John JuergensTraveling with wine: Dealing with the new airline regulations

I routinely get questions about ordering wine on the Internet and through mail-order directly from wineries and the many wine clubs that have sprung up around the country. Unfortunately, despite last year's Supreme Court ruling that should have opened the way to more direct shipping between wineries and consumers, only a handful of states have taken the enlightened approach to allowing reasonable amounts of wine to be shipped directly to consumers.

To compound the problem of getting wine from there to here, the new Homeland Security regulations banning all liquids in carry-on luggage have established additional obstacles in the personal transport of wine, and both consumers and wineries are feeling the pinch. For some wineries in California, sales at their tasting rooms can amount to 50 percent or more of their total income. There have been reports of substantial reductions in sales at winery tasting rooms because of the new air travel restrictions, and some airlines will not allow passengers to check wine in shipping containers as luggage.

As a wine writer and wine consultant, I frequently travel to wine producing areas throughout the U.S., Europe, and South America. When I come across new and interesting wines I usually like to bring back samples to share with friends to get their opinions before I write about them. Of course, some I bring back just for my own enjoyment.

For many years I transported wines home in my carry-on luggage or in cardboard wine shipping boxes provided by the wineries. But I also learned how to pack bottles in my checked luggage to increase the amount of wine I could bring back with me, or because I was not able to accommodate the wine as my carry-on baggage. On the flip side, I almost always carry wine with me on the outward-bound portion of my trips. I like to have something to sip on when I reach my destination without having to roam around the city looking for a wine shop. And I don't want to even get started on the irritating issues involved in trying to get a decent glass of wine at a reasonable price in hotels.

Naturally, my primary concern in packing wine in my checked bags is having a bottle or two break, which is a very real risk given the way baggage handlers seem to believe each bag is in need of a stress test. But I am proud to say that in more than twenty years of packing wine in my luggage, I have never had a bottle break. So I want to share some of my packaging strategies, and offer wineries some ideas on how to assist consumers in safely transporting wines without running afoul of the Homeland Security rules.

First, let's take a look at the situation where you have been roaming around the California wine country and have picked up several bottles of wine you want to take back home, and don't have any kind of shipping materials. When packing the wine in your suitcase the important thing is to prevent the bottles from shifting around and getting banged against something hard enough to break the bottle. What I do first is slip each bottle into a sock, and then roll that up in a dirty undershirt. You can use any sort of clothing to do this, but you might consider getting some inexpensive athletic socks just for this purpose. I never wrap the bottles in any piece of clothing I would not want to get ruined if a bottle did break.

Next, I use a plastic bag, usually the laundry bag provided by the hotel, and put as many of the wrapped bottles in it as will fit snuggly side by side. You can use small plastic trash bags as well. Then I fold the top of the plastic bag over and tape the package securely with clear cellophane type packing tape, which I either take with me or buy locally. I make sure the package is sealed so that if a bottle did break any liquid not absorbed by the socks and clothing will not leak out.

Now you have a sort of wine mummy that is all trussed up and ready for burial in your luggage. The idea is to isolate and insulate the wine on all sides as much as possible, particularly on the sides with the least protection, that is, the broad, flat sides of the bag. This includes both soft-sided and rigid luggage. I would discourage the use of luggage that does not have some kind of rigid frame, such as duffle bags, for transporting wine.

Most suitcases these days have wheels that dictate their vertical orientation, and it is important to position the wine parallel with the vertical axis of the suitcase. That is, orient the bottles so that the bottom of the bottles face the bottom of the bag in its normal upright position. But, first, you want to put things like shoes at the very bottom of the bag just above the wheels, and put down several layers of clothes in the sides of the bag. Position your wine mummy so that the bottom of the wine bottles rest on top of the shoes or other padding that will absorb shock from that direction. Then surround the wine package on all sides with clothes and a final couple of layers of clothes on top before you close the bag. Give the suitcase a few good shakes to make sure the wine package can not move around and come into contact with any of the sides of the suitcase.

That is basically how I have done it for more than 20 years without any mishaps. If I know there is a chance of bringing back more than three or four bottles, I will take an extra suitcase that is loosely packed with clothes in anticipation of using it to pack wine. I have brought back up to fourteen bottles of wine this way. Sure, the bags tend to get pretty heavy, and you might even incur an overweight charge if you try to bring pack more than a few bottles, but that charge still will be less than the cost of shipping the wine by FedEx, DHL, UPS, or by the winery, assuming it is legal to ship wine back to your state.

If you really want to be prepared and not risk damaging even a dirty undershirt to wine stains, you can take with you a roll of bubble wrap available at any mail service store such as Mailboxes, Etc and the UPS Store. I would use the kind with the small bubbles to conserve space and tape them closed, but I would still seal them inside some kind of plastic bag with some kind of absorbent material.

This is where the wineries can help consumers and themselves to maintain those valuable tasting room sales. In addition to providing the traditional cardboard carriers, they can carry the bubble wrap, tape, and plastic bags that are easily sealed to make the luggage packing that much easier. They can have demonstrations or hand out materials that illustrate the best ways to pack wine in luggage as I described above.

As a passionate wine consumer, I have vowed to never let anything get in the way of my wine enjoyment. When the new travel restrictions on liquids were announced, I did not worry for a moment about traveling with wine because I knew I had a tried and true way around that obstacle. I hope this works for you as well.

August 2006

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