So the wife and I have just been on a quick trip to New York and naturally the one question worth answering is what kind of wine does British Airways serve? Since I only ever go steerage, my answer is necessarily reduced in scope, but on this occasion it was a Tempranillo rosé on the way out (perfectly drinkable, could have been a bit colder) and something called Cencibel red on the way back, which turned out to be Tempranillo by another name (perfectly drinkable, can't remember much about it, to be honest). Can we learn anything from this?
Well, the best in-flight wine I have ever had was on Qatar Airways. Nothing to do with the wine itself (it was red), but with the quantity. Instead of arriving in a Lilliputian screw-top bottle, it was poured out by hand from a big, proper, glass container, the wine brimming my plastic beaker, a real meniscus serving. In fact the stewardess said she wouldn't be back to give me a refill for some time, and would I like an extra beaker of wine there and then to keep me going? Obviously, I said Yes, and sat there with my crappy fold-down table luxuriously burdened with drink, feeling like a king.
Of course, it didn't much matter what was in the glass, as - we all know this, don't we? - your tastebuds are shot the moment you get into a plane. In-flight meals are massively sweeter and saltier than their ground-level equivalents, because you can barely taste anything in the dessicated, pressurised, environment of a jet, and the cook must compensate accordingly. At the same time, airlines avoid serving wines which are heavily tannic or acidic, because those flavours do persist: so a fruity Tempranillo is about right, whereas a Claret is not going to work, and champagne generally tastes lousy, even though it accords with that sexy jetset lifestyle we've been aspiring to since 1959.
Would I have had a better drinking experience if I'd been flying pre-Jet Age, pre-pressurisation, pre-War, in fact? Essentially, no. The earliest commercial flights - Croydon to Le Bourget, always a favourite - were appalingly noisy, cold, bumpy, and smelled of petrol. The old Imperial Airways planes could drop a hundred feet in a second when they hit turbulence, so going to the toilet was something you put off until Paris. Wines too would have been shaken to perdition, so the stock in-flight booze was lager beer and whisky. It got a bit better as the planes themselves improved, but there was still no real pleasure to be had, not until the Boeing 707 showed us how it should be done; by which time you could drink and eat what you liked, and it all tasted the same.
No: the way to drink wine is on an airship - and not just any airship, I mean the R101 and The Hindenburg would be poor choices in any event, no, it has to be the Graf Zeppelin, the behemoth of the skies from 1928 to 1937. This incredible vehicle - it was actually crowd-funded, you know - was seven hundred and seventy-six feet long and held nearly four million cubic feet of hydrogen. In its years of service it made just under six hundred flights, travelled over a million miles, carried more than thirteen thousand passengers, circumnavigated the globe, crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic, went to Brazil, Russia and the Arctic - without a single injury to passenger, crew or freight. A stupendous record: much of it due to Dr Hugo Eckener, legendary captain of the Graf, a man known as The Magellan of the Air, a giant in the history of flight. With Dr Eckener in charge, you might hit the odd spot of turbulence, or get held up by a squall line, or even spill your soup; but you would arrive in one piece.
Better yet, you would, with luck, have experienced a kind of travel which was authentically dream-like in its ease and strangeness. Not, it must be said, in northern latitudes, and not in winter: there was no heating on board, so you had to spend those flights wrapped in a leather overcoat and cashmere scarf, waiting for beef tea, but - anywhere warm, you could float a few hundred feet above the earth, with the windows open, listening to distant cow bells, the hum of traffic, even raised voices, with no sound audible from the remote airship engines; and you could sip, frankly, whatever wine you had brought with you. Hock was popular; even a white Burgundy might have survived. And afterwards, you could go and smoke yourself stupid in a pressurised, asbestos-lined smoking room, where electric cigarette lighters were your flame. Did it matter that you were, basically, attached to a gigantic floating bomb? As Lady Grace Drummond Hay, traveller and Zeppelin enthusiast put it: 'I cannot conceive a greater thrill'.