Anyone who’s done a fair amount of flying recently out of Sea Tac (SEA) has seen the increasing exposure of Washington wines to travelers with the newly opened Vintage Washington wine bar, in addition to a wine store, Vino Volo, on the main concourse. They are good places to kill some time and gasp at the inflated prices (suggested retail +) instead of sorting through the geek and girly mags at the convenience shop. Little does one know that the psychological game is at work. You get on the plane, get up to 32,000 feet, and here comes the beverage cart with two “smokestack” bottlenecks of wine towering over the $6 snack-packs. You know the wines are calling for you. Do you flash the credit card like a boss or meekly ask for the teeny-bopper soda pop?
When it comes to airlines and wine, typically the only connection between the two is fat profits without regard to quality. But, that in itself is a tricky play as “quality” at ground level for wines does not translate equally when the palate is at a higher elevation than Mt. Everest, at reduced cabin pressure, and with recirculated air swirling in the midst. This environment for ultra-premium, 200% oaked wines is like adding ammonia to bleach. It has been reported that a wine’s bitter flavors rise to the fore while in flight and that is why no airline carries wines that are considered “ultra premium.” Thus, that is the airline’s justification for not carrying a Quilceda Creek, a Leonetti, a DeLille, or a Betz.
Still, from the consumer’s paying point-of-view, that’s a weak excuse for not offering good wines that can survive the cabin’s harsh environment. Most domestic airlines really don’t give a rat’s ass with their wine list, even for their first-class passengers. I have previously indulged in La Crema, Smoking Loon, and Bogle (among others) while seated in row 2B, wines I would NEVER buy on the ground to impress. But, as you know, I can be a desperate bloke when I don’t have my wine. Don’t laugh! You know that feeling, too, my friend.
And that is why we need to support our “local” carrier, Alaska Airlines. Alaska is the only airline to feature Washington wines prominently on board. Never mind the previous bad press about their misadventures in hiring Menzies to work the baggage transfers or the tragic Flight 261 crash in 2000. And yeah, sure, it’s called “Alaska” but their HQ is based in Seattle. Their corporate leadership knows where the demand is and doesn’t act like the clowns in their classic commercials (here, here, here, here, here, and here). If you are seriously passionate about Washington wine, then you are like me—when out-of-state, I always look forward to returning home because they serve Washington wine on board and not some flat, flabby, and dilute plonk that even boxed wines would piss on.
And that brings us to Alaska Airlines’ current pours from Copper River Estate. A dubious choice of name for a Washington wine. Ask any west coast cuisine-ist: where is the Copper River? Think salmon. Then comes the “who’s really behind the making of this wine?” And, this is where you will discover the current, low-flying trend in Washington wine: Mattawa. The Milbrandt family operates a custom crush facility (Wahluke Wine Company) where, basically, anyone can produce a wine without investing in infrastructure then slap their own label with whatever fanciful name they please that’s not trademarked. Walk around the wine departments in supermarkets and you’ll find them on the lower shelves, aka the “value” section. These wines, I suspect, are made from the last drag of grapes but can still pull a better price than on the bulk market, probably due to a little more attention paid in growing the grapes. And, it’s no secret that the Milbrandt family has a lot of vine acreage around the Mattawa area (and beyond).
Getting back, Copper River Estate is one of four “wineries” for the emerging major wine producer in a company called Rainier Wine, based in Seattle. You may not know two other labels in Rabbit and Besitos, but you have seen the Mad Housewife series of wines. Yep, that’s Rainier Wine. The company, founded in 2004, is headed by 47 year-old Damian Davis and located in the Bryant residential neighborhood of northeast Seattle. Damian began selling wine to merchants out of the trunk of his car and is now responsible for moving over 100,000 cases/year at his “winery/distribution” entity. It is no accident that Rainier Wine targets the under-$15 “value wines” market, as the company’s philosophy “recognizes that wine should never intimidate, make you think too hard, or create a new line item in your budget.”
The Diversion line of wines is made specifically for Alaska Airlines and primarily utilizes grapes from Milbrandt’s vineyards. Label photography is provided by local artist, Justin Reznick and features a sepia-toned Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake.
To the wine…
Because this merlot is not available to the public at the retail level and not consumable at an elevation less than cruising altitude, do not read too deeply into the opinions contained herein.
Food pairing was the complimentary nut-and-cracker blue bag provided with beverage service. Decent.
Tasted at cabin temperature and at 32,000+ feet from a freshly unscrewed bottle. Color: purple magenta. Nose: bright cherry. Mouthfeel: moderate. Tail trail: 3 seconds. Flavors: black cherry, cedar, dry tannins, hint of plum. Solid, sturdy fruit upfront quickly followed by lumber shavings and ending with a soft hint of plum.
Alcohol: 13.5% (website). A blend of merlot, syrah, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon. Appellation: Washington. Winemaker: Jeremy Santo. Stelvin cap. $6 for a 6-ounce plastic cup pour. A better deal than the chardonnay (rated: 84 (1/1/1/1), color: morning piss, nose: green apple blossoms, mouthfeel: tart and tight, tail: 4 seconds, flavors: green apple, pear, melon, lemon rind). Power: 2/5. Balance: 2/5. Depth: 1/5. Finesse: 1/5. Rated: 86. Value: $6 for the bottle. Music pairing: “Last Drag” by Traci Lords (yes, that Traci Lords). This is WAwineman…uncorked, uneducated but not uncouth.