This is the story of the time I—along with a small group of the most powerful wine buyers in Las Vegas—was invited to join Terry Peabody, owner of Craggy Range winery, aboard his private jet. It was a sunny Tuesday, a week before Thanksgiving, and we were still in Las Vegas aboard Peabody’s Falcon 7X Jet on an executive tarmac around 10am. We had a reservation for lunch in Pebble Beach at noon, and later that same evening a dinner reservation back in Vegas at db Brasserie in The Venetian. This was the big idea: experience wine at different elevations with only one rule: Try not to let go of your wine glass.
That rule was truly important because the glasses were heavy crystal goblets that looked like this:
And because this was a private jet, with seats facing this way and that way, and lacquered wood tables to set down your glass (like at a cocktail party), the moments between takeoff and cruising altitude could be potentially hazardous to both crystal goblet and the person with whom impact might be made. Luckily, we were all pros and held on tightly to our glasses—but not too tightly, for fear of warming the delicious white wine that was poured with unlimited refills throughout the flight.
As many people who have downed a mini bottle of Chardonnay in economy class know, not all wine tastes very good in a plane. In a pressurized airplane cabin, low humidity and air pressure cause your taste receptors to zonk out, and you experience a diminished ability to sniff out odors and to perceive salty and sweet flavors. That phenomenon—coupled with the fact that airline stewards don’t give a damn about what you think of their wine selection, as long as it cajoles you to sleep—has given wine-tasting at high altitudes a bad rap.
Tim Hanni is a Master of Wine and author of Why You Like The Wines You Like. He is admittedly a bit of a black-sheep, but he seems to like living on the fringe. He’s spent the better part of his life paying attention to fundamental differences in our physiology in order to “help explain preferences in everything from thermostat settings and levels of noise, to the irritation some people get from the tags in clothing,” and how these details can shape one’s proclivity for a particular wine. I asked him what he thinks about wine in planes.
“Low humidity on a plane tends to dry out membranes and lessen saliva flow, making wines seem to be a bit more bitter and astringent—unless you are drinking wines low in bitterness and astringency in the first place,” he told me.
Drink what you like, or take a Zanax and you will be fine—sort of.
“Oh yeah?” was all I could think to muster in response. But Hanni continued: “The thing is, people often notice a slight increase in sensory sensitivity due to ambient pressure, which may have a small effect—maybe like drinking wine in Denver? This is overplayed because you are in a pressurized cabin after all. But if the yellow masks fall down, try the wine and see if it changes, then put on your mask.”
Sound advice. As for the self-professed wine experts, we’ll just over-analyze anyway, so in the end, perhaps it’s best just to “drink what you like, or take a Zanax and you will be fine–sort of, but don’t mix with alcohol,” to quote the Hanni. Well, that’s his view on the subject, and it’s similarly the view of studies conducted in Germany by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics, which have demonstrated that our sense of taste decreases by about 30 percent when we are at altitudes greater than 8,000 feet.
Despite the evidence supporting diminished sensory perception, the whole matter of whether a wine tastes good in an airplane is completely subjective. Which is why Peabody devised a plan: rather than show up at the restaurant with a bag full of bottles, why not taste his wine up in the air in his private jet? This grand experiment would provide a much more interesting and fun way to showcase Craggy’s portfolio. After all, enjoyment of wine is far more dependent on environmental factors than many experts would like to admit.
Creating a 1,000-year legacy
At first glance, Terry Peabody looks like a man who might inhabit the White House, save for his double-breasted tailored navy blue suits (presidents don’t do double-breasted anymore), and the fact that he was born in Guam. No, a career in politics is out of the question for this septuagenarian who “gets bored” sitting around. Anyway, who would want to live in the White House when there is this to call home?
Peabody is the founder of a waste management and transportation company called Transpacific Industries, Ltd—the source of his vast fortune. That fortune fueled the purchase of an important piece of New Zealand soil—now a world-class vineyard for Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc—called Gimblett Gravels, situated in the cooler area of Martinborough. The Craggy Range winery was built in the shadow of the Te Mata Peak in Hawke’s Bay, a viticultural area on the eastern shore of New Zealand with vines growing on coastal planes, hillsides, and alluvial soils.
Craggy Range isn’t profitable—that’s not the point; it’s about leaving a mark on the wine industry as a pioneer of single-vineyard winemaking in New Zealand. And to ensure a mark is left, Peabody established a 1,000-year deed on the land so that his 11 grandchildren will have the opportunity to work a harvest at their family-owned winery between now and the year 3015 (give or take).
When you’re someone like Terry Peabody, who has endured the scrutiny of an inquisitive public—and an insatiable news media eager to know whether his fortunes were made legitimately, or as some kind of New-Zealand mafia boss that buried people in trash heaps on his way to the top—controlling the story of your own legacy is an important matter.
Play along with my presidential analogy: Imagine that Craggy Range is Peabody’s Presidential Library—the place that will live on when he’s long gone, telling the story of how he rose from the literal ash heaps to fame and fortune, eventually to leave a lasting mark on the world. In conversation, he seems genuinely proud of what he’s done for the wine industry in New Zealand, especially saving Gimblett Gravels from cement companies that wanted to excavate it. So, what can you say to a man who wants to ensure his family is the eternal recipient of the fruits of his labor? You ask: “Do you have any daughters and are they single?”
Sniffing and sipping at 30,000 feet
“I wish I had the opportunity to see how every wine tasted at altitude. The difference is striking—the aromatics tend to be greatly muted and the weight of the wine increases a ton,” said Will Costello, the Wine Director for the Mandarin Oriental casino, just before he sipped his first taste of Craggy Range Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc.
“It’s been far too long since I have been fortunate to indulge in a fine glass of wine before noon on a ‘workday,’” chimed in Doug Martin, Evaluation Manager for Food & Beverage at the Bellagio.
As we sipped and ogled the diminishing Vegas-scape below, the wine began to change with the elevation. “The amazing thing to me,” said Martin, “is the shifts in the subtle nuances of the flavor profile, but the true core elements of the wine are ever-present, albeit in more or less pronounced states.”
I agreed that picking up on the nuance and bright citrus character noted before takeoff was not as easy as we climbed, but a definitive spice note persisted, as did the overall deliciousness of the wine (or was it the palpable excitement of sitting on a plush leather chair in a plane, yelling up to the captain and co-pilot about the fact that there was no cockpit door?). Whatever it was, we agreed that “citrus notes and leanness,” as Martin put it, “became more pronounced,” but the wine was never out of balance.
Harley Carbery, Director of Wine for the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, later recalled enjoying a glass before and during take-off, noting that “it was fresh, vibrant—just very ‘New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.’ And as we climbed, the wine gained viscosity, becoming heavier and richer on the palate—an experience that was new to me.”
I wonder if Harley, in his recollection, was possibly thinking what was already on my mind: For once, wine on a plane could be appreciated as something other than the ultimate mile-high sedative.