A few weeks ago I posted a guide to the best ways of bringing your wine home after traveling in wine country. That piece was devoted entirely to domestic (US) wine travel; however, thanks to some odd and often misunderstood quirks in dealing with customs, a follow up for international travel seems appropriate.
One of the best parts of overseas wine travel is the fact that, often, high-quality wine sells for pennies on the dollar compared to what you’d pay in the US. So quite naturally, we often purchase as much as we can.
But most of us only have two option for getting that wine home: ship it or bring it with you on the plane as luggage. However, international shipping is complicated and often prohibitively expensive. And since international cargo is x-rayed, FedEx and UPS have been known to periodically confiscate shipments. Therefore, most people opt to haul a case or two on the plane.
Contrary to popular conception, bringing wine into the USA as luggage is incredibly simple, cheap, and remarkably painless.
Here are the basics: for personal use, US Customs allows 1 liter (translated: 1.3 bottles) of wine per person tax and duty free. Beyond that, you’ll have declare your stash and pay duties and taxes. Exactly how much you’ll pay is something of a crapshoot, but most people report paying less than $20 per case. Trust me, that’s a bargain. And most airlines allow for a free checked bag (or two) on international flights which helps further defray costs. Of course, the airlines will be glad to haul as many cases of wine as you like so long as you pay the baggage fees.
If that all sounds too simple, well, you’re right. There’s a catch or two.
If you’re hauling more than a couple of cases with you, Customs may try and argue that you’ve exceeded what they deem a “reasonable” quantity for personal consumption. This seems to be at the discretion of the individual officer, but so long as you don’t have more than two or three cases the risk of this happening is very low.
When it comes to alcohol, US Customs is also tasked with enforcing any STATE laws applicable in the state where you first enter the US. So if you clear customs in a state where wine transport is restricted, you may be in for a nasty surprise. While in theory those restrictions are only supposed to apply to residents of that state, Customs often enforces them on everyone and warns travelers as much in two publications.
If that sounds complicated, here’s a scenario on how this could play out. Let’s say you live in Houston, have been traveling in Europe and have accumulated two cases of wine to bring home.
- If you fly Europe > San Francisco > Houston (clearing customs of course in San Francisco) you’ll be subject to California law, which does not place a cap on wine shipments.
- However, if you fly Europe > Memphis > Houston (where you’ll clear customs in Memphis) you’ll be subject to Tennessee law. Tennessee restricts wine to 12 bottles per person per month, so Customs would seize your second case.
So the biggest keys to getting your wine home hassle-free are to be reasonable with your quantities and pay close attention where your return flight enters the United States.
Generally speaking, the big airports along the coast (and Chicago) are wine-friendly and will pose no problem if you book your point-of-entry connection through one of them. Be careful if you’re offered an international connection through an airline hub in a state with very restrictive wine laws (Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee and Utah come to mind).