Bringing Wine Home from Italy

Ever wonder how to safely and legally bring home prized wines from your trip to Italy?  It’s easy – if you know a few helpful tricks.  Our vino road warrior and Sommelier Michael Horne shares his secrets.

Hmm…  That’s a lot of wine

Nice catch -- now how ya gonna get it home?“We’ve bought all this wine, how are we going to get it all home?”  Barbara says with exasperation in her voice.  “I can’t drink it all here!”  I look at the 2 cases of wine she’s pointing to, stacked in lovely wine boxes in the corner of the room.  Brunello, Chianti, Supertuscan – nice wines that cost her a pretty penny.

“Well, you could drink it all here, but you’d spend most of your vacation pretty sauced up,” I say.  She’s not amused.

I’m at my favorite B&B in Siena, sitting at the family table sharing a modest Italian breakfast with first-time travelers.  Barbara and husband Jim just spent their week exploring and tasting their way through Chianti and Montalcino.  They couldn’t resist picking up bottles along the way, and now they have 24 little problems to deal with.

Relax – you can get your loved ones home

One of the great Italian travel experiences is visiting passionate Italian winemakers and tasting their latest vintages.  You haven’t experienced Italy until you’ve tasted her wines.  There’s nothing like exploring the aromas and flavors and nuances of Italian wines, exactly as the winemaker had intended – and the best place to do that is in the winemaker’s cantina.

Taking notes in the cantinaI meet many Americans traveling in Italy who have fallen in love with a bottle of vino that they experienced with a grand meal at a romantic osteria.  They simply must bring some home with them.  They don’t always think about exactly how they’ll get it home, hoping that Google will help them figure it out.

With a little bit of forethought and effort, you can bring home a few bottles to a few cases of Italian wine, safely and cheaply.  All you need to do is 1) pack it safely, 2) decide how you want to ship it, and 3) clear customs on arrival in the States.

Follow my recommendations here and you’ll soon be enjoying your prized wines at home while reminiscing about your grand trip to bella Italia.

1.  Pack your vino well

Uh oh. That botle of wine just got reeeaaally expensiveWhether you’re planning to have your wine shipped to your home, or check your wine with your luggage on the flight home, you’ll need to ensure it’s packed safely.  Nothing ruins the end of a vacation quite like discovering broken bottles of your prized vino in your luggage – and only having red wine-stained clothes to show for it.

There are only 2 decent options for packing your wine for a long journey:  Wine shipper boxes and “bottle sleeves.”

Option 1: Wine shipper boxes

When I bring wine samples home with me from my Italian winery visits, I pick up boxes specifically designed to ship wine, check them with my luggage, and relax in peace knowing my bottles are super safe in the cargo hold.

The best way to go -- wine shipper boxesWine shippers are specially designed, heavy duty cardboard boxes with either Styrofoam or cardboard inserts designed to hold individual bottles of wine (or olive oil, or grappa, or…) safely and separately from each other.  The #1 goal is to keep the bottles from hitting each other and breaking in transit.

You can buy wine shippers while in Italy, particularly in wine production areas and in most major cities like The best place to find wine shippers in Italy -- Mail Boxes Etc.Milan, Florence and Rome.  Businesses that specialize in shipping are the best places to look, and I often purchase 6-pack and 12-pack shippers at Mail Boxes Etc. (called “MBE” in Italy).

Wine shipper boxes are relatively cheap – about €10 to €20 per box, depending upon the size.  Don’t cheap-out on your wine shipper or the tape you use to seal it, it’s an inexpensive insurance policy for your prized bottles of wine.

Resources:
Handy MBE Locations

Here are some MBE offices in winemaking areas and near Milano and Roma airports.  Click on the address for information on hours of operation and maps.

In Piemonte (Barolo, Barbaresco)

In Toscana (Chianti, Brunello, Vino Nobile, Cortona)

Near Rome

Locating an MBE office for wine shippers

You can find MBE office locations on the mbe.it website (the American MBE website is worthless for finding MBE offices in Italy).  Be sure to check the hours of operations, as many of the MBE offices are not open on Saturdays, and none are open on Sundays.  I suggest you pick up your wine shippers before you buy your wine.  Most MBE offices speak at least some English.

Important! Businesses come and go, so make sure the MBE office you plan to visit is still in business and you know their hours of operation before you go. When in doubt, call or email them.

Option 2: Wine sleeves

Good product, horrible name -- buy them anywayOnly have a bottle or two and want to slip them into your suitcase?  You can do it for checked luggage, but you’re rolling the dice with your clothes – and something I generally avoid.

Most airlines frown upon (or outright ban) checking bottles of wine in your suitcase.  If it breaks in transit, it may stain other travelers’ suitcases and create liability problems for them – and you.

If you still want to go through with it, there is a pretty nifty product on the market that pads your bottle and will (allegedly) absorb any spilled wine if the bottle breaks – thereby saving your clothing from a red bath.  Hopefully.

These specially designed wine sleeves have many names, but the most reputable is called the Wine Diaper (I know, I know – it’s a ridiculous name).  They’re about $4 each in packs of 3, and are reusable, re-sealable and biodegradable.  Just drop your bottle in the “diaper,” seal the top and slip it someplace safe in the middle of your suitcase – then pray to Bacchus that it makes it home One of your packing options:  Wine Skinsafely.

There are other similar products out there, including Jet Bag and Wine Skin – but Wine Diaper seems to have the best reputation.

If you go this route, be sure to place the bottle away from the edges of the suitcase, ideally wrapped in sweaters or jeans, and away from other hard objects.

You should buy Wine Diapers on Amazon.com or other online sources before you head to Italy, as it’s tough to find them there.

2.  Decide on how to ship your vino

Okay, you’ve properly packed your wine and now it’s time to send it on its way home.

To me, the choice of how best to ship your wine is a simple matter.  Unless you like paying lots of money for dubious shipping methods with common carriers, just check your wine as luggage at the airport when you check in for your flight home.

Option 1: Shipping your wine as checked luggage

When I have just a few cases of wine with me from tasting visits, I box them up in a wine shipper and check them with my luggage at the departure airport.

It’s a painless process, but there are few key things to keep in mind:

  • All carriers will allow you to check wine if it’s packed safely in a wine shipper.  You must use shipping boxes made specifically for shipping wine – see my recommendations above.
  • Nice try, but this won't fly with UnitedPack your wine in advance. If you show up at the airline check-in counter with wine bottles in their original boxes, you will have 3 choices:  1) go find a wine shipper and box it up properly (and likely miss your flight), 2) abandon your wine at the airport, or 3) start drinking.
  • Check in early, at least 2 hours prior to your flight.  Give yourself extra time to deal with long lines, security checks, etc.  Many airports will want to x-ray your wine shipper while you wait.  Don’t push your luck with check-in times.  Note: The security procedures at Rome’s Fiumicino (FCO) airport are long and laborious – give yourself extra time.
  • Some airlines charge an excess baggage fee – anywhere from $50-100 per wine shipper.  United lets me check 3 “bags” for free – my suitcase and 2 cases of wine. Perfect. If you have more than 6 bottles of wine, use 12-bottle shippers instead of multiple 6-bottle shippers – it’s cheaper.

Once you’ve checked-in your wine shipper boxes with your luggage, you can relax knowing that your vino is safe and sound and on it’s way home.

Option 2: Using FedEx, UPS or DHL to fly it home

Wine seized?  Too bad, should have declared it...Some shipping companies in Italy, including some Mail Boxes Etc. offices, will offer to ship your wine home for you, saving you all the trouble of boxing up your wine, checking it with the airline, paying any excess baggage fees, and dealing with US Customs on arrival.  Don’t believe them.

If you are not a properly licensed wine importer (like me), you simply cannot ship wine home from Italy yourself.  Most carriers, like UPS, DHL and FedEx, strictly forbid it, and in most cases it’s illegal and a felony in a few states.

So how do they do it?  Well, they take possession of your wine, box it up, and declare it as something other than wine.  For example, they will often declare your bottles of wine as “olive oil” – thereby flying under the radar of the common carrier and US Customs.  Yep, that’s illegal alright, but it does happen regularly.

If you go this route (and I don’t recommend it), expect to pay $150-350 per 12-bottle case to ship to your home.  Just drop the wine off at the shipper, pay them the fat fee, and hope that your wine makes it safely to your home.  If it doesn’t, you have no recourse and you’ll lose your wine, the shipping fee, and you may have a nice US Customs fine to pay as well.

If you only have a case or two of wine with you, I recommend that you go the checked-luggage route described above.  It’s cheaper, safer, and keeps you within the law.

Option 3: Use a licensed importer to ship it for you

One legal option for having wine shipped to your US address is through a licensed importer – though how doable this is depends upon which US state you live in.

If you have a decent number of bottles, say 2+ cases from a favorite winery, it may be worthwhile to explore using the winery’s US importer to bring it over for you.  They may even have your favorite wine in-stock in the States, and can direct you to where you can buy it back home.  Just ask the winery, but don’t be surprised if they can’t help you – it’s a pretty big hassle for them.

I get occasional requests to help wine lovers fly a limited number of cases of special wines back to the states.  If this is of interest to you, let’s talk. Post your request in the Forum and let’s see what can be done.

3. Clear your vino with US Customs

Sneaking in wine?  Are you feeling lucky, punk?So you’ve checked your wine with your luggage and you’re on your way home.  When you arrive at the first US port of entry, you have to go through Immigration and clear your wine with US Customs.  Lots of people worry about this step, but it’s very easy and ridiculously cheap to clear your wine.

Simply check the “Yes” box on your US Customs Form where it asks if you are “bringing food,” and tell the Customs officer that you have wine. They’re going to ask anyway, so tell them exactly how many bottles you have.

Don’t try to be sneaky about it, or they may seize your wine and have a party with it in the back room.  (Ok, just kidding about the party, but not about them seizing your wine).

When talking to the Customs officer, keep your story simple:  if you’re asked about your wine, simply say “I’m bringing wine home for my own personal consumption.”  Don’t say something foolish like “I’m going to sell some to my buddies.”  Remember, as an individual you can bring wine into the US only for your own personal consumption – you can’t sell it.  That’s my job.  Generally, the less you say, the better – keep it simple.

This probably goes without saying, but be wary about trying to bring home illegal meats like wild boar sausage or other forbidden imports with your legitimate wine purchase – You may lose everything if they think you’re trying to be sneaky, and run the risk of being tagged in the system as a known trafficker in contraband.

What about paying the duty and taxes?  Technically, you should pay an alcohol duty and excise tax on wine you bring into the US, but don’t fret – it’s about 21 cents/bottle for most wine (sparkling wines are about 67 cents/bottle).  If you’re bringing in hard liquor like grappa, the duty is higher – about $2/bottle for 80 proof alcohol.  For all alcohol, your first 1 liter is free of duty and tax.

In all of the times I’ve brought cases of wine back with me from Italy, I have been asked to pay the duty exactly once, and that was only for some Quintarelli Amarone wine worth several thousand dollars.  Usually they just wave me through, and odds are they’ll do the same with you.

Now sit back and enjoy your vino

Memories of vino, salumi and thouYour prized Italian wine is a wonderful memory-in-a-bottle, a snapshot of your time in Italy that you can pour in a glass and share with loved ones.

Reminisce about exploring the narrow streets of a quaint Tuscan hill town, a quiet meal of wine and antipasti in a tiny osteria filled only with locals.

Toast to the future and your next trip to bella Italia.

Cin cin!
– Michael


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“Wine Tasting” and “Salumi” photos copyright and courtesy of Andrew Barrow


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9 Responses to “Bringing Wine Home from Italy”

  1. Paul Cunningham 16 Nov 12 at 7:18 AM #

    Great info. Another possibile shipping container is the “postal mailer”. In Germany and Austria these are made of nearly bulletproof cardboard (no nasty styrofoam) and hold either 6 or 12 bottles. (If you can only find the 6-pack size, tape two of them securely together to create a 12-pack). These “Postkarton” are generously sized which can be a particular concern with the tall bottles of some premium white wines.
    I would certainly second your recommendation to find a friendly importer to bring your wines back for you. Even if the importer charges a modest per bottle fee, this is probably the easiest and least expensive way to bring back anything more than a case of wine. So plan ahead, as you are almost certain to find wines that cannot be found in the U.S., and at exceptional prices!

  2. Barry Gilbert 3 Mar 13 at 5:37 PM #

    Hi Michael — I have another solution your readers might like. I run ShipItHomeUSA out of San Francisco and we work with wineries throughout Europe to help Americans get their prized wines home for 50 euros/case. Today we work with Azienda Agricola Montechiaro in Siena and plan to add more Italian producers. We have the wine packed in the same sytrofoam containers you mention above. We take care of getting the wine home for the traveling wine lover, and can ship to 38 states today.

    • Avatar of Michael Horne
      Michael Horne 4 Mar 13 at 5:43 AM #

      Hi Barry — sounds like a great service, and folks should be aware of it. As you add more Italian producers to your list, it would be great if you could post them here or send us an update here or in the Dall’Uva Forums.

      I see that you’re in the SF area — let’s get together over coffee some time, would be good to learn more about your operation.

      Cheers.
      Michael

  3. Bonnie Golz 7 Oct 13 at 2:47 AM #

    Arrived home last night from Florence WITHOUT my 3 cases of wine.
    I had taken 3 wine shipper boxes with me as luggage when I went over and never expected problems at the airport. Al Italia will not accept wine boxes as luggage, so now I am left with the problem of obtaining a shipper to pick up the wine at our last hotel and ship it to me. I am in South Dakota (bad shipping state), however, have a son in Minnesota that can take delivery. Do you have any ideas for me?

    • Avatar of Michael Horne
      Michael Horne 7 Oct 13 at 10:38 AM #

      Ciao Bonnie — I’m really sad to hear that. I’m also quite surprised that Alitalia wouldn’t let you check your wine, I’ve flown them before with no problems. If you think about it, it’s kinda silly for an Italian airline to not accept Italian wines.

      Okay, that said, why don’t you send me a message (just use our contact form here: http://www.dalluva.com/contact-us/) with the details of where it’s located and I can see if there are some shipping options for you.

      Michael

  4. Jennifer Martin 10 Aug 14 at 5:06 AM #

    Great and very informative article. I have been bringing wine home from Italy for years, but this added some extra ideas for me to keep in mind. Thank you!

    • Avatar of Michael Horne
      Michael Horne 14 Aug 14 at 8:53 AM #

      Glad that you liked the recommendations. I think the pricing of shipping from Italy is dropping a bit, I am starting to see some options to ship cases of wine for about 90-110 euros. Still spendy, but if someone is trying to bring some more expensive wines home, or wines that are tough to get in the States, then it’s not that bad of an incremental cost.

      Cheers!
      Michael

  5. Paul 30 Aug 14 at 1:19 AM #

    Another option is Lazenne at http://www.lazenne.com, who distributes the Wine Check in Europe, and carries a line of bottle protectors, aka wine shippers. They ship to Italy.

    • Avatar of Michael Horne
      Michael Horne 1 Sep 14 at 8:28 AM #

      Ciao Paul — thanks for the pointer, and yes, there are some great travel cases for wine out there. The fact that they’re reusable makes them a good long-term value for travelers who like to bring wine home on a regular basis.

      Cheers.
      Michael

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