Blog Post

Pre Flight Check… Wine Bar. Check.

Last Updated: May 3, 2024

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With alluring pours to satisfy the most discerning enophiles, wine bars are taking off in North America’s busiest airports. Jeffery Lindenmuth checks in.

On the short list of least desirable places to dine, airport terminals may be second only to the airplanes themselves, the domain of eight dollar hot dogs and cardboard soft pretzels, a place where even fast-food offerings seem to sink to unlikely new lows in the face of an audience that is literally captive. For visitors to Toronto Pearson International Airport, however, the pre-flight menu might include small plates of Chilean-style braised beef empanadas paired with a glass of De Martino Legado Reserva Carmenère from Maipo Valley, or noshing on artisanal Canadian cheeses and meats from local artisan salumi maker Dolce Lucano, between sips of Tawse Riesling from Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula.

Vinifera wine bar is curated by Master Sommelier John Szabo.

Vinifera, opened in October 2013 in Terminal 1, is a wine bar worthy of any downtown locale, a freestanding cube of orange glass panels, that houses towering wine racks and a chic square bar, with a slick stainless-steel WineEmotion wine dispensing system as its focal point. For OTG, an airport f&b operator with more than 200 restaurants and eateries in 10 airports, the wine bar is a natural companion to their other restaurant concepts aimed at raising the quality, while stamping out the homogeneity, of airport terminal dining. “What’s going on in the broader epicurean world is very relevant to us,” explains OTG concept chef Michael Coury. “We don’t treat the airport guests differently, but remember these are the very same people who are dining downtown in the city. So, we work with the local talent and bring together what each city has to offer,” he adds, noting that despite being a transportation hub, OTG’s food for Toronto Pearson is partially sourced within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the airport, with a focus on small farms. OTG chefs are encouraged to walk the farmers’ markets before work like any other chef.

Canada’s first Master Sommelier, John Szabo, delivers local flavor on Vinifera’s list of 85 wines by the glass, while also offering a range of wines to suit international travelers. “This is a gateway to Canada, so I knew I wanted to showcase the best Canada has to offer. At the same time, I had to consider what a businessman from China or Thailand wants to see in a wine bar, and for those answers I researched wine sales in different countries,” explains Szabo, who developed lists for not just Vinifera, but 11 other OTG properties in the Toronto terminal. The traditional challenges of the sommelier, storage space and vendor management, are only amplified in the airport environment, according to Szabo. “Vendor approval was the number one issue. To build a list that I was proud to put my name on, I needed a range of wine suppliers. But once they saw the paperwork and security requirements, the insurance forms and prescheduled delivery times, with only 15 minutes to make your delivery, many of them opted out,” he laments. “Most saw it as too much effort to sell a case or two of wine.”

Of course, airports also have their advantages. “The great thing about the airport business is delays,” says Coury, contrary to the opinion of most travelers. It’s not that Coury likes to see travelers frustrated or stranded, but he welcomes the opportunity to change someone’s day in a dramatic way. “When you come across a wine bar in the airport, have a small plate and a glass of wine or beer, you feel like you got some of your time back,” he says.

When Bill Summerville, co-owner and managing director for La Belle Vie in Minneapolis, joined with OTG to create the wine programs at Delta’s Concourse G in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, he discovered that airport hospitality encompasses all the vicissitudes of the business, only more extreme. “The stress of flying and travel brings out our best and worst qualities, so it’s a very fascinating environment,” says Summerville. Weary or working, many travelers opt out of personal interaction by ordering from iPads, so Summerville has seeded them with thorough wine descriptions. iPads offer additional advantages over human servers, like translation into 20 languages at OTG’s WiBar in Delta Terminal C at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport, which offers 101 premium wines by the glass, selected by Master Sommelier Roger Dagorn.

Uncork’d Wine Bar SFO has a small/local business flare giving travelers an authentic experience.

At the same time, Summerville trains his staff to capitalize on the psychology of the airport traveler: “When someone is leaving Minnesota, I want the staff to make them feel the celebration starts here! People are buying $25 glasses of wine, spending a little more than they might usually, because it’s a little like Monopoly money.” He is quick to dispel the myth that these customers are transients—one-and-done guests. “I know for a fact that people will route through certain airports and certain terminals just because of the dining opportunities. You give them great service, offer an escape, and you may make a regular of that person,” he says, noting that Concourse G restaurants do high volume and impressive wine sales—with service staff also reaping the benefits. With an address of “Boarding Area F, near Gate 85,” SF Uncork’d, a wine and beer pub/wine shop helmed by CEO Rilla Ginsberg, opened in San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3 in May 2013, offering mostly California wine and beer. “We had to have a focus, and since we’re a gateway to Napa and Sonoma, we chose to embrace California Wine Country,” says Ginsberg, with a list of 55 wines by the glass, ranging in price and style from Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($15) to Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($55), as well as flights, served three at a time in a candelabra-style carrier.

By serving wines from both a Wine­Emotion system and from kegs, Ginsberg reduces not just spoilage, but SF Uncork’d’s carbon footprint and expenses. “The airport really puts the brakes on with dumping and compacting, so every bottle we put in the bin costs us money. While they take energy to source, there’s a direct cost savings with kegs of wine,” says Ginsberg.

According to Ginsberg, the success of SF Uncork’d lies not just in wine selection, but offering travelers a familiar setting, a place to plug in, peruse the handwritten chalkboards of wines and beers, and relax at a picnic-style table with a glass of Iron Horse Rosé de Pinot Noir and a plate of California turkey sliders on eight-grain rolls. “The wine bar should be an oasis, modern but not cold, where people can escape the invasiveness they feel in an airport,” she says. SF Uncork’d even sells full bottles of wine for travelers to carry on their flight, so they can avoid stashing it in stowed luggage or shipping it home. “I have a saying,” remarks Ginsberg: “When you travel, you may part from your wife, but you don’t part from your wine.”

Jeffery Lindenmuth is a consumer of fine drink for reasons personal and professional. He writes about wine, spirits, and good living from his home in Pennsylvania.

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