Natalie MacLean is an accredited sommelier, wine journalist and author of Red, White, and Drunk All Over: A Wine-Soaked Journey from Grape to Glass.
I understand you travelled extensively to research your book.
Yes, I spent three years sipping and spitting my way through various vineyards around Europe and around North America – Burgundy, Champagne and California, among others.
How do you research your stories?
You can only say so much about wine by just opening the bottle: it’s wet, it’s fruity, it tastes good or it doesn’t. The story of wine is the story about the place, where it’s grown. Wine holds such a fascination for so many people because it’s so varied. To get the full story and the full colour, you need to go where they are growing it to feel the dirt where those vines are planted, to talk to the winemakers in their own milieu, rather than meeting them in a restaurant somewhere.
Do you sample the wine on airplanes or at airports?
Oh yes, I’m always researching. I’m very thorough with my subject! Many people want to fly business class because there is more legroom. I want to fly business class because the wines are a lot better. I think more and more airlines are using food and drink as a way to differentiate themselves. They can’t control the weather or understaffing — oh, I guess they could control the understaffing, but that’s a lot more expensive than offering premium bottles of wine.
So which airlines are serving noteworthy wines?
I like it when airlines specialize in wines from their home country: Air Canada and Air France both do that. And it’s a really great sampling program for the wineries to get themselves listed with the in-flight wine program just as it is prestigious to be on a restaurant wine list. It’s a way of exposing your wine to affluent, educated customers.
Just like a restaurant does.
Yes, it’s like a restaurant, except for the itsy-bitsy glasses, which change the whole experience. I used to think that the right glass was all marketing bunk until I took one of those taste tests and found the glass really does make a difference to the smell and taste. A big glass allows you to swirl your wine without getting it on your shirt, and it also concentrates the aromas. Airlines, of course, are limited to those little glasses because of storage and breakage and so on.
I tend not to drink while flying because a small amount can affect me and it seems to increase the effects of jet lag. What’s your advice for drinking and flying?
Well, flying is already dehydrating, so people tend to drink more water. And alcohol is dehydrating, so you’re compounding the effect of a dry cabin with alcohol. I still won’t give up on a glass of wine onboard because it can really help with flight delays and so on, so I just drink a lot more water.
And it can also help with the misery of flying.
Absolutely. A little bit of wine goes a long way to combat today’s travel experience. Your palate dries out at 30,000 feet and you become less sensitive to the fruit aromas in the wine. So a lot of airlines try to serve very fruity, robust wines, which I think is a good move. You don’t want to analyze some complex, subtle Bordeaux in-flight; you just need a robust wine to make flying more palatable.