There are budget airlines, ‘normal’ airlines, state airlines, there’s the big Middle Eastern airlines – then there’s Emirates (EK).
Given the economies of scale at work with an airline like Emirates, they can do things that many other airlines can’t do. For instance, they can order 100+ A380s and actually progressively integrate them into their fleet. They can turn Dubai, once a backwater re-fueling station in the middle of the desert with not much else going on (even oil was scarce there) into a global metropolis and transit hub. They can also be the first to introduce fully enclosed ‘suites’ in First Class (about 15 years ago at this point) and shower spas and a true stand up bar and lounge for their premium passengers on the Airbus fleet. They can serve destinations as far flung as Santiago, Chile through to Sydney, Australia with a mix of Peshawar, Pakistan and Lusaka in the Zambia in between and of course, the iconic cities of New York, Tokyo and London all served as well.
So it’s fair to say that Emirates might be a modern day iteration of one of the greats of modern jet-age aviation history – Pan Am. As it stands, EK offers, serves and flies the most available seat-per-kilometers amongst any airline, making them the largest ‘international’ carrier of the world. This is the standard by which IATA, the international United Nations backed governing body for civil aviation goes by. This also makes the airline the de-facto ‘national’ carrier of many underserved countries.
Well, Emirates has a long track record of offering an extensive food, wine and liquor list on most of their long haul flights. They are the only airline in the world to introduce true Iranian free range Oscetria caviar on their flights and serve the Dom Perignon 2006 vintage which was exclusively bottled by LVMH for the airline. They are also the only airline in the world to offer the $800/bottle Henessy Paradis cognac for their first class passengers, and even leave it at the self pour bar after meal services.
So it’s no surprise that it’s come out that Emirates has invested about half a billion dollars in creating the ultimate wine cellar with optimal conditions for wines to age appropriately – purchased today, served onboard years later. It’s a remarkable investment in service and represents a good dollop of forward thinking on the EK’s part.
Emirates started the program about 12 years ago and has continued to innovate since then. Of the $500 million invested thus far into offering a superior wine program, a vast majority of it is spent on offering over 70 different types of wine on board their flights across the vast EK network at any given time. The lists vary from route to route and depend on the timing of the flight and what dishes on the menu they are best paired with. Local taste palates such as a preference for sweet over dry are also taken into account when deciding what wine lists should be offered on what routes. Given the wide array of the type of routes that Emirates operates, the airline can go through somewhere close to 300 different vintages in a given month which most experts find the most impressive feat out of Emirates’ wine operations.
And it’s not only about the sheer quantity as well – it’s almost ludicrous to say that that Dom Perignon is a dime a dozen on any given EK flight – it’s offered on nearly all flights. But if you find yourself in First Class, you might end up sipping on a Chateau Figeac which is a highly rated Bordeaux seldom found in the sky – and EK’s 2005 Sauterne, grown from the same winery that was the favorite of Thomas Jefferson, which has since been purchased by LVMH, is probably one of the most expensive bottles of wine offered on any airline today.
When Dom Perignon is your base, you only have upwards to go. EK’s closely curated relationship with LVMH is indeed paying off dividends now.
But that said a large part of the $500 million investment in their wine list is their ability to source them at the appropriate times and at the scale EK needs them at.
Emirates has scooped up several massive warehouses in Burgundy, France to safely store and nurture their purchased wines and labels for the future. Of course their First and Business Class wines are more cost intensive, but their Economy Class wines get the same treatment despite being more reasonable in price.
Joost Heimeijer, Senior VP for inflight catering, says that whilst the idea sounds romantic, the facility at the end of the day is designed to be one for function and pragmatism:
“If you have a vision of limestone cellars with cobwebs, I’m sorry to disappoint you,” says Heymeijer. “Ours is more of a Fort Knox-style facility.”
It’s a modern, temperature-controlled, light-deprived location that stores 3.75 million bottles of wine in their original packaging, in boxes and on palettes. The company chose Burgundy for the simple reason that ports are a few hours south with temperature-controlled containers where bottles can be shipped to the preferred destination. “It’s not very sexy,” he says. “But it is highly effective.”
“It’s an investment,” said Heymeijer. “We look at it like a commodity.”
It’s important to look at this concept and investment on the part of Emirates through an industry wide lens. What is the norm and what do most airlines do regarding their catering and especially their alcohol catering and contracting? We must look at airlines of a similar scale to Emirates, so we go to Europe and the United States, looking at the Lufthansa’s and Delta’s of the world.
So normally other major airlines will look to buy through a trading house by way of a wine consultant that will put together a list of 20 or so middle range wines (usually priced between $10-$35 per bottle) that fare well in a pressurized environment and have a correspondingly good price point. Once that list is settled they are purchased and distributed across the network accordingly. Outliers such as Sake for Japanese flights or craft beers for American flights are then taken into account as well, at a smaller quantity.
At Emirates, the approach was different from the get go.
Sir Tim Clark, Founding (and current) President of Emirates, wanted the wine and liquor list to be a differentiator for the airline and thus sought to get as much direct access and contact with wineries in France, California, Austria, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa Argentina and Australia as possible. They also went for smaller parcels, in packs of 10,000 bottles rather than the usual 48,000 that most airlines go for.
Heymeijer continues about the challenges Emirates faced in the early days:
The toughest challenge for Emirates, at the beginning, was getting credibility in these wine-producing regions. Even though the airline considered its first class the right audience, it still had to show that it would treat the wine in a way that old-school French vintners would appreciate: Pour it at the right temperature and test how altitude and cabin pressure have an influence on what you smell, taste, and eat.
Just because you’ve got the money doesn’t mean you can buy. They want you to do justice to the wine.
As such the airline tries to replicate conditions on the ground as much as possible, working to maintain as much humidity in the cabin as possible. Emirates reckons conditions on board their state of the art aircraft is comparable to drinking these varied wines on a ski chalet in the Alps – at an altitude of about 4,000 to 8,000 feet – the altitude that EK’s cabins are pressurized at.
Additionally, Emirates modified their aircraft galleys to be able to fit larger, full sized champagne flutes rather than the smaller glasses airlines traditionally serve. They also increased the size of both their white and red wine glasses so as to offer pours that are larger than what you’d normally receive in a restaurant. To help air out wines, glasses are not served straight from the bottle but rather decanted into personal carafes to compensate for the dryness in the cabin air.
These measures have all gone a long way into lending credibility to Emirates being a good buyer of wines and being able to do justice to their labels’ intended flavors once served to the passenger.
Then of course, with the tremendous growth of the airline in the past couple decades, scale has come into play now.
Emirates is one of the if not the biggest purchasers and servers of the exclusive Dom Perignon champagne label – in 2016 alone, more than 9 million glasses of Dom were served to Emirates passengers – not bad brand recognition and awareness building, one would say?
Of course what’s not lost in all this is the fact that this is a tremendous risk that Emirates takes to keep up their award winning wine list. The airline routinely uses the futures market to hedge on their wines – for instance a Sancerre they bought for $250 a bottle in 2007 might be worth closer to $2,000 per piece now – but it works both ways. Taking an ill advised chance on what turns out to be a poor year for a given wine – like what 2012 was for French whites and 2014 was for South American reds – could end up costing the airline a pretty penny.
But thus far, the airline has been doing well having employed the right tasters, traders, contacts and sommeliers. And this is what keeps Emirates at the forefront of the aviation industry – innovating in all aspects of the flying experience for the passenger – from their innovative complimentary chauffeur service for First and Business passengers which they introduced nearly 20 years ago, to their exclusive all premium terminal in Dubai and now to this, the airline’s personal stash of fine and rare wines buried deep in the rolling hills of Burgundy, France.
Emirates innovates, and the industry follows. Long may it continue.