John JuergensTraveling with wine

As we all know, air travel isn't as much fun as it used to be. In fact, it can be a huge hassle fraught with so much stress and frustration that by the time you get to your destination your nerves are shot and you are physically exhausted. That's why I always travel with my own wine.

Maybe I'm getting old, but one of my great pleasures in life is to reward myself with a nice glass of wine when I finally get to my hotel room after successfully navigating the rigors of air travel. I do the same when I happen to be traveling by car, but will talk about that later.

I can think of no better way to unwind and to loosen up my neck and shoulder muscles than sipping on a big, fat Chardonnay, a robust Zinfandel, or a spicy Australian Shiraz while I unpack my bags, check out the view, and settle into my new temporary home. But that last thing I want to do when I get to an unfamiliar city is to have to go right back out in search of a wine shop. A couple of glasses of one of my "comfort wines" really goes a long way to helping me get oriented to my new surroundings, and then I can venture back out into the world to explore the neighborhood.

However, getting the wine to the room in good condition presents something of a challenge so I can still enjoy it rather than ending up with fruity smelling, red underwear. The key to successful air travel with wine is, of course, all about how you pack it. I have been traveling with wine for more than 20 years and have never had a bottle break or leak on my clothes.

Most recently, I enjoyed an aborted and disastrous trip on which my luggage, which contained three bottles of red wine, went all the way to Buenos Aires, Argentina and back without me. The fact that all three bottles came back intact after a trip of some 16,000 miles, while the soft-sided bag that held them looked as if it been the play-toy of that gorilla in the old Samsonite commercials, I think verifies that my wine packing techniques work well.

Here's how I do it.

The primary trick is to isolate the wine on all sides of the bag with shock absorbing materials, 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.

Regardless of how many bottles I'm carrying, first, I slip each bottle into a heavy cotton sock, and then I roll each bottle up in a t-shirt or other such garment that I'm not worried about getting wrinkled. If I'm carrying a single bottle - yeah, right - I wrap it in some kind of plastic bag and seal it with tape. For two or more bottles I place the sock and underwear wrapped bottles side-by-side in a plastic garbage bag or the laundry bag that you find in most hotels and motels these days. Then I seal the bag tightly with duct tape or something similar.

What this does is hold the padded bottles together as a flat unit and makes it difficult for them to shift in the bag. It also prevents them from banging up against each other. Try to orient the bottles so that the bottom of the bottles face the bottom of the bag in its normal upright position.

Then I make sure that I have plenty of shock absorbing materials all around them. I try to put things like shoes at the bottom of the bag and on the side opposite the handles, because this is the direction the bottles will travel as they are lifted and plopped down by ticket agents and baggage handlers. Even if you have to take an extra bag that is only half full, you really need to pack enough clothes around the wine package to minimize its movement inside the bag.

I have managed to carry as many as 12 bottles of wine at one time using this technique.

Of course, you can always avoid all this hassle and risk to your clothes by simply putting the bottles in your carry-on bag, which I sometimes do. But I usually reserve this option for one or two special or very expensive wines because of the simple fact that full wine bottles get damn heavy to lug around. And besides, they might be exposed to even more bashing hazards as you maneuver your way through airports, overhead baggage compartments, or under seat stowage.

In addition, if you have your wine all nicely wrapped up in your carry-on, you most likely will just have to unwrap it so the security people can see what it is and check it with their sniffer machine to make sure it doesn't contain some kind of explosive material. And with the high alcohol content of many California wines these days, particularly big Zinfandels, they just might qualify as hazardous materials.

When traveling by car I also like to have a nice adult beverage at the end of the driving day to loosen things up and to relax, especially if the road ends at a wine drinking friend's house or boat.

You can buy a variety of portable bars and wine carriers. The ones made specifically for wine usually are a large square satchel sort of thing that has Styrofoam inserts with cut outs for a couple of bottles of wine, wine glasses, and a cork screw. Generally, these are good for picnics, outdoor concerts, tailgating parties, and the like. But they are kind of limited for more a day trip.

When packing wine for a serious road trip you don't have to be so concerned with breakage as you do with temperature extremes. Most wines will travel fine in a regular wine or liquor box, but the combination of high or low temperatures along with hours of steady vibration can do a wine in, but probably not unless it is a very delicate wine.

What I try to do is make sure not to leave wines sit in a hot or very cold vehicle for long periods. If I have to stop overnight, I always take my wines into my hotel room. This also saves running back out to the car after you have already settled in for the evening, but want another bottle before bedtime.

A couple of final notes on traveling with wine. It is an even greater hassle to travel with proper wine glasses and not have them break. But every hotel with a bar or restaurant will have some kind of serviceable wine glass, so you don't have to drink your nice wine out of those short water tumblers or flimsy plastic wear, if you actually stay in those kinds of places.

And if you are going to go to all the trouble of packing and lugging wine with you on a trip, for heavens sake, don't forget to take a corkscrew. There are very few items in the normal hotel room inventory that will be of much use in pulling a cork out of a bottle. The best you can do is to pound it into the bottle using a pen or your toothbrush handle and the Gideon Bible. But by no means put a corkscrew in your carry-on flight bag; you most likely will lose it at security.

Traveling with wine can be a challenge, but it has its own very satisfying rewards.


Sept. 22, 2003

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