Plastic cups? Overly warm reds? Stain-inducing turbulence? Drinking wine on an airplane can be a tumultuous experience—especially when what’s in the bottle is no good. But don’t fret. If you need to sip chardonnay to get through a flight, several airlines have amped-up their wine programs to bring better selections when in the air. Here, wine expert Bryce Wiatrak has ranked six major U.S. airlines’ programs, based on quality of wines, diversity of styles and regions, and additional wine perks.
I love many things about Southwest: Everyone gets two free checked bags, and, somehow, even if I get put in the “C” boarding section I almost always can secure a window seat. But your wine program isn’t pulling its weight. Much in Southwest’s beloved egalitarian spirit, only three wines are offered: Carmenet cabernet sauvignon, a Whistling Thorn white blend, and St. Roc sparkling wine—all basic, low-cost offerings. In short? You’re better off ordering Fat Tire, a great Belgian-style beer, instead, and use one of your free bags to bring some better vino to your destination.
Unlike Southwest, Hawaiian divides its wine program depending on what class you’re flying. It offers its best wines to those flying international business: Mohua sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and Sella & Mosca cannonau from Sardinia are both highlights on the list—notable producers and smart values, whether flying or staying on the ground. Domestic first class doesn’t fare too poorly, with consistently reliable Los Padres red and white blends from Paso Robles. The domestic main cabin is given five options to choose from: two cabernets, two chardonnays, and a sparkler available to purchase in 187 or 375 mL bottles. Don’t worry about specifics—none of them is worth the money.
Alaska climbs the ranks on this list, but not because of the wines served on board. Both the main and premium cabins are left to choose between La Marca prosecco or a red or white from Canoe Ridge of Walla Walla, Washington—drinkable, but unremarkable options. But if you’re flying out of Walla Walla (or San Francisco, Santa Rosa, San Luis Obispo, Portland, Seattle, or 23 other cities), a full case of wine flies with you free with this special program exclusively for 29 West Coast cities—making it easy to transport your post–wine country loot back home with you. Whereas flying with wine can notoriously be a pain, Alaska’s customer service representatives will help securely pack your bottles so you no longer have to wonder if you’ll find your suitcase dripping pinot noir at baggage claim.
The top three slots are all occupied by airlines that’ve teamed up with big names in the wine business to curate their selections. For United, that person is Doug Frost, one of a handful of people who have passed two nearly impossible tests to be able to call himself both a Master Sommelier and a Master of Wine. Sadly, for every airline in the top three, the attention seems to be heavily focused on premium fliers, with little creativity for those in the main cabin. United’s premium selections lean Franco-centric, mixed in with some off-the-beaten-track wine regions such as Catalonia’s montsant or Umbria’s torgiano. The best wines are poured for international first class, with Antinori’s Peppoli chianti classico and Pascal Jolivet’s sancerre “Les Caillottes” being particularly noteworthy. One nice feature: Half bottles are for sale for domestic economy fliers, so you don’t have to ping a flight attendant every time you want a refill. My vote if going that route? Cambria’s “Benchbreak” chardonnay from Santa Barbara’s Santa Maria Valley, one of my favorite regions for the white grape.
Jon Bonné, the former wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and author of the recently released The New Wine Rules, selects a list of artisan American wines for travelers flying JetBlue Mint, the airline’s premium cabin, swapping out the list monthly. While only five wines are on offer, I’d happily finish a glass of any of them, whether in the air or on the ground. For March, the two reds—Bethel Heights pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Bedrock Old Vine zinfandel from California—both deliver serious bang for their buck. Pair that with small bites from New York City’s Saxon + Parole and desserts from Milk Bar, and JetBlue Mint’s gastronomic indulgences are hard to beat. Non-Mint passengers can choose between a South African chenin blanc, a red côtes du rhône, and an Italian sparkling wine—a program with less wow-factor than the premium offerings, but better than other low-cost airlines.
Of all the domestic wine programs, Delta’s is the clear winner for its breadth of selections and wine styles that balance iconic producers and hidden gems. As is the case with most of the major airlines, the best selections on Delta are exclusively offered to those in premium seats. The main cabin can choose between Wente pinot grigio or merlot—both drinkable, if unmemorable. Master Sommelier Andrea Robinson curates Delta’s wine program, and she does a venerable job taking premium fliers on a tasting tour through the world’s most celebrated wine regions, as well as throwing in some lesser-known names. Stalwart producers like Charles Heidsieck in champagne, Au Bon Climat in Santa Barbara, and Catena Zapata in Mendoza are all represented. If you have a sweet tooth like I do, Robinson earns extra points for featuring two dessert wines on each flight, when most airlines feature none—typically a port and a sauternes-style selection.
One to Watch: American
American’s wine program is mid-revamp, after hiring Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey to rev up the program. The future looks bright. Already, the wines on hand for business and first class are top-notch. On the U.S. to London route, for example, selections range from Trefethen Estate cabernet from the Napa Valley’s Oak Knoll District and Domaine des Sénéchaux châteauneuf-du-pape to Planeta fiano from Sicily and Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle champagne. We’ll see what else is up Stuckey’s sleeve.
The good news? Airlines seem to be paying closer attention to their onboard wine offerings. We’ll drink to that.