14 FEB 2019: At an event in Gatineau last week, Andrew Macfarlane, Airport Product Design Manager announced that Air Canada’s ambition is to be a top ten global airline carrier. The airline at present sits in number 30 position in the list of the best so I was excited to hear it has set such a lofty goal. At the very least this means better wines, food and lounges are coming.  

The event was at SOIF Bar à Vin, the Gatineau wine bar owned and operated by Véronique Rivest who for the past two years has been Air Canada’s official sommelier. Rivest curates the wine list for the airline’s North American business class and Signature Service. She has the chops to do this well. She came second in the World's Best Sommelier ASI 2013, won Best Sommelier of the Americas 2012 and was named Canada's Best Sommelier in 2006 and 2012 in our national competition.

While we sipped an excellent selection of wines from the bar’s own cellars that the kitchen matched with tapa style nibbles, she explained the selection process she uses to create the Air Canada wine lists. The international wine list changes four times a year and the North American one may change a bit more but at least every three months. She always has at least one Canadian wine for the international wine list.

Quantity and quality considerations are important she said and Air Canada is not limited to what is available in Canada. Air Canada can and will have the wines picked up at the cellar doors in whatever country the airline serves. If purchased in Canada with our multiple taxes, transport costs and so forth, the majority of the wines she selects would retail between $18 and $30. (Air Canada gets them for much less by purchasing ex-cellar.)

Rivest who has spent a life time building wine lists, said she enjoyed the challenge of building a list that will taste good at 30,000 feet in the air. “I have a carte blanche to do the list. Air Canada has given me great liberty to choose the wines,” she said. Her strategy is to select wines that speak to their origins, that have a sense of place, a clear provenance. The wines need to go with a wide range of foods and as taste and smell are affected at high altitudes, she steers clear of wines with high alcohol, heavy oak and lots of tannins.

Twice a year Rivest compiles a list of wines under consideration for the airline and tastes through them with Air Canada management. They might taste over 100 wines at one go to select four for the North American list and five for the international for the next two periods.

Macfarlane whose responsibilities at Air Canada includes developing commercial product strategy and portfolio improvements for Air Canada Airport Products globally including Air Canada Signature Class, the Air Canada Signature Suite, Maple Leaf Lounge and BMW Valet Service told me that the airline is making investments in their premium products with a focus on J class but also some initiatives in economy.

They are opening a Signature Suite in Vancouver and intend to expand the program to Montreal. In the Maple Leaf lounges they have responded to current trends with the addition of healthy options and light meal offerings on the buffet tables. They now rotate the menus quarterly instead of bi-annually as was done in the past.

He said the partnership with a Canadian sommelier (Rivest) and a Canadian Chef (David Hawksworth) is part of Air Canada’s decision to showcase and invest in Canadian talent. Further enhancements are coming to the food, the beverages and the inflight entertainment.

The world’s top ten airlines in 2018 were in order of ranking Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways, ANA All Nippon Airways, Emirates, Eva Air, Cathay Pacific Airways, Lufthansa, Hainan Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Thai Airways. This is some hefty competition for Air Canada.

The Skytrax rankings are based on the impressions of 20.36 million travellers from more than 100 different countries. The unpaid survey, which covered more than 335 airlines, measured 49 parameters ranging from boarding procedures to seat comfort to the quality of service.

I wish Air Canada well in its desire to move up the rankings and salivate at the thought of better inflight food and wine.

 

 

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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