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Wines On The Wing 2009 Airline Wine Competition

Aug 1, 2009
2009 / August 2009

Montenapo, the elegant new Italian restaurant in Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building, is a lofty space with towering glass walls that look onto a birch tree atrium. Sleek, modern and inviting, it combines cool steel and warm woods with accents of blue and cream. And it emphasizes Old World fine service, beginning with a warm welcome at the entrance, usually from owner/manager Jozef Juck.

It was here that 35 wine professionals gathered in the spring to taste and evaluate 134 wines submitted to Global Traveler’s annual Wines on the Wing International Business Class Airline Wine Competition.

Judging wines demands the ability to discern and rate subtleties among similar wines. And this year, after the judges tasted and scored the wines of 27 airlines, the one that soared above all others was Qatar Airways.

“We go to great lengths to make sure our passengers are afforded an appealing array of wines and Champagnes,” Tony Hughes, Qatar’s vice president, Americas, said. “We want to ensure that even the most discerning taste buds enjoy the perfect wine complement.”

The person responsible for choosing the perfect wine is Master of Wine James Cluer. As Qatar’s consultant, he begins by defining the structure of the wine list and then collects samples of hundreds of wines. “I sort though them to create flights of appropriate wines and then, at quarterly meetings, Erwan Robert, Qatar’s manager, in-flight product; Colin Boother, general manager of an import company; and I taste the flights blind to avoid any prejudice to label or price,” Cluer said. “We often taste more than 50 wines to find one winner. And there are occasions when we have not selected any of the wines submitted because none matches our requirements.I believe this is what makes the difference in the caliber of our program. We won’t accept a wine unless we think it is of outstanding quality. We pay no attention to critics’ scores. Instead, we talk about how it will taste in the sky.” To check this last criterion, the three re-taste their choices in flight.

Cluer’s involvement does not stop there. “I ensure that our suppliers deliver the wine to Qatar in optimal condition. I write the wine list so it gives passengers some interesting information about the wine they will be offered to drink. And I train the onboard staff.”

Not only did Qatar’s five wines add up to the highest score, but its Saint Clair Pioneer Block 18 Sauvignon Blanc 2008 from New Zealand was the highest-rated white wine. “True to its type, a classic,” wrote judge Felicia Sherbert. Eric Woods also found it “a classic — fresh, focused, with good acidity.” Qatar’s other white wine entry, Berncasteler Riesling Kabinett 2007 Dr. H. Thanisch, was not far behind, finishing second among all whites. “Nice mouth feel, balanced, a little spice,” wrote Don Dombrosky.

Just behind Qatar, Finnair won second place among airlines while its individual wines finished among the Top 10 Champagnes, Whites and Reds. “One of the important elements in our business-class concept is the wine we serve,” said Magnus Hannukainen of Finnair Catering. “With good wines, we can be different from other airlines; and that is very important, especially during such tough economic times.” He continued, “All airlines are going through huge saving programs, and we are not an exception. But price is not the key element in finding good wines. That element is to evaluate the style of wine demanded by your passengers and at the same time find wines that express their terroir, their origins. We must not forget about this and just look blindly at points and price.”

Less than one point behind Finnair was third-place winner Asiana Airlines, an airline that takes its passengers’ taste in wine quite seriously. In 2004, Asiana began an event called “Creating a Beautiful Wine Culture with Asiana Airlines.” Sommeliers from around the world take part in blind tastings to find the best among more than 130 wines. The sommeliers’ choices are in turn presented to a panel of Asiana customers; and it is their opinions that decide the final selection, the 350,000 bottles of wine the airline opens each year. As well as placing a close third, Asiana’s Champagne and one red wine finished in their respective Top 10 lists.

Top Champagne honors of the competition went to LAN Airlines’ Henriot Souverian Brut NV. LAN’s wines are selected by its sommelier, Hector Vergara, Latin America’s only master sommelier. “With his guidance,” said LAN’s Carlos Roman, “LAN chooses the best wines from South America to accompany our menu.” From the judges’ point of view, the Champagne was “full on the palate, nervy and elegant,” according to Patrick Séré, and “toasty, full-bodied,’’ according to W. R. Tish.

The highest-ranked red wine came from Italy, Alitalia’s Fornace di Cerreto Barbera d’Asti 2004. “Each year, our sommelier collects wines throughout Italy,” John Di Rienzo, manager, marketing and analysis, said. “He then presents the wines in a blind tasting to a committee of diverse food and wine professionals. The winning wines are the ones incorporated into Alitalia’s onboard service.” The Alitalia committee chose well according to Global Traveler’s judges. Cesar Baeza found it “an excellent wine, complex with well-developed character.” David Gross noted its elegance, while Eva Zorad thought it “rich” and Melissa Sutherland Amado dubbed it “powerful.”

This year, Global Traveler introduced a new category: North America airlines that offer first-class or, if not, business-class service within the continent. And the first airline to win in this North America category was Virgin America. “We are the only airline based in San Francisco, in the epicenter of great California wine. As a result, our onboard selection celebrates the best of our home state’s vintners,” said Abby Lunardini, the airline’s director of corporate communications. Virgin America also submitted the top-scoring white wine in its category, California’s Artesa Chardonnay Reserve 2006. Among sparkling wines, American Airlines–North America won with California’s Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Caneros Brut NV. And among red wines, Air Canada–North America showed best with Tenuta Sant’Antonio Valpolicella 2005, from Italy.

Just as the 27 airlines represented the world, so did their wines, with selections coming from 15 wine-producing countries. France led with 41, of which 15 were Champagne. The United States followed with 26; one was from Oregon, the other 25 from California. And 17 came from Italy. Add entries from Spain, Chile, South Africa, Australia, Austria and the other countries, and there is promise of some fine wine drinking in the skies.

Participating Airlines

Air Canada
Air Canada–North America
American Airlines
American Airlines–North America
Asiana Airlines
Austrian Airlines
Brussels Airlines
Delta Air Lines
EL AL Israel Airlines
Ethiopian Airlines
Etihad Airways
Iberia Airlines
LAN Airlines
LOT Polish Airlines
Qatar Airways
South African Airways
Swiss International Airlines
Thai Airways
US Airways
US Airways–North America
Virgin America

Top 10 Overall

1. Qatar Airways
2. Finnair
3. Asiana Airlines
4. LAN Airlines
5. Swiss International Airlines
6. Emirates
7. ANA
8. Iberia Airlines
9. US Airways
10. American Airlines

Top North America First Class/Business Class

TOP NORTH AMERICA AIRLINE SPARKLING WINE Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Carneros Brut NV, California (American Airlines)
TOP NORTH AMERICA AIRLINE WHITE WINE Artesa Chardonnay Reserve 2006, California (Virgin America)
TOP NORTH AMERICA AIRLINE RED WINE Tenuta Sant’ Antonio Valpolicella 2005, Italy (Air Canada)

Top 10 Champagnes and Other Sparkling Wines                                                  Airline

1. Henriot Souverain Brut NV                                                                         LAN Airlines
2. Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut NV                                                                 Emirates
3. Heidsieck & Co. Monopole Blue Top Brut NV                                               American Airlines
4. Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV                                                             Asiana Airlines
5. Scharffenberger California Sparkling Wine Brut NV                                       US Airways
6. Drappier Carte Blanche Brut NV                                                                   ANA
7. Scharffenberger California Sparkling Wine Brut NV                                         Delta Air Lines
8. Nicolas Feuillatte Réserve Particulière Brut NV                                               Brussels Airlines
9. Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale Brut Millésime 2003                                           Finnair
10. Jacquart Brut Mosaïque NV                                                                     Ethiopian Airlines


Top 10 White Wines

1. Saint Clair Pioneer Block 18 Sauvignon Blanc 2008, New Zealand                   Qatar Airways
2. Berncasteler Riesling Kabinett 2007, Dr. H. Thanisch, Germany                       Qatar Airways
3. Line 39 Sauvignon Blanc 2007, California                                                     US Airways
4. Castelcerino Rocca Sveva Soave Classico 2007, Itay                                       Finnair
5. Domaine Faiveley Mercury 2004, France                                                         Finnair
6. Pazo Señorans Albariño 2008, Spain                                                             Iberia Airlines

Chateau Julien Chardonnay 2007, California                                                     ANA

Recanti Chardonnay 2007, Israel                                                                       EL AL


Jean-Claude Boisset Meursault 2006, France                                                       Etihad Airways


8. Rijk’s Private Cellars Chenin Blanc 2007, South Africa                                 South African Airways
9. Château de Tracey Pouilly-Fumé 2007, France                                                 Emirates
10. Chiar di Luna Bianco di Merlot 2007, Angelo Delea Switzerland                       Swiss International Airlines

1. Fornace di Cerreto Barbera d’Asti 2004, Italy                                                     Alitalia
2. Les. Auréliens 2006, Domaine de Triennes, France                                           Swiss International Airlines
3. The Colonial Estate Explorateur Old Vine Shiraz 2006, Australia                               American Airlines

Coste delle Plaie Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2005, Italy                                             Alitalia

Barton & Guestier Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007, France                                             Ethiopian Airlines

5. Cline Cashmere 2006, California                                                               Delta Air Lines
Artesa Elements 2004, California                                                                       Asiana Airlines

Ramón Bilbao Rioja 2006, Spain                                                                       Brussels Airlines

Poggio Antico Brunello di Montalcino 2003, Italy                                                     Qatar Airways

7. Antinori Pian delle Vigne 2003, Italy                                                                 Emirates
8. Haut de Valmoure Syrah 2007, France                                                           Air Canada
9. Château Malescasse 2003, France                                                                 Finnair
10. Brancaia Tre 2006, Italy                                                                           Swiss International Airlines

The Judging Process

To participate in the Global Traveler competition, airlines throughout the world that have long-haul international business-class service were invited to submit two white wines, two red wines and one Champagne or other sparkling wine currently on their international business-class wine lists as well as the wine lists themselves. The same rules hold for our new category, North American airlines that have first-class or, if not, business-class service.

The wines were coded and divided into flights, or categories, according to their type — for example, all Chablis were served together, as were all California Cabernet Sauvignon — and served in coded glasses. Judges were told only the type of wine, its place of origin and, only when appropriate, the vintage. If judges felt a wine was flawed, a reserve bottle was served. The tasting was monitored by GT’s staff and professional assistants.

Each wine was judged on a modified Davis 20-point scale. The judges’ individual scores for each wine were added and averaged, and the averaged scores of an airline’s submissions were totaled. The airlines with the highest total score won the Wines on the Wing awards.

The Judges

Melissa Sutherland Amado is a wine consultant to private collectors. She is also creative director at Italian Wine Merchants, a wine shop in New York.

Cesar Baeza is winemaster and co-owner of Brotherhood Winery, New York State. A native of Chile, he studied winemaking there and in France, Spain and California and worked at California wineries before moving to New York.

Rory Callahan is president of Wine & Food Associates, a market development firm whose wine clients include Spain, South Africa and New Zealand. He is a graduate of the University of California–Davis School of Viticulture and Enology, and co-founder of the International Wine Center.

Molly Choi is senior vice president of Cape Classics, the South African wine import company, where she is responsible for the marketing of over 20 wine estates. She has been with Cape Classics for 12 years.

Jim Clarke is wine director of MEGU, a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan with an international list. He also writes about wine for Forbes.com and StarChefs.com and for Santé and other print magazines and newspapers.

Roger Dagorn is a master sommelier and the wine director and maitre d’hôtel of Chanterelle restaurant in Manhattan for 19 years. He is also adjunct professor of wine at New York Technical College, CUNY.

Don Dombrosky has been sommelier at the River Café in Brooklyn since 2002. Previously, he opened Casbah, a wine bar in Pittsburgh, Pa., and was an account representative for Gateway Wines & Spirits.

John Fanning is general manager of Accademia di Vino in New York. He has been general manager and/or wine director at I Trulli, Beppe, Felidia, Coco Pazzo, Le Madri and Palio in New York; Bramante and San Michele in Rome.

Barbara Frank is consulting winemaker and regional marketing representative for Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars and Chateau Frank Winery. A graduate winemaker, she has worked at S. Anderson, Schramsberg, Navarro and Domaine Mumm.

David Frieser is president of Beekman Liquors, Inc., a 50-year-old wine shop in Manhattan, and a frequent wine lecturer for clients. He has been professionally involved in wine for 27 years.

Curtis Green is president and founder of TenFolks Enterprises, a wine education and marketing company created to broaden interest in wine among African-Americans through tastings, seminars and other events.

David Gross is a restaurant wine specialist for Southern Wine & Spirits in the Southern Hudson Valley of New York State. Earlier, he worked as a caterer. In all, he has been in the wine trade for over 20 years.

Karen King is sales manager at Winebow, a wine importing firm. During the previous 20 years, she was wine director at Union Square Café and beverage director at Gramercy Tavern and at The Modern. She has taught wine classes at The French Culinary Institute.

Mariko Kobayashi is wine director of Esca restaurant. She has served as sommelier for the Japanese ambassador to the United Nations and has worked in retail at Italian Merchants, Sherry-Lehmann and winesby.com.

Harriet Lembeck is president of the Wine and Spirits Program for the past 28 years where she teaches both wine trade personnel and consumers. For 15 years she was also wine director of the New School University Culinary Arts Program.

Gilles Martin is winemaker and director of operations at Sparkling Pointe Winery and wine consultant for Sherwood House Vineyards, both on Long Island. French-born, he studied winemaking at Montpelier and has worked at Roederer Estate and Delas Frères.

John McClement is wine and spirits director of All Weather Management, a restaurant group that includes Keens Chop House, NoHo Star, Temple Bar and Elephant & Castle in New York; Eccolo in California; and Elephant & Castle in Ireland.

David Milligan is president of David Milligan Selections, which represents fine French producers. He has been in the wine trade for over 40 years, beginning with his training in England. He also served as president of Seagram Chateau & Estate Wines.

Katherine Moore is general manager of Union Square Wines & Spirits, a large retail shop in Manhattan.

Peter Morales is president and founder of 57 Main Street Imports, an international wine trading business. Among his many philanthropic projects, he supports his “Vision 57” program, which aids disadvantaged grammar schools in South African wine regions, by donating a percentage of every bottle of South African wine he sells.

Michael Nelson is wine director of Gotham Bar and Grill, a 25-year-old restaurant in Manhattan where he has worked in wine for 10 years. He has also been head sommelier at Café Boulud in Manhattan.

Roman Roth is winemaker/general manager of Wölffer Estate, a winery on Long Island, N.Y., he helped create in 1992. He studied winemaking in his native Germany and previously worked in wineries there and in Australia and California.

Patrick Séré is newly retired after 27 years with Dreyfus Ashby, a wine importing firm in New York, where he was executive vice president. He remains active in the wine industry and in various trade organizations.

Robert Shack is owner of HB Wine Merchants/R. Shack Selections and of Clos Robert Winery in Sonoma, Calif. Earlier, he was vice president and manager of the Premiere Wine Merchants Division of Rémy Martin Amerique for 20 years.

Alie Shaper is founder and winemaker of Brooklyn Oenology, the first urban winery in Brooklyn. She produces wines from Long Island grapes, and her bottles feature labels by Brookyn-based artists. Before moving to winemaking, she was a sommelier and also worked in wine retail and distribution sales.

John Sheldon is wine representative for Artisan and Pas Mal, two fine wine importers and distributors; founder and director of the 36-year-old New York Wine Tasting School; and wine consultant to restaurants and private clubs.

Felicia Sherbert is president of What’s My Wine? LLC, a consulting and communications firm specializing in wine and spirits. She is a member of the International Food and Beverage Forum and the Distinguished Advisory Board at Johnson & Wales University.

Darrin Siegfried is owner of Red, White & Bubbly, a wine shop, and wine director of Cucina, a restaurant, both in Brooklyn. Previously, he was sommelier at Claude Troisgros’ CT restaurant and manager of several New York restaurants.

Nelson Stewart is vineyard manager at Karamoor Estate in Pennsylvania. He has over 20 years of experience developing, installing and managing new and existing East Coast vineyards.

Bernard Sun is corporate beverage director for the Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant group where he oversees wine programs for 15 restaurants. Previously, he was sommelier at Lespinasse, Le Cirque and Montrachet in New York.

W. R. Tisch is creator of a series of “Wine + Food Comedy” dinners in New York and developer of private and corporate wine events through his website, wineforall.com. Earlier, he was editor of Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Eric Woods is co-owner of Harlem Vintage, the first boutique wine shop in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, specializing in artisan wines from around the world. He is also co-owner of Nectar, Harlem’s first wine bar.

Michael Yurch is president and chief executive officer of Sherry-Lehmann in Manhattan. Before joining the retail wine firm in 1985, he was manager of The Wine Cart and also worked for the Wine Imports of America Corporation.

Eric Zillier is wine director at Alto Restaurant in Manhattan. Prior to that, he spent four years as a sommelier at Veritas, also in New York.

Eva Wassemiller Zorad is wine buyer and manager for September Wines & Spirits, an artisan wine boutique in lower Manhattan.


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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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