Of late, flying has become a much more pleasant gastronomic experience. Sad airport snack bars and synthetic-tasting meals have given way to menus designed by starred chefs and restaurants that almost make you want to miss your flight (here are the projects by chef Mauro Colagreco and Ashley Palmer Watts, just to name a few). In this respect, Singapore Airlines has certainly been a trail-blazer: as early as 1998 this airline company – serving 61 destinations in 33 countries – has set up an International Culinary Panel with some of the world’s top chefs engaged in presenting signature dishes to First Class passengers (including Carlo Cracco for Italy). Furthermore, a Book the Cook service was launched in 1998, offering the possibility to order special dishes in advance.
Such an exhaustive service would not of course be complete without an equally attentive focus on wine. Selected by three international experts, wines are served by members of the cabin crew who, if they so desire, may go on to complete their training and become Air Sommeliers. That of an air sommelier is a curious figure whose work somehow consists in seeking fine dining perfection on board an airplane, a place where such a thing is practically unattainable.
We of Fine Dining Lovers have interviewed one of them to get a better idea of how they go about their job: Vinod Achuthan, Air Sommelier and Chairman of the Wine Appreciation Group Cabin Crew Division of Singapore Airlines.
What does the role of air sommelier actually consist of?
We recommend wines that pair well with the most refined dishes on the menu, as well as training colleagues on the use of wine terms, correct pronunciation and appropriate skills. When we travel around the world we plan visits with colleagues to the best known wine growing areas. Every two years, we make new on-board wine selections: the three Wine Consultants of the company hold blind tasting sessions to select the best new wines and champagnes.
In what ways, if any, does an on-board wine selection differ from any other kind?
The most important factor is probably that of having to consider cabin conditions. Here, the environment is pressurized and lacks humidity so our senses may not be so acute. For this reason, we tend to select rich, aromatic wines with a superior bouquet to help compensate for a less acute perception on the part of the client.
Do our taste buds change when we are on board a plane?
Flying at 30,000 feet in a pressurized cabin can effectively create an obstacle to our sensorial capacity. The wine tasting experience may be less accurate owing to the low moisture content of the cabin air, which affects the nostrils. Our ability to evaluate a wine may not be impartial and the perception of its quality may differ.
How does this affect your work?
Our task is no different from that of any restaurant sommelier: to recommend the most suitable wine for a particular dish and ensure a perfect pairing between the two. Full-bodied red wines seem to express themselves more effectively. The Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon or the Burgundy Pinot Noir, the former being livelier while the later is lighter and more elegant, are two excellent examples.
What do passengers generally ask for?
Our efforts are focused on providing a top notch travel experience. We have gone a long way since the old question of “White or red, sir?” and are now able to recommend premium wines to our most discerning customers and engage in conversations with them. On a plane, it is not sufficient to ensure an ideal temperature or an appropriate decantation, but also to diplomatically handle such situations as warm wine or fragile corks. The pleasure of recommending the right wine to accompany a meal or simply offering a bottle of perfectly chilled Dom Pérignon or Krug and see the customer’s face “light up” makes me very proud to be an Air Sommelier.
What is your own perfect pairing?
My favourite wine is Burgundy Pinot Noir Grand Cru served at 18 degrees. Or an Argentine Malbec served at 21 degrees with a leg of chicken or ostrich, or even a piece of Stilton… a heavenly pairing!