Lighting up at 30,000 feet

This one earned a half glass.Airline wine. It’s usually more sleep aid than something to savor. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I mean, Alaska Air doesn’t have to provide free regional wine or microbrew on its flights. It’s a nice perk. But it’s usually pretty forgettable stuff, served in those little plastic cups. My flights are usually short, so there’s not much time to let the wine breathe. And the accompanying food — even the new macadamia-nut and dried fruit snack that Alaska has started handing out — isn’t particularly complementary.

Chuck would drink it straight out of the bottle.

But the Washington Hills 2008 Merlot served on a recent trip was an exception.  I didn’t have great expectations. Mostly, I was just glad that the string of chardonnays the flight attendants had been serving recently was finally over. But this wine is complex and robust. Bold fruit — blackberry and dark cherry along with a hint of cedar — grows from the first taste, and then gives way to strong oak flavors.

The finish is something I’ve read about but never experienced. It can only be described as cigar smoke, and it lingered after the cup was empty. I’m not a smoker, especially not of cigars, but this wasn’t unpleasant. Sort of like the aftertaste you’d expect after hanging out in a fancy cigar shop poking your head into humidors … not like breathing in your uncle’s secondhand stogie smoke for an hour.

How do they do that? I don’t think tobacco is even grown in Washington. It’s nowhere in the Top 10 tobacco-producing states, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. But hey, if combining vices is your thing, this might be a nice way to go about it.

Although this wine was free (or, several hundred dollars,  if you include the cost of the plane ticket), it can be found on the shelves of regional retailers, or online for under $10 per bottle. Wine Chateau offers it online for $9.79 (regularly $13.49).

Washington Hills is among the many thriving wineries on the eastern side of the Cascades, both in Washington and Oregon, that take advantage of the region’s ample sunshine, well-drained soils and relatively low rainfall. Cool fall nights keep the grapes from losing their acidity and becoming too sugary before harvest. The result is consistent quality that allows vintners to blend their wines with subtlety.

Of course, I’m guessing most of that didn’t matter to the airline. The key here? Screw top. Flight attendants don’t have to mess with corkscrews. Why does the TSA even allow corkscrews on airplanes? I have seen some flight attendants that should definitely not be allowed to handle sharp objects. I mean, I can’t even bring toenail clippers on board, but that woman in a tight polyester skirt being harassed by a half-dozen boozed up frat boys headed to a college football weekend is allowed to wield a deadly weapon? Actually, come to think of it … forget I said anything.

Oh well. Nobody wants to see me giving myself a pedicure in these cramped quarters. That would ruin even a good wine like this, and that would be a shame.

Aromatique: A sniff or two fresh out of the bottle doesn’t reveal much about the wine’s complexity. You get a hint of the oak, along with the usual dark merlot fruit.

SipQuips: Rich flavor that changes dramatically from start to finish — dark berries and cedar to cigar smoke at the end.

Kitchen Couplings: I’d love to try this with a savory buffalo steak, or by a roaring fire with strong cheeses.

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