By Ruth Arista and Rick Steves
Wine lovers wandering through Europe face a continual dilemma: Savor just the memories or haul a few favorite bottles home?
Despite the global-goods-on-demand world we live in today, your neighborhood wine shop can't always track down the wine you enjoyed at that café on the Champs Elysées or at that tapas bar in Spain. Some wineries only sell their wine in their country; they never need or want to bring their wines to other markets. That's the case with some of the most wonderful wines, which makes it tempting to bring a few bottles home.
The downside, of course, is the schlepping — the scary prospect of a bottle breaking in your suitcase, the agony of that bag cutting into your shoulder, or the weight of the box dragging you down as you trudge through the airport. And then there's the chance that the wine just won't taste quite as exquisite when you're sipping it in your kitchen as it did on that piazza in Siena.
You might be better off seeing wine like art — something to be enjoyed, marveled at, and then remembered with a postcard. Instead of a postcard, you can ask for a wine label, or jot down the winery, vineyard, year, and other information to bring home. Or pack corks — they've got the winery name right on them, and you can use a ballpoint pen to add the year, vineyard specifics, and name of the producer (often found in small print at the bottom of the label). These notes will help you track down the wine once you're home — if it's sold overseas.
If you just can't resist bringing wine home, keep these tips in mind.
Pack softly and carry a hard suitcase. Due to current security regulations, you can't fly with any wine in your carry-on; you'll have to pack it carefully in your checked luggage. This works most of the time if the bottles are thickly padded with clothing in a hard-sided suitcase. If you do this, you're still running the risk of breakage. Plus the bottles will have to endure the extreme cold (and sometimes heat) of the cargo hold.
Consider the bottle size. One bottle of wine weighs about three pounds. Some winemakers use thicker bottles, perhaps figuring this also adds heft to the wine's reputation.
Divide and conquer. If you're bringing back multiple bottles and you're traveling with a partner, divide them among your carry-ons (five bottles means 15 extra pounds). Bring a spare fold-out duffle for your clothes and check that bag so that you can carry the wine.
Know your limits. Customs regulations require you to pay three-percent duty tax if you bring back more than one liter. Couples get away with three standard 750 ml bottles, adding up to 2 ¼ liters.
Tell the truth. Be upfront if you're over the limit. You may even benefit — sometimes the special customs lines move faster than the nothing-to-declare ones. If your wine is for personal use, the agents might not even tax you. It won't happen all the time, but many wine-obsessed travelers report that this can be the case.
Whether or not you plan to get some to go, be sure to sample the local specialties in Europe. Ask winemakers you visit for recommendations, or try the house wine at restaurants. Imbibing on the spot is like enjoying the original artwork right in front of you. Savor the flavors, take in the scents in the glass, and appreciate how the wine matches the food and the whole ambience of the meal. Ask for the cork for a memento, and then move on to the next masterpiece.
Ruth Arista and her husband David own Arista Wine Cellars, a wine shop in Edmonds, Wash. Be sure to check your state's regulations regarding bringing alcohol into the US, as state laws and regulations can vary.