Delta Air Lines’ Business Elite Wine Program

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On a recent flight from Atlanta to Lima I had the good fortune to enjoy the amenities of Delta’s Business Class. The flat bed seats recline to a full 180° and include a full-size comfortable pillow and quilted duvet. There’s also a large TV screen and more movies and entertainment than one could possibly watch, even on a very long-haul flight. But the best part from a sommelier’s point of view is the wine program. Andrea Immer Robinson, Master Sommelier, has put together a thoughtful list of wines to keep you pleasantly delighted and relaxed while cruising at 35,000 feet in excess of 500 miles per hour. This, however, is exactly what makes choosing wines to be served on an airplane challenging. Most modern aircraft do not maintain pressure and humidity that most humans are used to (ever notice that feeling that your feet and hands are swollen after a long flight?), although the new generation 787 Dreamliner and 747-8 Intercontinental from Boeing promise to alleviate this problem. Consequently, our perception of wine is different at cruising altitude, and wines must be selected taking this into consideration. Although it seems that choosing wines to accompany a menu might be a fun job, there is the behind-the-scenes part that is not as much fun. A good sommelier can taste a dish and usually rather quickly come up with several alternatives to accompany it. Working in a restaurant that serves maybe 200 people on a busy night is, however, a completely different thing than selecting wines for an airline with more than 1,500 worldwide flights daily. I don’t have the exact figures, but if one considers an average of ten business class passengers on each daily flight, and each passenger drinks only one five-ounce glass of wine, that would mean nearly 3,000 bottles served daily. So finding a winery that produces the right wine in sufficient quantity to accompany the menu planned to be served for a specified period of time can become a big challenge. Jeannie Cho Lee, Master of Wine, has written in her blog Asian Palate about her experiences for choosing wines for Singapore Airlines’ wine program. She mentions the airline buys close to four million bottles of wine annually, and she and two others are flown to Singapore every five to six months to taste anywhere from 600 to nearly a thousand wines for the airline’s wine program.

Delta’s flight 151 left Atlanta a bit early. As is usual in business class, you are offered Champagne or a Mimosa as soon as you sit down. The glassware is collected just before take-off. Soon after reaching cruising altitude the dinner service begins, in this case about 5:30 PM. A hot towel is offered to wash your hands, and then warm mixed nuts and your choice of drink are served. I had enjoyed the Piper-Heidsieck Champagne on the flight from Lima to Atlanta, so I opted for the Albert Bichot Montagny to begin. The china, flatware and glassware are not luxurious but aesthetically pleasing. The wineglass was a bit small, but I can’t imagine caring for and storing fine crystal in an airplane galley. The service was excellent. The cabin crew never missed a beat and skillfully integrated their cabin duties with food and wine service. The menu was tastefully designed and printed in a font large enough to be easily read. The wine descriptions were playful, yet correct, and not overworked or too technical.

The first course included two items. The gravlax with red seaweed salad refreshing. The oily aspect of the salmon was delicious with the crunchy and peppery seaweed. The grilled artichokes with roasted yellow tomatoes was nicely presented and tasty. Both items worked very nicely with the Albert Bichot Chardonnay. Next came a creamy, rich and flavorful pumpkin bisque which had a wonderful dark, spicy note. The Zalze Bush Vine Chenin Blanc from South Africa was an absolute hit with this bisque, the exotic fruit notes of the wine interacting beautifully with the spicy pumpkin notes of the bisque.

Four options were available for the main course. There were crab cakes with lemon aioli, fettuccine Alfredo, a chilled selection of roast beef and herbed chicken breast, but I opted for the grilled beef tenderloin and shrimp scampi. I was absolutely shocked that beef tenderloin, cooked in a kitchen that was now a thousand miles away, was so perfectly cooked, rare in the center, with perfect marks seared on the surface and the rich, smoky flavor of the grill still obvious. The shrimp were also perfectly cooked and flavorful. Hats off to Michelle Bernstein, Delta’s Business Elite International Chef. I couldn’t resist trying both of the red wine selections to see which would work best with this surf and turf. The Patz & Hall Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir showed particularly well at cruising altitude. It’s cherry, wild berry and cranberry notes accentuated by cinnamon spice and smoke all but erupted from the glass. The more full-bodied red selection was the Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a good value selection from Chile’s Concha y Toro winery. This wine had the usual cassis richness of Cabernet Sauvignon with a dusty cedar note and a hint of raisin. With all the swirling I did, however, I just couldn’t get this wine to open up and express much more. I couldn’t resist one more glass of the Patz & Hall Pinot Noir, and as we passed over the island of Cuba I couldn’t help but compare the color of the wine to the crimson of the sky outside my window.

Dessert was now offered, your choice of a selection of fine cheeses, a vanilla ice cream sundae, or New York cheesecake. As much as I wanted to try the cheeses, I simply couldn’t. Arrival was only about four hours away, and I wanted some time to recover from the food and wine, and try the flat bad seat. The after dinner wine selections were certainly tempting though: Cave de Gan Juraçon, Ferreira Dona Antonia Reserve Port, and Chambers Rosewood Muscat. However, temperance prevailed and I pressed the button, the seat fully reclined, I covered up and drifted off to sleep.

Now, if you think Delta’s Business Elite service has ended, you’re wrong! About an hour before arrival, more food! I couldn’t possibly eat more, but the hot roast beef sandwich with horseradish mayonnaise looked and smelled delicious. And to make sure you were stuffed beyond capacity, the dessert was chocolate truffle cake. Imagine, all of this served on a flight that lasted less than seven hours.

The flight arrived early at Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport, and I said good-bye to the friendly and professional cabin crew, hoping I might run into them again on a future Delta flight.

The Wines Offered

I’ve included Andrea Immer Robinson’s tasting notes.

Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne non-vintage, France

An utterly classy Champagne, with scents of sourdough bread, citrus and fresh cream on the nose. On the palate it’s at once crisp and creamy, with flavors of lemon yogurt, and fresh green apples.


Albert Bichot Montagny Blanc 2008, Côte Chalonnaise, Burgundy, France

The Montagny region is in the Côte Chalonnaise district of France’s Burgundy region. It is home to classically elegant, barrel-fermented Chardonnays like this one: toasty, with subtle baked apple flavors. Lovely with subtle pasta dishes and fine cheeses.


Zalze Chenin Blanc Bush Vines 2008, Western Cape, South Africa

An absolutely exotic wine, with honeyed pear and quince notes and a lush, creamy texture. Delicious as a solo sipper, or with shellfish and chicken dishes.


Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008, Central Valley, Chile

One of Chile’s famous Cabernets, named for the famed “Devil’s Cellar” – the prívate collection of one of the founding fathers of Chilean wine, Don Melchor. This one is Bordeaux-like, with dusty cedar and lead pencil scents and dark cassis fruit on the palate.


Patz & Hall Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2007, California

A “cult” Pinot that claims Burgundian complexity with California fruit. Scents of smoke, cinnamon, earth, dried cranberry, and pure cherry silkiness on the palate, make it a natural match for salmon, chicken or goat cheese.


Cave de Gan Juraçon, non-vintage, France

This is honeyed pears and peaches in a glass, with soft floral, quince paste and candied apricot overtones. Delicious with cheeses, ice cream, or just on its own.


Ferreira Port Dona Antonia Reserve non-vintage, Portugal

This golden-amber, smooth tawny-style port is layered with toasted pecan, cinnamon sugar, cappuccino, and maple scents and flavors. Beautiful with milk chocolate or nut desserts.


Chambers Rosewood Vineyards Muscat non-vintage, Rutherglen, Australia

Honeyed figs-in-a-glass! The decadent, spicy scent and unctuous texture are incredible with chocolate, ice cream, and toasted nuts.

Read my comparison of a wine in the air versus on the ground here.


About Gregg Smith

Gregg Smith is an American sommelier certified by The Court of Master Sommeliers living in Lima, Peru, and serving as director of the wine and bar program at Central Restaurante.
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