What It Means to Be JetBlue's Wine Expert
Tastemakers is a series dedicated to major restaurant chains' executive chefs and other under-recognized experts who shape how America eats, dishing on what they're cooking, food trends and more.
"I was mostly convinced there was no way we would pull this off," says the former Wine Editor at The San Francisco Chronicle and author of The New California Wine.
Bonné's task: selecting Californian wines to be served onboard JetBlue, specifically for the airline's new premium offering, Mint. For the average flyer, airline wine selection is pretty standard: reds and whites at reasonable prices. Many airlines expand on this for first and business class service, with airlines including American, United and Delta employing sommeliers and wine makers to build wine selections. However, JetBlue wanted the wine list for Mint – which is only offered on flights between New York, San Francisco and, certain times of year, the Caribbean – to stand out amongst the competition and compliment the service's private suites, wide seats, fully-flat beds and 15-inch flat screen TVs. Bonné decided if he was going to help pick the wine, he would limit himself not only to Californian wines, but further only to selections that he had written about and recommended to his readers.
"Often, you would look for a good deal, something that makes business sense. So of course, I immediately complicated that," he says. "I know what wines for me represent quality, so I have this limited universe that I can work with."
While limiting his selection may have complicated matters for Bonné, it also forced him to pick offerings rarely found 40,000 feet in the air. Mint's most popular wine isn't a Chardonnay or a Pinot Noir, but instead the Juvenile Zinfandel from Turley Wine Cellars. Turley, which Bonné calls the "premier maker of Zinfandels," is known for its limited supply, with many offerings only available to customers on the mailing list -- a club with a 12-month-long waitlist. JetBlue's spring menu also includes the difficult-to-find Broc Cellars Eaglepoint Ranch Counoise (the winery only makes about 6,000 total cases per year) and Lioco Indica Rosé.
"I thought [serving rosé] was going to be kind of, a little bit of an out there idea," says Bonné. However, when he introduced the Indica Rosé, "Everyone in the room -- and this is JetBlue's senior management -- their eyes lit up."
Partnering with Bonné as wine expert and New York-based restaurant Saxon + Parole to craft tapas-style dining, JetBlue has attempted to gear the menu to sophisticated flyers willing to spend extra on high-quality and unique food and beverages.
“We know that economy class service has been taken to its bare bones, so now people are starting to expect more," says Bonné. "I think the folks who have decided to [pay more] are going to reasonably be paying close attention to the exact amenities they get."
Bonné's role now extends beyond selecting wines, and includes ensuring that JetBlue's execution allows customers to actually understand and appreciate the benefits of Mint's wine list. Mint's crews are extensively trained, learning the specifics of each wine and memorizing recordings of Bonné's pronunciation of everything on the menu. Customers are presented with a 50 word description of each wine, penned by Bonné, something he says is essentially "unheard of" when creating wine lists.
“I think that the wines may not be familiar, but the chance to tell the story is there, and I think that’s incredibly important," says Bonné.
The wine list is important for JetBlue, obviously, but what does Mint's upscale wine list mean for other airlines? Bonné thinks change is brewing – and not just in the aviation industry.
"I think that over time, it will improve the ambient level for wine service [in the airline industry, though] not for everyone," says Bonné. “Restaurants have actually made enormous strides, so I think now it’s kind of working around the edges and saying: Can you get a great glass of wine at the ballpark? Can you get a great glass of wine, you know, on the beach in the summer? ...Can I have fun and appropriate wine in this wide range of circumstances?"
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