UPDATED FOR 2017
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
“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.
I 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
Whether 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.
Wine 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 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.
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)
- Alba: Corso Europa 73, tele: +39.0173.364.678, email: email@example.com
- Milano: Via Moscova 13, tele: +39.02.290.022.45, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In Toscana (Chianti, Brunello, Vino Nobile, Cortona)
- Siena: Via Del Porrione 88-90, tele: +39.0577.400.52, email: email@example.com
- Firenze (Scandicci): Via Turri 4, tele +39.055.011.8619, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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). When using their site, just type in the name of the city where you want to pick up a wine shipper in the "Città" field of the form, then click the "Vai" button. 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 (in English).
Option 2: Wine sleeves
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 safely.
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:
- Most major 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. A few low-cost airlines in Europe (EasyJet, Ryanair) have been known to reject wine and olive oil for checked luggage, so stick with the major airlines like United, American, Delta, KLM, Lufthansa, British, etc.
- Pack 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
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, the typical ruse is to 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 (which you can, but I don’t recommend it), expect to pay $150-300 per 12-bottle case to ship to your home. Just drop the wine off at the shipper, pay them their fat fee, and then 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 the ruse is discovered.
New Trend: Some Italian wineries are offering a legitimate & reasonably priced service of shipping your purchased wine home for you. It runs about $100 per 12-bottle case. They do this by working with their US-based importer (or other licensed importer) to make the shipping magic happen. However, they usually ship only wine that you buy directly from them at their cantina. It's considered a brutta figura (meaning, rude) to ask them to ship bottles from other wineries with your purchase, unless you buy a lot of wine. Note that if the winery quotes you a price that is much over $100, then they're probably using MBE to do the same shipping shenanigans as mentioned above (which is risky business).
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
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 prosciutto, 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 you 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 or amaro, the duty is higher – about $2 per bottle for 80 proof alcohol. For all alcohol, your first 1 liter is free of duty and tax.
On top of the the above tax, US Customs also charges a 3% duty on the value of all of your foreign purchases when it exceeds $800 (which is your duty-free exemption), but is less than $1800. If the value of your purchases is over $1800, then the rates are higher, but usually less than 10% and depends on what your various purchases are.
Here is a wine tax calculation example: If you bring home 2 cases (24 bottles) of red wine valued at $1,000, then a rough calculation of the tax you would normally have to pay is:
- Tax on your wine: 23 bottles @ 21 cents/bottle = $4.83 (remember, your first 1 liter is free)
- Duty on the amount over your $800 duty-free exemption: $200 @ 3% duty = $6
- Total tax on your 24 bottles of wine worth $1000: $10.83 — or about 45 cents per bottle.
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
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.
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“Wine Tasting” and “Salumi” photos copyright and courtesy of Andrew Barrow