American Airlines Wine Consultant
by Anne Spiselman
ALL PHOTOS: AMERICAN AIRLINES/WEBER SHANDWICK
If you flew American Airlines to Italy in first or business class last May, you could have sipped Pommery Brut Non-Vintage Champagne, followed by Sileni New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Murphy-Goode Sonoma County Chardonnay and Val di Suga Brunello di Montalcino or Clos du Val Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. On flights to Japan, Argentina, and elsewhere, equally interesting and varied offerings from the world’s best vineyards would have been available for your delectation.
American Airlines (AA) maintains 15 first and business class wine lists with a total of about 60 wines. Each list includes at least one Champagne, two whites, two reds, and a dessert wine or port. The lists change monthly, and the airline goes through some half-a-million cases of wine a year, spending more than $10 million. This ambitious program is the responsibility of one woman: Diane Teitelbaum, AA’s wine consultant.
Teitelbaum took over in February from the aptly named Dr Richard Vine, who retired after more than two decades. Diane aims to maintain the goals established by Dr Vine: to provide high-quality wines geared to the ethnic, seasonal, and cultural preferences of travellers on each route while varying the lineup enough to enable frequent flyers to sample different wines. At the same time, she intends to move in new directions by expanding the selection, increasing staff training, and refining wine-and-food pairings. “Food has changed drastically in the last twenty years,” Teitelbaum points out, “and as fresh, bold regional flavors replace heavy French fare, the wines need to change, too.”
Although AA is her first airline gig, Teitelbaum has more than 25 years’ experience in the wine business. She has consulted for restaurants, hotels, and private collectors; organized wine cellars; handled acquisitions and appraisals for law firms; taught for both consumer and trade organizations, and written extensively for several publications.
Teitelbaum’s first wine-related job was as manager of The Grape, the pioneering wine bar in Dallas, Texas, but she didn’t have ‘the epiphany’ until she visited California wineries Carneros Creek and Schramsberg in 1977. There, caught up in the owners’ enthusiasm, Diane realized that she wanted to devote her life to wine.
That enthusiasm carries over to her criteria for selecting wines for AA (and anyone else). Bearing in mind that everything tastes less dramatic in the pressurized high-altitude capsule of an airliner cabin, Teitelbaum says she looks for wines that are very flavorful. Then she decides which wines in a given category will be most appropriate for the airline’s menus, and ascertains that the wines are available in sufficient quantity. While Teitelbaum purchases thousands of cases of classics to ensure that supplies will last several months, the usual minimum is 300 cases. But a really good, rare wine will be purchased in smaller quantities—say, 200 cases—for use on select flights in first class only.
While AA’s purchasing department negotiates special prices and contracts after Teitelbaum has chosen the wines, she says she rarely has to give up a wine she wants because it’s too expensive. Wines served in first and business on transcontinental and overseas flights would cost $30 to $120 at a shop, while those in coach would retail for $15 to $18 a regular bottle, though AA uses smaller 187ml (5.6fl oz) bottles. The mostly Californian and occasionally South American wines in coach are often custom-bottled, thousands of cases at a time.
Teitelbaum estimates that she tastes thousands of wines a year in the course of her consulting duties, with AA accounting for approximately two days’ work (if indeed it could be called work!) a week. In first and business class, she plans to increase variety by adding more of the currently popular Spanish and Italian wines, with South African products another possibility. A promotion of New York wines was a hit on transcontinental flights and, as Oregon pinot noir and other US varietals become more accepted internationally, she might offer them on overseas routes. “Keeping up with the trends is important, because our customers have become so sophisticated,” Diane says.
Teitelbaum’s strategy for wine-and-food pairings was introduced with AA’s fall and winter menus—the first time she has been able to taste every dish with the food and beverage team. Because good matches depend on acidity and texture more than flavor, Diane sampled each protein and its accompaniments with several wines from her inventory to pick the perfect one. “The center of the plate isn’t always the most important factor,” she points out. “Poached salmon with beurre blanc and dill calls for a crisp, fresh white like a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, for example, but grilled salmon au poivre with burgundy sauce can stand up to a red wine.” Previously, the policy was to mate menu categories—red meat, vegetarian—with general wine styles.
Teitelbaum usually works three to six months ahead on wine lists in conjunction with menus, and ‘refreshes’ them monthly to refine the pairings (in response to customer feedback, for instance) and replace wines that run out. This is one reason why the wine lists don’t include vintages, though she says she pays close attention to them when buying wines. Another reason is that the airline caterers may still be boarding a previous vintage after she purchases the next one, and she doesn’t want flyers to be disappointed by discrepancies between the printed list and what they are served.
Nominating the biggest reward from her work, Teitelbaum says, “I have the opportunity to work with so many cultures in a complex, completely different arena, and everyone at AA is marvelous.”
The admiration is mutual. “We’re extremely pleased to have Diane Teitelbaum as American’s wine consultant,” says Mary McKee, AA’s managing director of onboard products. “She’s diligently maintaining our standards in the selection of traditional fine wines, and is adding new discoveries to ensure our program is innovative and exciting to our customers.”
(For AA’s monthly wine lists and information about the wines, go to aa.com/wine.)
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