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A Bird's Eye View of New Zealand's Wine Culture

Elyse Glickman

Thanks to an inspired collaboration between Air New Zealand and the country's top-tier wineries, oenophiles can hit New Zealand's wine trail before they land.

Air New Zealand's Business and Premium economy sections are like a boutique hotel in the sky, artfully blending style and quirky humor. While their 2012 security film, trading on director Peter Jackson's box office-shattering translation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epics, prepping passengers for their journey to "Middle Earth" went viral on YouTube and is now the stuff of legend, travelers from the U.S. now are treated to a "safety in flight film" starring U.S. television legends Gavin McCloud and Betty White in a scenario that blends Cocoon with Hot in Cleveland.

Air New Zealand Wine Consultants Jim Harre (left) and John Belsham.

However, the food and beverage program in Business Premier and Premium Economy (which gets its "premium" from pod-style seating areas and Business class perks) is serious stuff that both the wine buying consumer and a beverage industry professional (buyer or sommelier especially) should pay close attention to, even with Betty and Gavin's banter about proper use of life jackets and proper in-flight etiquette.

The wine program, curated by Jim Harre, international wine judge, hotelier and Air NZ's In Service Flight Director and Wine Consultant, and Foxes Island Winery owner John Belsham, goes far beyond providing a sexy flourish for restaurant-caliber cuisine created by chefs such as Peter Gordon, who is known internationally and appeared on television shows such as Globe Trekker. It is a proper showcase for the wineries that has endured for over 25 years in tandem with New Zealand Winegrowers.

The Air New Zealand Wine Guide.
Beyond the bottles dispensed on board (an estimated 650,000 poured per year), the program has its own Wine Awards as well as a small but substantial booklet that serves as a primer for passengers on the country's top varietals and production regions. There are also pairing suggestions broken down by grape varietal, wine production area overviews, as well as a blank section for one's own tasting notes. In other words, a stroke and a sip of collaborative marketing genius.

Wineries featured include several whose wares are in distribution in the U.S. market, including Marlborough's Brancott Estate (a Pernod Ricard– affiliated winery) to Villa Maria (whose wines are distributed by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, and whose vineyards in Marlborough and Hawke's Bay are top draws along New Zealand's "Wine Trail") to Peregrine Wines in the Central Otago (one of the southernmost wine production regions in the world, with product brought into the U.S. by Vineyard Brands in Birmingham, AL).

Crisp NZ Sauvignon Blanc at Brancott Estate.
The guide is also a great tool that helps the flight crew serving Premium Economy and Business properly equip each passenger for his or her own personal wine adventure both on board and after landing, be their New Zealand visit a three week car or bike trek down all or part of the Wine Trail on the North and South Islands, immersion into local wine culture at a festival (such as F.A.W.C!, or the Hawke's Bay Food and Wine Classic, now a bi-annual event with international reach), a targeted visit to Marlborough or Hawke's Bay wineries, or an urban dining experience at Auckland or Wellington's top restaurants.

According to a marketing spokesperson for Air New Zealand, the airline twice a year conducts an extensive tasting, inviting and encouraging all of New Zealand wineries to submit their product for consideration as an in-flight selection. There are several important conditions to consider when selecting wines for drinking in-flight, such as low humidity and high altitude, which will impact the palate, as the wines' tannin and astringency will be more pronounced. Once short lists have been made for each varietal required by the team led by Harre and Belsham, negotiations take place with the wineries.

However, does this painstakingly organized beverage program and its guide help the efforts of New Zealand's wineries and their agents to deepen their inroads into the U.S.? To get some insight, we caught up with representatives from several New Zealand wineries whose wines have been selected for first-class exposure on Air New Zealand. While passenger-to-friend word-of-mouth certainly perpetuates a demand for New Zealand's classic Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Noirs and newer developments captured in a bottle, representatives from the different wineries candidly discuss how their participation has helped their brand take flight internationally.

The New Zealand flag flies near Villa Maria.
"We have been supplying Air New Zealand's in-flight program with some of our award-winning wines for almost three decades," points out Villa Maria founder and owner Sir George Fistonich.

"Through the years, we've found the exposure to a variety of consumers from all over the world is great not only for the New Zealand wine industry but also the New Zealand tourism industry. As Villa Maria has an added advantage of being located five minutes from Auckland International Airport, visitors who have tasted our wines on the plane will stop by at the beginning or end of their trip to taste the rest of the range. Because Villa Maria has a strong global distribution network, Air New Zealand's program is a really impactful way for people to find a wine they enjoy and then be able to find it in their local market."

Barbara Lawson, owner of Marlborough-based winery Lawson's Dry Hills (distributed in the U.S. by The Country Vintner in Ashland, VA), praises the program's thoroughness in helping her wines generate a consistent stream of awareness and demand in the U.S.

"When passengers have tasted New Zealand wine on an Air New Zealand flight inbound, they use the information contained in the wine guide booklet to seek out wineries in the area they are visiting," Lawson explains. "We are no exception, as our cellar door [New Zealand speak for tasting room] experiences visits from the Air New Zealand passengers, and their visit to the winery reinforces their initial enjoyment of our wine. We then give them advice where in the USA they can buy our wine on their return home.

Neal Ibbotson, owner of Marlborough-based Saint Clair Family Estate (a New Zealand viticulture pioneers established in 1978, and distributed here by Winesellers Limited in Niles, IL), is also pleased at how effectively the program has enhanced brand perception for both his own brand and for the overall New Zealand wine industry. Furthermore, he credits the program for helping the Saint Clair brand achieve parity with Air New Zealand's excellent reputation for customer service and on-board food and beverage.

"With an airline that places enormous focus on excellence, the in-flight wine program representation of Saint Clair is one of the many ways of educating Saint Clair consumers and giving them increased confidence in purchasing the Saint Clair wine brand," says Ibbotson. "It is also a way to introduce the Saint Clair wine brand to new customers with the aim for these customers to potentially becoming loyal Saint Clair consumers who are in-turn able to introduce further people around the globe to Saint Clair. Passengers being exposed to Saint Clair enhances brand perception and, in turn, increases sales across Saint Clair's entire portfolio of wines with trade and consumers."

Treasure Islands

These gems featured on Air New Zealand's Los Angeles–Auckland flights are also available to U.S. restaurants and retail:

Villa Maria 2012 Marlborough Cellar Sauvignon Blanc
Villa Maria 2011 Hawke's Bay Cellar Selection Syrah and Late Harvest Semillon
Brancott Estate 2011 Living Land Series Pinot Gris
Squawking Magpie 2011 Hawke's Bay Gimblett Gravels Stoned Crow Syrah
Cloudy Bay 2008 Marlborough Late Harvest Riesling
Cooper's Creek 2011 Hawkes Bay Syrah, which was perfect great with salmon that adorned with Israeli couscous and Spanish-style grilled vegetables.




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