Maybe you took a long flight this summer, and maybe when your dinner was in front of you and the rolling cart of drinks came your way, maybe you ordered a tiny bottle of wine.
Did you like the wine, and if so, did you write down the name or snap a picture, and track it down when you landed? Did you still like it? If not, don’t blame the airline’s wine buyer. Don’t even blame the wine. Blame the airplane.
Think about the moment you step out of a jetway and through the rounded doorway of a commercial airplane. The atmosphere is different right away, and within moments, you can sense that it’s as dry as Phoenix in there. The air also has a distinct staleness to it because you’re in a profoundly long tube, and although there are windows everywhere, not a single one of them rolls down.
That air is being recirculated, and it carries provocative notes of jet fuel, upholstery and carpet, all of which tend to fade the longer you spend in that tube, and maybe that’s a good thing for those of us who don’t particularly love those smells. But the problem is that even the stuff we do want to smell eventually fades. And when aromas go, flavors go too. It’s all caused by your own aircraft-induced dehydration — the drying-out that afflicts you every time you go wheels-up.
You don’t get entirely stripped of your ability to smell and taste, obviously (you can taste well enough to know that you’re not wild about the over-salted yet still-kind-of-bland food resting on the tray in front of you), but your senses very quickly begin to operate at a fraction of their normal capacity — and they go downhill from there.
You gradually lose your ability to smell and taste the subtle aromas and flavors you might have been easily able to identify and name in the most creative ways on the ground.
“Ripe blackberries, pomegranate, orange zest, white pepper, rosemary, crushed limestone, Spanish leather, midmorning coffee grounds and Christmas Eve 1983,” is how you might have described a wine on Earth. In the air, the closest you might come to that is, “Fruity. Grapey. Liquidy.”
So finding the right wines for dehydrated and diminished palates at 36,000 feet is key. And it’s a fine line. Your dulled faculties need something bold — like a come-to-your-senses slap across the face — but they need a certain kind of bold, not just unbridled brawn and fury. They need pronounced fruit, but it should not come with a lot of tannin because the last thing your dried-out mouth needs is a wave of fuzz to suck it dry of what little moisture it had in the first place.
The wine consultant/buyer for a major airline once told me he sometimes shoved his nose down into 200 glasses in a single day just to find a dozen or so that were worth tasting. If they did not pass the sniff test, they certainly had no chance of passing the taste test. He was looking for wines that had the right stuff to perform well above the clouds.
There’s no getting around the dry air or your dulled senses after you’ve spent even a little time in that environment. But one thing you can do to help yourself out is to stay well hydrated. Your senses of smell and taste will work just a little bit better during the flight, and your body will feel a lot better when you land.
If you stayed close to home this summer and your next sky ride lies ahead, perhaps around the holidays, keep all of this in mind. And if you come across a wine you love up there, think twice about buying a case of it when you touch down. Keep in mind that your dining room is not a pressurized cabin. You might have a different experience with the airline wine down here, and if you do, don’t hold it against the wine. Hold it against the airplane. You think the food is bad up there? The same concepts apply. Imagine eating that stuff down here.