Breaking Travel News investigates: Fine wine at 30,000 ft with Delta Air Lines

Breaking Travel News investigates: Fine wine at 30,000 ft with Delta Air Lines

A carefully curated wine selection that pairs well and is palatable to a global and discerning audience takes skill.

Crafting a wine program for an airline like Delta with vintages sourced from wineries as diverse as the carrier’s customers, that’s another story.

For Delta’s master sommelier Andrea Robinson, creating a wine experience on board and now at the Delta Sky Clubs builds on a lifetime of passion for wine and a perceptive sense for what flavours and notes show well at altitude.

She’s made it her life’s work to not only understand wine for the land-bound drinker, but to also navigate the effects of altitude and humidity on the palates of the jet-setting traveller.

“We want to bring a sense of wine discovery to the experience for our customers when they fly with Delta,” Robinson said.

Her wine selection - a year-round process that includes a balance of in air and terra firma tastings -culminates annually at the Atlanta General Offices where more than 1,600 bottles are tasted with only those earning her stamp of approval making the cut.

Even for the uninitiated, it’s clear Robinson’s careful tasting process is truly an art - and perhaps a bit of science as well.

“First and foremost, the wine needs to taste delicious in flight,” Robinson said.

“Your senses are dulled and wine behaves differently at altitude, making it more difficult to appreciate the complex scents and flavours wine has to offer.

“In addition, the lower atmospheric pressure – versus tasting on land – means those flavour molecules are jetting past your sensory receptors so fast, you miss a lot.

“We compensate for that by selecting wines with significant presence on the palate and expression in the glass that wakes up the taste buds.”

That is where the art of the sommelier comes into play. Robinson must select wines with enough expression and presence on the palate to overcome those conditions, while staying in balance.

The trick, as Robinson observes, is to find varietals and blends that perform well.

“I continue to be amazed and pleased at how well red wines with bottle age come through at altitude,” she said.

“For example, while red Bordeaux with pedigree is always well-received by customers, we are finding some nice and available back vintages that show more generous fruit, fragrance and harmony at altitude than the current vintage.

“The first tip-off about how well bottle-aged wines show in flight came with Rioja Reserva and Gran Reserva wines, which over the years have elicited great customer feedback and that syncs with my personal experience tasting them on board.”

Delta is featuring a Reserva from Spain’s Carinena region this year.

Sourcing unique and interesting wines to serve on board is where Robinson’s craft shows through.

She says she is constantly on the hunt for little-known regions, styles and varietals to introduce to Delta’s premium customers.

She recently found a nearly ten-year-old wine from the Carinena region in Spain - just one of many distinctive bottles available on board.

“We want to bring a sense of wine discovery to the experience for our customers when they fly with Delta,” Robinson said.

While Delta is a large, global company, Robinson focuses on finding local, artisan, family-owned producers—“source locally and sip globally,” she said.

“We like to support the wine regions where Delta has put down roots and bring that artisanal product to our customers.”

And part of that discovery means ensuring wineries can supply the volumes Delta needs for its many daily international departures.

In 2014, for example, Delta served more than 2.8 million bottles of wine on-board sourced from wineries in 15 different countries on five continents.

In the coming year, those numbers will undoubtedly grow, especially as Robinson as the airline increasingly ties together the selection on-board with offerings at the airport.

With the help of Robinson, Delta has been featuring Rioja wines by the glass in special “pop-up” tastings in various clubs this summer in conjunction with a Reserva and Gran Reservas on board in Delta One.

Following her selection process, there is, of course, the issue of what to do with all of those extra bottles of wine submitted for evaluation as more than one bottle of each kind is sent.

Delta solved this issue with creativity and a desire to put the needs of Delta people first. 

Each year, the airline hosts a wine auction for employees, giving them an opportunity to bid on lots curated by Robinson while benefitting the Delta Care Fund.

Last year, the auction netted more than $20,000 which is used to provide assistance to eligible Delta employees, retirees and their survivors who suffer a severe financial hardship from an unforeseen and unavoidable crisis, including loss due to a disaster or catastrophic event.

Andrea has been the intellect behind Delta’s wine selections since 2007 and is one of a handful of women worldwide with the Master Sommelier title.