This is the second part in a 3-part series on how to plan and travel well during your next trip to Italy
Finding and Tasting Wines in Bella Italia.
Tasting a selection of regional wines is one of the greatest joys when traveling in Italy. Finding an unusual Dolcetto d’Alba or a delightful Brunello di Montalcino from a small, out of the way producer can be a highlight of your trip. How you pursue your tasting goals depends upon your mobility and level of interest in the producers.
One of the best ways to taste many wines from different producers is by visiting an enoteca, or wine bar. There are two kinds of enoteche: regionally-sponsored exhibitions of wine like the Enoteca Italiana in Siena, or the local enoteca wine bars where locals congregate to savor a glass of wine and perhaps a small plate of local salumi e formaggi. For selection, ambiance and intimacy, I recommend local enoteche.
Finding an enoteca. The enoteca-style wine bar scene in Italy is exploding. You’ll find dozens sprinkled throughout major cities like Venice, Florence and Rome, and many chic hill towns will have enoteche popular with the locals and travelers in-the-know.
For example, Pane e Vino in Cortona, Tuscany (Piazza Signorelli #27, Tele: +39 0575.631.010, firstname.lastname@example.org), offers a weekly selection of 20 wines for tasting from their collection of over 900 Italian wines, including a wild selection of new biodinamico (bio-dynamic) wines. Arnaldo Rossi, Dall’Uva’s resident Sommelier in Tuscany, and his wife Debora offer a warm, convivial atmosphere to sample some of the best wines from the Italian peninsula. The wines are intelligently paired with Tuscan small-plates of antipasti, primi and a few secondi lovingly prepared by Beatrice in the kitchen. As an American traveling in Italy there are only two ways to learn about these prized finds: by word of mouth from people in-the-know (and from the Dall’Uva Wine Journal), or in the Osterie d’Italia culinary guidebook from the Slow Food people in Torino (see my listing of must-have food & wine travel guidebooks below).
Visiting the producers. If you’re enthralled with the romance of visiting wine producers at the source, forget what you know about the jazzy tasting rooms at American wineries. Most producers will have at best a small tasting room where you can sample their latest bottling and buy a few bottles portar via (for the road). To ensure that someone is available to meet you when you arrive, you must always call in advance to make a reservation. As a quid pro quo for taking time out of their busy schedule to meet you, most producers will expect you to purchase some wine while you’re there. While all of this may seem like a lack of enthusiasm for wine lovers, producers in Italy simply do not see the same tasting crowds that we find here in the States, and they would rather spend their time (and money) making better wines for you to enjoy.
To make a reservation at a winery, simply call a day in advance or send an email informing them of when you would like to visit. When planning your trip, I recommend that you consult the wine rating guidebook Italian Wines co-published by Gambero Rosso and Slow Food. In addition to listings of the current wines from thousands of producers, you’ll find wine ratings (the famed one-, two- and three-glasses, or bicchieri), intimate background information about the producers, and their addresses, telephone numbers and often their email and website addresses. Buy a copy online here at Amazon.com, or pick up a copy while you’re in Italy at most bookstores. If you’re a wine zealot like me, you can pick up next year’s Italian-only edition in October or November online at the slowfood.it website. The English version of the guide is released in January.
Some producers have tasting rooms that are located in nearby town centers. For example, Avignonesi produces superb Vino Nobile and knockout Super Tuscans, but you’ll need to travel to the center of Montepulciano if you want to taste their wines in their tasting room. These wonderful tasting options are somewhat rare, so if your itinerary includes visiting wineries at the source, make sure you have a rental car and a good local map (book a rental car with a no-nonsense, all-inclusive rate at SkyCars).
Bringing your wine home safely. If you plan on bringing some treasured bottles of wine back to the States, it’s pretty straightforward as long as you know how to handle packing, airlines, and US customs. Here are a few things you should know:
- How many bottles can I bring home? Technically speaking, you can bring any number of cases of wine home with you for personal use only (see the ATF website for the gory details). If you’re bringing home more than 10 cases of wine, US Customs might assume that it’s not for your personal use — have a good story or risk losing it all. If you want to bring wine or spirits into the US for commercial purposes, you’ll need to be licensed like me.
- Can I ship by FedEx, UPS, or DHL? Yes and no, and it’s expensive in all cases. Expect rates for air shipping from Italy to the US to be $200-`$300 per case. Few shippers will ship wine for consumers (that’s you), so some shipping agents classify it as olive oil to get your wine in ‘under the radar.’ However, the shipper or US Customs will seize and destroy your contraband if they find out. My recommendation: don’t do it.
- Can I check my wine with the airline as baggage? Yes, and this is the only practical option for getting your wine home safely and quickly. Simply have your wine bottles packed in Styrofoam inserts and a sturdy box, check it with your luggage and relax knowing it will show up at your destination unbroken. It’s free up to the airline’s checked bag or weight limit, then typically $90/case after that. Good wine shops in Italy sell the inserts and shipping boxes, and you can find them at Mail Boxes Etc. Alternatively, buy them in the States before you leave and bring them with you as empty checked baggage. When you check in, show the agent how well you’ve packed your bottles if they have any concerns about checking the wine. And never try to check loose cases of wine — airlines won’t let you, and even if they do the bottles will break and you may be liable for that lovely red stain all over the other passengers’ suit cases and clothing.
- Can I just stick my bottles in my bag and check it? Well, yes, but this is a bit tricky. I’ve done it, but I don’t recommend it. You need to wrap your bottles in bubble wrap or several layers of clothing, then ensure it’s in the center of your suitcase. You run the risk of the bottles breaking, which will be a very unpleasant surprise when you arrive at baggage claim.
- Can I carry my wine on-board? Nope, not any more. I used to carry up to 6 bottles as carry-on luggage per person, but that’s no longer an option with today’s security measures.
- How do I clear US Customs? When you arrive at the first US port, you have to clear Immigration and US Customs. Simply mark your Immigration Landing Card s ‘carrying food’ and tell the agent that you have wine. They’re going to ask anyway, so tell them exactly how many bottles or cases you have. Don’t try and be cute or sneaky about it, or they may seize your wine. If you are asked to pay duty taxes (technically, you should), don’t worry — it’s less than 50 cents/bottle for most wine. Keep your story simple: you’re bringing wine home for your own personal consumption, and you won’t sell or give it away.
Bringing a special or prized wine home from Italy is one of the best ways to relive the wonderful memories you build while in bella Italia. If you’re prepared and use the ideas and suggestions in this article, it will be a snap and you’ll have your wine safely home in no time. Cin cin!
Any particular producers you’re interested in bringing home? Have some helpful hints from your own experiences? Need more help on finding a wine? Join the fun, we’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have a question about Italian wine, food or travel, ask away.
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