Sour grapes, or oenophile delight?

It had been about a year since I’d flown Delta One, the branded term for Delta’s business class offerings between transcontinental hubs and international gateways, but on back to back flights last week I sampled the wines of Delta business class. Years ago, Delta hired Andrea Robinson, a master sommelier, which is a distinction about as rare as landing on the moon. Andrea’s mission was to curate wine menus for “Delta One” international and transcontinental flights. At first launch, it felt like Delta had asked Andrea to do her job with her hands tied behind her back – yet this go around, I was almost blown away, at least some of the time. Here’s what I found on Delta’s transcontinental US wine menu, and the International wine menu on my onward flight to London…

A Little Context

As a wine enthusiast, who is in no way officially qualified to write an article of this magnitude, I regularly browse the wine menu as soon as it’s dispersed on board a flight. On a recent flight, I opened the Delta Wine menu with unassuming eyes, and sampled just about everything on the menu, in moderation of course. Someone’s gotta do it! I often quickly reference user feedback from CellarTracker, while using official critic scores and prices from Wine.com as balance. Wine is ultimately however a very personal choice: what a critic may love, a consumer may hate – and vice versa, so while these are my semi educated opinions – you’re welcome to shame them – politely.

Los Angeles to Boston Delta Wine Menu

Mito Sparking Italian Wine$10 (Not Rated, But Disgusting).

Franciscan Equilibrium 2013 White Wine Blend, Napa$20. (Tasting Panel 91).

Matanzas Creek 2013 Chardonnay, Sonoma$22. (Robert Parker 90).

Gramercy Lower East Syrah 2014, Columbia Valley$22 (Robert Parker 91 for 2014).

Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley 2012$55 (Wilfred Wong 90).

Boston to London Delta Wine Menu

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, Champagne$69.99 (95 Wilfred Wong).

Calera Central Coast Chardonnay 2014, Central Coast$18.99 (Wine Enthusiast 92).

Nisia Old Vines Verdejo Rueda, Rueda (White Wine)$17 (Wine Mag 87).

Guigal Cotes Du Rhone Rouge 2011, Rhone$18 (Wine Enthusiast 90).

Le Espirit De Pavie 2012, Bordeaux$22 (Consensus Score 88).

Observation #1 Price Points

Most wines both white and red on Delta’s business class wine lists are between $10-$20 retail. Anyone who understands wine will tell you, price is but a mere glance and there are some stunning wines available under $20, so no immediate judgement should be placed. This is particularly true for emerging or less “old world” wine regions. For example a $15 Bordeaux would be unlikely to place well, but a $15 Douro from Portugal may be stunning. I found that the lower priced, non traditional regions offered the best bang for buck and were amongst the most pleasing to drink. However, on both menus there was always one exciting outlier, which leads me to my next point.

Observation #2 One True Gem Per Flight

I almost found my back to back flights from Los Angeles to Boston, and then Boston to London to be some sort of hide and seek. On both flights, there was one wine, and one wine only at quality and price points far above the rest. Between Los Angeles and Boston, Delta was serving a 2012 Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for over $50 per bottle and has received many ratings accolades over 90 points. On Boston to London it was Charles Heidsieck Champagne. I’d easily rate this one of the most “gimme more” champagnes you’ll find under $75, with incredible caramelized, brioche flavors.

italyObservation #3 The Italian Sparkling Wine Was Disgusting

It’s just so hard to fathom how a wine like this makes it onto a business class Delta Wine Menu. I am not a “champagne snob” in the slightest and thoroughly enjoy a decent Cremant, Prosecco, Sparkling or anything Brut really – but this was dreadful. I’m not one to ever leave a drop behind, but this glass was one of the first in my life that was not fully consumed. Not even after a splash of fresh OJ! Apologies, wine Gods.

Observation #4 Andrea Robinson Mastery Moves

I believe Andrea Robinson did a masterful job in buying out entire selections of wine, right at the ripest drinking age. Why? Because almost none of these wines are available anymore, and that’s a fairly common occurrence when an airline like Delta says “gimme all ya’ got”. I believe Andrea took wines which were not initially impressive upon release but improved greatly over time, waiting to purchase until they were undervalued. Wines such as the Guigal Cotes Du Rhone were not initially celebrated, yet the result 7 years on is fantastic. Crowd pleasing easy drinkers such as the Lower East Syrah and summertime classic Nisia Verdejo were exceptional, and represented superb value for money. I sampled both (for research purposes) and could easily see why any traveler would gravitate to these smooth operators.

Final Observation

Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with Delta’s wine program – especially for a U.S. airline. Yes, that is indeed a backhanded insult and compliment, all at the same time. Andrea’s identification and procurement of wines which have improved in the bottle, and those from more affordable regions has lead to some great sipping at 33,000 feet and I’ll look forward to sampling more Delta wine in the future, perhaps once Delta figures out how to serve a decent meal with it. Other than my excellent Jon & Vinny breakfast from LA, the food was inedible. For now, I’ll stick to the Charles Heidsieck diet.

What’s your favorite airplane wine memory?