Clearing Customs with wine
That's what I SAY. What I DO, of course, is bring back as much wine as I can carry. No matter how strong my intentions, there's always a bottle here, a gift there, a rare item that I know I'll never be able to find at home.
Last autumn, I discussed packing and carrying wine for air travel in the Dec. 20 "Wine Advisor" article, "Let's get the wine on the road," http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor/tswa1220.shtml. For this week's column, let's look at another issue associated with bringing wine home: Clearing Customs.
Customs procedures are generally similar around the world; I speak from my experience as a U.S. citizen, but residents of other countries will face much the same issues. (Citizens of European Union countries, however, now have no limits on importing alcohol products from one EU country to another.)
Essentially, Customs exists for two purposes: To assess duties (taxes) on imported items - meaning those gifts and luxury items you purchased while away - and to detect and block contraband, any materials forbidden or regulated by law.
"We are the guardians of our Nation’s borders - America’s Frontline," declares the U.S. Customs Service in its Traveler Information Website, http://www.customs.ustreas.gov/travel/travel.htm. " ... We enforce the laws of the United States, safeguard the revenue, and foster lawful international trade and travel. The U.S. Customs Service is America’s front line against the smuggling of drugs and other prohibited goods."
So Rule No. 1 is simple: Do not lie to these people. As law-enforcement agents, they have the right and duty to detain you, arrest and fine you, even confiscate that special bottle you found in France. No matter how much wine you're carrying, failing to declare it is simply not worth the risk.
The U.S. import law for alcoholic beverages is simple: You are allowed one liter duty-free, provided that it is intended for your own use or as a gift. Beyond that, all your wine is subject to a 10 percent duty - even if its total value is below the $400 exemption that applies to most other products that American citizens bring in from abroad. There is no specific limit on the amount you may declare, but Customs ominously notes that "unusual quantities are liable to raise suspicions that you are importing the alcohol for other purposes, such as for resale."
In practice, however, I have never been charged a duty for any amount of wine that I can carry. Our return from Europe last Thursday was typical: My wife and I packed our carry-on bags until they bulged, and I duly declared the wine on the standard forms. As we rolled our bags to the Customs desk in Atlanta, the agent gave us a friendly grin. "Wine," he said. "Nine bottles? Go on." No muss, no fuss, no charge.
(U.S. citizens theoretically face a second hurdle: Each of the 50 states has its own laws limiting the amount of alcohol you may bring in from outside, and these laws may differ from the Customs rule. However, since states don't operate Customs, it's not likely that they're going to know about your purchase. My advice: Don't ask, don't tell.)
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Remembering the Rhone
La Montagnette 1998 Côtes-du-Rhône ($8.99)
FOOD MATCH: Just right with garlicky grilled chicken.
Notes from our Europe trip
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Vol. 2, No. 17, May 15, 2000