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The Mile High Wine Club: An Interview with an Airline Sommelier

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When L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti claims, "LAX will be the busiest Thanksgiving airport in the country for a third year in a row," you assume that he says that with a unique mix of pride and worry. For many of us, this weekend kicks off a stretch of air travel, whether jetting off to somewhere fun or somewhere obligatory.

So that makes it time to look at how airlines choose how you arrive properly lubricated. American Airlines has spent a lot of time and money ($2 billion "to enhance the entire customer travel experience") of late, and one part of that is upgrading their wine service, particularly for Business and First Classes. For its inaugural flight to and from Los Angeles to Sydney on December 17th, you can savor pours from a rare $850 bottle of 2010 Penfolds Grange, one of Australia's most esteemed wines.

American Airlines has also been working with wine consultant Ken Chase to update its lists. SoCal Spirits interviewed Chase recently about his work with American.

KCET: How did you first get involved in wine consulting for airlines?

Chase: My background includes a master's degree in enology and viticulture and as a lecturer at the University of Melbourne in Australia. American Airlines had been looking for a new wine consultant and my name came up in the mix as there are really only a handful of us with extensive experience. So I got a call from someone on the team asking me to prepare a presentation and what dates I was available for an interview. There were six to seven candidates and I was thrilled to learn that I was the winning candidate. It had been my greatest dream to serve the most iconic airline brand!

KCET: What does flying do to one's taste? And how do you create wine choices to work around those issues?

Chase: Much of the air that we breathe on board a pressurized aircraft is recycled and the palate tends to dry out after a few hours on board so keeping hydrated helps. The palate in these conditions is not as perceptive and so the wine we place on board needs to be very dynamic in their varietal expression.

To really enjoy wine on board an aircraft, go with the bold wine with lots of fruit and varietal expression. Types of white wines that do well on board are Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Chablis (unwooded chardonnay). For red wines try a Malbec, Syrah, or Cabernet Sauvignon.

KCET: Is there a well-regarded wine that doesn't work in a pressurized cabin?

Chase: From a pure physical point of view, nothing changes in a wine except for sparkling wines and Champagne, and they will only change under a dramatic pressurized event, which is extremely rare. In wine it is the palate that perceives the aromas and textures, so a very light wine in alcohol with a very low aromatic profile would not do well, and of course you wouldn't find them on board.

KCET: What wine trends are you taking into consideration when building the American Airlines wine list?

Chase: Wines with a longer finish on the palate perform much better as the North American consumer relates and enjoys a textural experience such as mouthfeel (soft tannins in the case of reds). The wine, whether red or white, needs to have some fruit as it is the fruit that is the first stage in tasting.

Interestingly enough, the trends we are seeing are not necessarily varietal driven. The market place at this point in time seems satisfied with the major varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris. These are the big seven. However, what is trending is the notion of "terroir," meaning more and more wine makers are trying to differentiate themselves by trying to express the character of their vineyard by minimally handling the wine, less filtering, and utilizing indigenous yeast from the vineyard. We should see this trending in a big way in the next five years. Every vineyard (especially smaller operations) wants to feel their wines have a sense of place and reflects their origin. This is not new but has become very trendy.

KCET: Do you have advice on how to be sure one's wine consumption doesn't mean arriving at a location with a hangover?

Chase: It is very important to stay hydrated on a long flight. This will help your body fight the inevitable jet lag and also help you not to feel groggy after a few glasses of wine. A good rule of thumb is to have three glasses of water for every full glass of wine you have.

It is good to start with a lighter wine when you get on board especially if you are going to have a meal...you won't feel full before your meal.

KCET: Any particular California wines you're enjoying or recommending right now?

Chase: Pinot noir is certainly on the top of my list as it is so versatile. This is great news for fish lovers; it's particularly great with the rich salmons species. Carneros pinots are also really showing their power.

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