Wine bottles break. You may think that you've packed that Bordeaux safely inside your suitcase, stuffing the vintage between your clothes or putting a sock over the delicate neck. But it's still a bottle -- and it still can break.
I learned this lesson the hard way on my first trip to Napa Valley. Eager to get as many bottles home as I could, I wrapped my wine in pashminas, sure that the cushion would adequately thwart overeager baggage handlers.
But I was wrong. My suitcase came off the belt … dripping. I lost not only my pashminas that day, but several premier bottles, including a delicious chocolate port that I mourned for much longer than I did the cover-ups.
Now I'm more savvy about how -- and when -- to pack or ship wine and liquor. I've managed to get Spanish cavas, Mendoza Malbecs, and Tequila tequila home without destroying any more clothing (remember that the TSA -- and security in many countries -- forbid you to carry liquids greater than 3 oz. on the plane, unless you buy from a duty-free store).
If touring wineries is on your travel agenda, here are a few tips on how to get your vintage back intact:
Buy a wineskin. These protective holders, available in wine stores, wineries, and many online retailers, are the cheapest way to protect your purchase. The skin sheaths your bottle in plastic with an interior bubble wrap, so you can pack it in your suitcase without fear. Make sure your skin that has a double seal to prevent spillage, in case the worst does happen.
Note: Although some skins claim they are reusable, the seal usually doesn't close as firmly the second time around. You're better off buying another. Wineskins typically cost under $15.
Consider buying a wine suitcase. If you're the type who makes winery vacations a regular event, you're ready to upgrade to a wine suitcase. You can find some under $100 that claim to be break-proof, but if you want to be sure, invest in a stainless steel wine suitcase that's built to withstand the extreme temperatures of an airplane's cargo (expect to pay $200 to $500). Styrofoam inserts in the suitcases allow baggage handlers to do their worst.
Check the list.Most overseas wineries have lists of distributors that carry their wine, so don't be afraid to ask for it. "All of our wine you can find in the States," said Jimena Turner, director of wine education at Bodega Catena Zapata (www.catenawines.com) in Mendoza, Argentina. There's no sense shipping home a case if you can find it down the street.
Ship it, if your state allows it.The laws governing interstate wine shipment are complex, to say the least. U.S. Postal Service forbids you to ship wine, and FedEx and UPS have regulations that generally rule out shipping if you're an individual. What you need to know: does your state accept direct wine shipments? (Thirteen states do not.) Has the winery you are buying from bought a reciprocal license to ship out of state? (Most states require this). Find out where your state stands at Free the Grapes (www.freethegrapes.org).
If you do ship, Cecila Fernadez Gimeno, a retailer at the Vines of Mendoza (www.vinesofmendoza.com), has some tips: Send your wine to work, where someone can sign for it. Mind the weather; some retailers hold wine during the hot summer months. And if your state doesn't accept the wine, send it to a friend or family member in another state, but "it should be someone who you know doesn't drink," she said.
Make friends with a distributor. Let's say you're a true oenophile, one who has dreams of a wine cellar and the means to fill it. Then you're going to want to befriend a local distributor who can handle large shipments of wine for you -- and deal with U.S. Customs duty fees and regulations, advised global wine consultant Charlie Arturaola (http://charliewines.com).
"Let someone take care of it for you," he said.