Wine at 30K Feet: United Airlines — A first-class ticket to wine hell

Flying back from the wedding of two dear friends in Massachusetts, my wife asleep on my right (she claimed the window seat when I wasn’t paying attention) and the FIFA World Cup match between the United States and Portugal on in front of me, I decided to write the first installment of a blog I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while now. I used to accept that when I was traveling, everything that happened between the time I left my home and the time I arrived at my destination was likely to be unpleasant. However, I travel entirely too much these days to accept that as my reality, so I look to the little things to try to make trips better. I try to remember to pack a snack, I listen to books on tape (MP3),  I paid the $7.99 required to watch the game on this particular flight, and I am even considering investing the $90 the TSA wants to get in their little jump-the-queue club. We’ll see about that. But what about wine? Is it possible, without sneaking my own past security, to get a decent glass (read: plastic cup) of wine while stuffed into an economy-class seat?  Let’s find out. photo-4 This particular flight is on United, part of the Star Alliance, and as I mentioned earlier, no business-class for me. One of my complaints with United and the Star Alliance from the start has been that unlike their European partners such as Lufthansa, United does not offer complimentary alcohol on any of their flights. I assume this is either some weird holdover from prohibition, or else the very worst of capitalism rearing its ugly head,  but who could say for sure? What I can say is that when my nine-hour trans-Atlantic flight on Lufthansa last summer got converted to a nine-hour trans-Atlantic flight on United and the attendant had the nerve to tell me they were “basically the same thing,” I had a few choice words for him. So, on United, in coach, what are my wine options? According to the guide, there is a house red, a house white, and two premium wines — the Murphy-Goode Sauv Blanc and the Meiomi Pinot Noir, both from California. The sake and sparkling were not available between Boston and Chicago. C’est la vie.  All the same, at first blush, things were looking good. photo As is my custom when I’m unaccustomed with the menu, I asked for a recommendation. I wanted something red, and was in the mood for the promised Pinot Noir. When I asked, however, the rushed reply was disheartening.  “We only have one,” said my flight attendant apologetically. (Had I read the fine print I’d have known that the premium wines are only available on select flights — at least to the economy-class schmucks like me.)  “Well, I’ll have that then,” I said. He pulled out a miniature bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and enunciated each syllable distinctly as if he were afraid I might otherwise believe him to be French. Jean Balmont, 2012. $7.99 and served in the much-anticipated plastic Coke cup. Here’s to hoping for a great surprise: photo-2 The first taste was sour in my mouth and overly acidic, but you know how these things go; that could easily have as much to do with the fact that the US is down 0-1 at the half, or maybe even the fried cheeseburger I had for lunch. (Pro Tip: It takes half a soccer match and/or 15/16ths of an NBA game to get a drink in coach class on United, so plan accordingly.)  I took a second sip and aerated the hell out of it in my mouth, sucking tiny bubbles into the wine through my lips. It helped to mellow it out some, but I still wasn’t thinking that these 187ML were equal to the 750ML of Apothic Red I could get for the same price. My wife woke up and asked “How is it?” “Try some,” I told her. She accepted my gift. After a minute she looked back at me, made a little face, and said “It’s okay,” then started playing Dots on her iPhone. I drank the rest of the tiny plastic bottle as I watched the second half of the World Cup match.  I reminded myself that it’s a French Cab-Sauv, and that they have a very different personality than those made in California. Still, this one continued to have a sort of cranky persona, a sour streak that, while subtle, was ever present. I continued to aerate it in my mouth, and that helped some. Overall, however, it still lacked complexity and did little to dispel the stereotype of airline wine.  I’m guessing that 2012 was a little young for this wine, but, well, they served it to me and there were no other options. Shame on them. I wasn’t about to take it home and age it in my cellar. It tasted a little better after Jermaine Jones scored the game-tying goal part way into the second half (at which the plane erupted in applause and cheers), but again, that probably had nothing to do with the wine. The wine was long gone in the 81st minute when Clint Dempsey scored a goal putting the US up 2-1, which is too bad, because it probably would have tasted like Dom during all of the hollering and high-fives. In the end, the United States wound up tying Portugal 2-2 by giving up a tragic last-second score, and United Airlines got a generous D+ on a wine list that probably would have embarrassed the hell out of their other Star Alliance partners, an equally generous C- on their wine, and a B- on their service (at least he knew enough to be embarrassed, even if he couldn’t do anything to fix it). photo-3 The moral of the story here isn’t as simple as “Don’t drink on United flights,” but it may be “For all their talk, United isn’t trying very hard,” or even “Buy your own small bottles ahead of time and sneak them onto your United flights.” The TSA allows you three ounces, after all, even if you aren’t in their expensive little club. I wasn’t expecting a five-star wine on my flight back from Boston, but I don’t think it was unreasonable to hope for something more than this — at least a few options or the promised Pinot Noir.  Fortunately or not, I have a few more flights this summer, and some of those on airlines other than United. I hope to have something more positive to report on in the near future. Cheers, Mark

2 responses to “Wine at 30K Feet: United Airlines — A first-class ticket to wine hell

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