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Wine Fortunes Take Off For Labels Featured On Inflight Menus

By Tiffany Ap | South China Morning Post | 22 February, 2015
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Getting on an airline wine list isn’t easy, but winemakers who make the grade enjoy improved brand awareness and higher sales on the ground.

Over the course of her 36-year career at Cathay Pacific Airways, Karen Koh would help welcome first and business-class passengers with champagne as they boarded. An inflight service manager for 23 of those years, she would also oversee the cabin crew at meal times as they poured a selection of wines – two reds, two whites and a champagne.

“If it’s a full load in first or business, we use up two bottles in each class,” says Koh, who retired from the airline in November.

And while the wine service on board the airline has largely stayed the same over the years, the faces have not. “The passenger load has filled up with Chinese people,” Koh says. “There were very few Chinese passengers 20 years ago, it’s only the last five years or so. They weren’t as affluent in the past or exposed to wine, but now of course they are very likely to drink on the plane. Even in economy, most of them will want to try a wine.”

Taking into account that Hong Kong-based Cathay and its subsidiary Dragonair moved 29.9 million passengers last year, one way for foreign wine producers looking to gain exposure to Chinese drinkers is to aim sky high.

The size of the global inflight wine market is unclear, however. Singapore Airlines and Qantas spend US$23.5 million and US$11.7 million respectively a year on their wine menus. Emirates outspends both with US$58.9 million a year. In December, the gulf carrier announced a US$500 million long-term investment in its wine programme, saying the funds would be used to procure the best vintages up to a decade before they were ready to be consumed.

“As interest in wine in China has been growing rapidly over the past year, this consumer trend also results in an increasing interest in sampling wines inflight. So in this perspective, China and other countries with rapidly growing economies and middle classes are catching up with more developed countries,” says Raymond Kollau, the founder of aviation website airlinetrends.com.

“At the same time, airlines are improving their inflight services in order to increase passenger preference and investing in the wine selection – and training cabin attendants or even creating a wine bar in the galley as Air New Zealand and Air China have done – can be an effective element as wines are a high-involvement product.”

Chinese flag carrier Air China stocks more than 200 bottles of wine from around the world on its first-class cabins.

A listing on an airline’s wine menu can be a huge boost in awareness for a vineyard. Cathay served 1.6 million bottles of wine on its international routes alone last year – not counting Dragonair, which moved 250,000 bottles last year, or their airport lounges, which use a separate wine tender process through parties such as Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels.

Recent data confirms that the Chinese are drinking more and flying more. In January last year, China overtook France to become the biggest red-wine-drinking market, according to research group International Wine and Spirits Research. Outbound travel by Chinese tourists is also expected to double by 2020 to 200 million, according to CLSA.

“If you manage to get on the wine list, you’ll have on every flight about 400 passengers trying your wine. Louis Jadot was one of the famous red wines that the Chinese got to know in the planes and they started to look for it when they land,” Koh says.

Lau Chi-sun, a wine menu consultant to Cathay for the past 12 years, says: “Cathay’s wine list usually consists of around 20 wines and we have some special promotion wines for a period of one to three months for first and business classes.”

The menu Lau helps curate also includes a paragraph of his tasting notes on each bottle to help guide new drinkers.

“We serve [one wine] at least six months in economy and if you’ve got the quantity, it’ll be one year. We change it after a year as it will be boring for passengers if we serve the same wine every year. If you are a small chateau or domaine, think about business class,” he says.

Chinese airlines, at least for the time being, are free to choose grapes from any geography – nine currently, as its domestic wine-growing regions have yet to gain clout. That is unlike Air France where it would be a faux pas to feature an Italian or Spanish vintage, no matter how good the wine is.

There are of course caveats to consider. First, there is the high altitude that alters the taste of the pour. Scientific studies have shown that dry, pressurised cabin air numbs passenger taste buds, making everything taste slightly worse at 35,000 feet.

“Some wines really cannot fly,” Lau says. “The wines that taste better are the ones that do not have much tannins. Because it’s quite dry up there, we use softer wines.”

The competition can also be intense. Cathay’s panel tastes 300 to 400 wines for every one they select. Also because they are moving such vast quantities, the airline will ask for a significant discount.

“An important qualification element is the ability to supply wine on a consistent basis, so the vineyard has to be able to supply large quantities, as well as work with the airline to sort out logistical issues,” Kollau says.

“So whereas the quality of smaller vineyards may be higher and their wines may be more interesting to sample for passengers, practical implications will limit the chance they will be actually featured on board.”

However, it is not that work-intensive on the wine producers’ part.

“You don’t have to do anything other than send your wine to the airline and the consultants and panels. If they like it, they buy it. You don’t have to do any promotions,” Lau says. “You can easily sell 100,000 cases of wine. Especially if your wine features on first class or business class, people will think your wine is beautiful. We get a lot of inquiries on the wines we serve on board.”

With Chinese luxury spending spreading across the globe, marketing should not begin only when they land in a new country, says Deloitte’s global consumer business leader Antoine de Riedmatten.

“You want to be present from the start to the finish. You place ads in magazines on the planes they ride on and at the airport when they land. You make sure you’re visible throughout the trip,” de Riedmatten says.