“I serve over one hundred million meals a year”, Joost Heymeijer, Senior Vice President of Emirates Inflight Catering tells us over the phone from Dubai. And, while he might not be on the plane placing the dish in front of a passenger, he still uses the first person, such is his passion for the food and wine that is served on every Emirates flight. The food offering at Emirates is miles away from what you’d normally find when flying, and can be enjoyed with wines that are chosen, stored and served carefully under his watch, regardless of whether you are flying in First Class, Business or Economy.
Based in Dubai since 2014, Heymeijer is a “Dutchman by birth” and holder of an Australian passport, a country in which he accumulated 22 years of experience in the food and hospitality industry. Among many other crucial parts of the Emirates experience, he is in charge of the logistics, operations and supply chain that ultimately come together to provide the level of luxury and comfort for which Emirates is known. Within all those elements, he highlights wine as his favourite responsibility and a personal passion.
Wine in the Sky
Although Joost Heymeijer acknowledges that high altitude (a commercial flight might reach 40,000 feet) “does affect taste buds”, the impact of it “depends on how each airline is willing to invest in the engineering side of the comfort on a plane.”
Emirates has invested greatly in enhancing their food and wine experience, not just in the technical side, ensuring optimal on board conditions, but also in their logistic system and of course, in the wines themselves (this year the airline doubled their spend on wine, reaching €123 million). Joost compares the conditions experienced by Emirates passengers with “being in the French Alps, the same conditions that you would encounter being at two and a half thousand metres in a mountainous area.”
He’s aware of the fact that it’s not all about humidity and air pressure on a plane, and he knows that the size of the seats, and even the anxiety of flying can influence how we experience wine. Therefore, at the same altitude, the same wine tasted by the same person becomes even more enjoyable when you’re relaxing in comfortable seats and it’s served by friendly, professional flight attendants in proper glassware. Just as sipping a glass of Bordeaux in a chalet in Mont Blanc is about one of the least stressful experiences we can think of, Joost makes sure that having a glass on board an Emirates flight is as pleasant as that – or even better.
From the vines to the clouds
It’s easy to focus on the plane and the flight, but the quest to offer the world’s best in flight wine experience begins with sourcing the ideal wines. Most airlines, Joost explains, follow a standard formula: “airlines normally would use a consultant, the consultant would be given a budget per flight class and they’d know where they are flying to and the expected passenger numbers, and then they’d provide the wine suggestions and procure the wine accordingly. That process would be repeated annually.”
More than a decade ago, Emirates set out to do things differently. “What we’ve done is to take complete ownership over the wine procurement process” Joost explains, and he adds that they buy and store their own wines, and that they work to develop relationships with wineries and suppliers.
“One of the reasons we are able to do that is because within the Emirates Group is an organisation called MMI [Maritime and Mercantile International], which is an alcohol and wine importer in the Middle East and part of their offering is fine wine.” This is complemented by Emirates’ internal wine team, headed by Joost, which includes a number of fine wine specialists who source wines from all over the world.
The Perks of Having Your Own Cellars
Once the wines are selected, Emirates’ other great strength comes into play. Since they store their wines, they are able to buy the wines early and serve them at their best. This is not only great for passengers but it’s sound business logic: “We buy it at the best price, and we have the ability to store significant quantities of wine in our own cellars for a long period of time between 7 to 15 years. Then we will be able to release these wines and people will go oh, where did you get those? How can you afford to serve them?” Without this system, many wines served on an Emirates flight would be unaffordable, but as Joost explains, “because we bought them in good volumes and stored them for a longer period of time in exceptional environments, it is yet another reason to choose Emirates.”
He mentions that the cellars are in Burgundy, France, but he is quick to point out that these are modern spaces that might not correspond with the romantic image of the antique, limestone underground cave that’s been maintained by multiple generations. “These are temperature and humidity controlled warehouses where we keep our millions and millions of wine bottles on pallets.”
Joost does mention that he recently came back from a trip to Burgundy, where he went to reacquaint himself with some of the producers: “there’s still a lot of wine stored in Burgundy like that, and we were able to buy some parcels rather early, knowing that there’s a lot of pressure on the 2016 vintage as well as some older parcels that have been stored away for long periods of time.”
Do you have a favourite wine to enjoy when flying?
“I love a glass of Champagne, I really think that if you’re lucky enough to travel in Business or First Class it sets the tone and gets you excited. I think Champagne drinks particularly well on board. From our white wines, I like drinking those that are crisp and a bit more acidic such as a Riesling from Clare Valley, Australia or a Sancerre”, Joost says. Regarding their red wine offer, he looks for balanced tannins, “and although a lot of people say Bordeaux does not travel well in the air, I couldn’t disagree more, Bordeaux is stunning in the air. As is a nice firm, Otago Pinot Noir from New Zealand.”
Speaking of Champagne, does altitude affect the bubbles?
“It depends on whether the sparkling is made by adding CO2 to the wine or whether it is Methode Traditionelle, where the carbonation develops in the bottle, and it also depends on the glass in which it is served. In my opinion, Methode Traditionelle doesn’t really see much change in the air, and again if it is served in a bit more of a generous glass rather than a flute, it will actually show the same expression as it would on the ground.”
To enhance the Champagne experience, innovation comes on board: “we are just about to change all our First Class wine glassware” says Joost, who expects the new glassware to be available for long-haul flights in October and on shorter flights soon after. Part of that new glassware range includes a special Champagne glass for which Emirates has partnered with Dom Perignon to develop a larger design that allows swirling and a better tasting experience.
Their search for innovation is also motivating Joost and his team to set new goals in order to keep improving the experience. One of their challenges is in flight wine and food pairing: “With the volume that we do, about a million passengers per week in our network, I serve about 100 million meals a year. It’s very hard to pair or to match food and wine, so what we need to do when we put a wine list together is to ensure that there are wines that drink well and make sure that we give our passengers choice.”
In Business Class this choice will always include a Champagne and a Vintage Port, as well as two whites and two reds that are different from one another: “we want to make sure that we don’t put a Kiwi Sauv Blanc and a Loire on the same menu… it’s really important that if a wine is crisp, the other one is more voluptuous, the same goes for the red wines.”
In First Class they have “a bit more room to play with” and although they’ve recently doubled the number of wines, proper wine and food pairings are “something that we’re looking at” Joost says, as he would like to get to the point where Emirates can offer a high end food and wine pairing menu on board. Another thing he’s working on at the moment is the cabin crew’s wine knowledge, and as he mentioned, they’re “going to work on a certified WSET wine program for the crew and when I have enough trained crew, then we can start doing food and wine pairing menus in First Class.”
Training for Outstanding Wine Service
Another “massive challenge” that ultimately falls into Joost’s hands is the training of the more than 23,000 cabin crew. “We, as you can imagine, place a bit more emphasis on those who work in Business and First Class. We do a lot of staff training as part of their programme when they join the airline and then when they move up from Economy Class to Business they go back to our training college and get specific training, in which wine plays an important part. There’s even more training provided when cabin crew move from Business Class to First Class and you really see them taking a personal interest in the wines.”
What can you tell us about the wines drunk on the Dublin route?
Joost points out that it is impossible for him to know exactly which wines are being served on flights departing from Dublin at all times because the Emirates’ “wine program is very fluid, so we buy a volume of wine and when it’s finished, it’s finished.” For example, this year only, they’ve changed between 200 and 300 different wines, “so there’s no such thing as a particular wine on a particular route”. For frequent flyers this means that there will always be something new and exciting to discover.
Regarding Irish passengers wine preferences, he considers that they lean towards the traditional taste, “we see a very high uptake of French wines, especially red Bordeaux” Joost says. He also points out the good performance of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which “has such a global appeal”. An unexpected success on the Dublin route are German white wines, for which Joost has noticed “quite a bit of loyalty.”
He considers that passengers in general (not only in Ireland) tend to be more willing to experiment in a restaurant or a shop than on board and in his opinion, when they fly, they want to drink something that they recognise, “whether it’s the label, the country or the region.”
For that reason, Emirates aims to offer a wide range of choices, but won’t go to extremes or try to source wines just for their novelty factor. “We try not to be the most gimmicky airline or the most trendy airline as far as our wine programme is concerned, but we buy wine from all over the world so we give our passengers plenty of choice.”
Where could a passenger get a bottle of a wine they loved when flying with Emirates?
“This is an ongoing process… As I mentioned, one of our group companies is MMI, and one of their branches is a series of premium wine stores called Le Clos, with three stores here at Dubai Airport and some of the wines available on board can be purchased at these stores. ”
“We’ve had that request many times where people have consumed a couple of glasses of a beautiful, beautiful wine and they ask us where they can buy it, so we try to ensure that a good percentage of the wines enjoyed in First Class can also be purchased in Le Clos at Dubai Airport”, he explains.
The Layered Experience and Wine
Joost has worked in the hospitality sector since he was 17 years old and has traveled the world tasting, evaluating and sourcing wines. He considers himself “naturally blessed with a good palate and a photographic memory” and that’s how he engages with wine. However, despite all his knowledge and the behind-the-scenes preparation of his team, once the glass touches a passenger’s lips it has to feel effortless.
That’s why he insists on the importance of keeping it simple when it comes to wine: “the thing about wine is that you either like it or you don’t” and despite Emirates’ huge passenger numbers, “we still approach our catering and the way we treat our passengers as we would in a small restaurant”. Joost tastes the food served on board everyday and constantly works to bring new and memorable experiences – he mentions a pizza offering coming soon to Economy Class as an example.
Joost ends our conversation by praising other areas besides food and drink, as he acknowledges that every little detail adds layers to the experience: “there’s a thousand reasons to re-book with us, so the food and wine are part of that, as is the incredible choice of in flight entertainment or how well we train our crew, or the fact that we use fresh flowers on board, even in Economy Class. All these things are layered experiences and there’s a huge interest in food and wine, and we need to make sure that the passenger experience is fantastic.”
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.