped serving meals in coach. Curbside check-in no longer is free. Even pillows can't be found on some flights.

But airlines continue to seek the expertise of consultants like Frost because he provides a service that travelers want. Just as airlines invest millions of dollars in better seats in first and business classes and in-flight entertainment systems, they spend money on good wines because it helps attract customers.

Wine selection alone might not be enough to prompt some travelers to choose United, but it is among the things some will consider, said Mitchell Gross, the carrier's manager of product planning and procedures.

"You've heard the phrase `all things being equal'? When that's the case ... we're trying to come up with the tiebreaker," Gross said. "Wine may not be the determining factor, but for customers that this is important to, we want to give them the best experience we can."

Gross was among six people Frost gathered last week in Wood Dale, a northern suburb of Chicago, for rounds of blind taste-testing. Trays full of wine were brought in, sipped and then ranked on a scale of 1 to 10. Between each sip, panelists demurely spit into a plastic bucket.

With several hundred wines to rank, finishing off a glass was not an option.

The wines chosen now are for next year, a logistical necessity that presents other challenges. A wine's taste changes with time, a factor that has to be considered with each sip, Frost said.

Frost, a Kansas City author and consultant, is a master of wine and master sommelier, a rare distinction that makes him an expert in the science of why a wine tastes the way it does and in the choosing and handling of wine.

Selecting the airline's wines each year is a balancing act, Frost said.

"There's a tension between choosing the best wines and getting the wine that will please the most people," he said. "because the best wine is sometimes idiosyncratic, and it's going to turn some people off.

"You have to please as many people as possible," he said. "There's certainly no simple answer."

While taste is important, so is ensuring United can get enough to meet its needs. The airline pours the equivalent of more than 3 million bottles a year. Wine is shipped around the globe, loaded on flights leaving such cities as Shanghai, London and Nagoya, Japan.

The need for such large quantities means that some small producers may have wines United likes, but the wineries cannot supply enough of it.

Ultimately, the very best wines will be served in first-class cabins on international flights and to premium-class passengers on transcontinental flights between New York and California. If purchased in a store, they are wines that typically would sell for between $20 and $30 a bottle.

The next level of quality goes to those in business class on international flights. The ranking continues down through economy class on domestic flights. There, the goal is to serve a good wine that meets most expectations, said Bill Dove, director of worldwide catering for United.

Other considerations come into play. Wine in a restaurant can be served under the best conditions, chilled to the perfect temperature and allowed to breathe before serving. On an airplane, such luxuries usually are not possible.

Those sipping the wine also are in less than ideal conditions.

"In an aircraft environment the human palate takes a beating," said Ken Chase, wine consultant for Delta Air Lines.

Subtleties cannot be appreciated in an environment where the air is being re-circulated, and temperatures are inconsistent, Chase said.

Mark Skertic writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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