Have a Nice Flight

Paul Blow

I’m in a bar at the Seattle airport, sipping wine. There are no TVs blaring CNN or ESPN and no scent of stale Budweiser. I’m sitting in a plush leather chair in a calm, living room–like environment. The hordes trundling by with their roller bags seem far away. Actually I’ve got three glasses in front of me: a Washington Syrah flight featuring Owen Roe, Apex II, and L’Ecole. Did I mention I’m at the airport?

Before the 9/11-related security-tightening measures and liquid restrictions, I would bring wine on just about every trip: to weddings, family reunions, etc. I had a backpack I could stuff with about 10 or 11 bottles and then carry on, hoisting it up into an overhead compartment, hoping to avoid a hernia—no one suspected the pack weighed 40 pounds. But now I can bring only a three-ounce tube of wine sealed in a Ziploc bag. Once I tried checking a big Styrofoam case of wine, but I abandoned that after I was called to the front of the plane by a Southwest attendant just before takeoff because red liquid was already dripping out of the box as handlers were loading it into the hold. Now, it’s just the odd bottle or two that I smuggle into my suitcase. And that’s only part of the pain of traveling and wine. Ever try to get a decent glass of wine at the airport?

Vino Volo, the wine bar I’m sitting in at Sea-Tac, is the first good news for wine and aviation in a long time. It’s not a perfect solution—I still can’t bring cases of wine from home and check them or carry them on—but it’s a giant step in that direction. Vino Volo’s first branch opened at Washington Dulles International Airport in 2005, and its fifth opened a couple of weeks ago at New York’s JFK. In addition to the Seattle branch, you can find locations at airports in Sacramento and Baltimore, and 7 to 10 more are coming in 2008. “The goal,” says Carla Wytmar, the company’s director of development, “is to build 50 over the next 5 years.”

With the dramatic upscaling of air terminals—you can eat at a celebrity chef restaurant, relax at a spa, or shop at more and more retail stores—the arrival of a high-end wine bar is not a huge surprise. What is surprising is what a truly nice place Vino Volo is. It’s meant as both a retail outlet and a restaurant; you can taste before you buy. About eight flights are offered at any given time, as well as sophisticated food options, from a cheese platter to smoked salmon to duck confit. The space is designed to be a haven, Wytmar says. “We’re right next to the first-class lounges in Dulles, and we get so much business out of those,” she says, “partly because of our furnishings and décor, but also because our wine selections are much better.”

In Seattle, I was impressed with the wine selections. Besides paying tribute to local wines, with selections of Washington Syrahs, Cabs, and Merlots and a flight of Yakima Valley whites, there was a nod to Oregon with a flight of Pinots and a flight from a featured Washington winery, Alexandria Nicole Cellars. Beyond that, the selection was small but exceptionally well chosen—no pandering to the powerful wine conglomerates; these were mostly small, boutique producers. There were high-end, allocated wines that you hardly ever find in stores: Patrick Jasmin Côte-Rôtie ($61), 2002 Château Trotanoy ($99). Wytmar says that in five months, one branch sold 50 six-packs of Caymus Special Selection, a rare wine at $44 a glass. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the misery of flying last summer. But imagine landing in a city and having to go straight to a dinner party—here you could pick up something delicious. And the prices of these rare wines are market: There doesn’t appear to be the typical airport gouging.

Because the wines are bought after security, you can carry them on the plane. The only thing Wytmar can’t comment on is whether you’re allowed to open them on the plane and perhaps improve a crowded, delayed flight. “Most airlines have rules against that,” says Wytmar. She does confirm, however, that Vino Volo sells half bottles of white wine with screw caps.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.