Edited from this week's Globe and Mail:
For wine lovers, it's become a major pain: Airport carry-on restrictions limiting fluid containers to 100 millilitres have sucked part of the joy out of foodie travel.
It's meant having to swaddle souvenir bottles in old socks or dog-eared copies of the International Herald Tribune and praying they won't meet with one of those baggage handlers using his job as shot-put practice for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For those with already-bulging suitcases, it's often meant having to guzzle the precious wine out of plastic cups in the terminal or, worse, leave it behind at the last minute. But enterprising fliers are finding ways to ease the hassle of travelling with wine.
Uline, a packaging supplier based in Illinois, is one of several distributors that sells the inserts along with heavy-cardboard boxes. They cost between $4.95 and $18.50 (U.S.), depending on capacity.
Some of you may be wondering: Aren't Canadian travellers limited to two bottles? Not unless you live in the Northwest Territories or Nunavut. Two bottles (technically 1.5 litres of wine or 1.14 litres of liquor) is simply the duty-free threshold; you're allowed to exceed that up to a specified volume (which varies from province to province), provided that the alcohol travels with you - and that you're willing to pay federal duties and provincial or territorial assessments.
In Ontario and British Columbia, for example, vacationers can bring back as much as 45 litres, or five 12-bottle cases. What you'll pay above the two-bottle exemption isn't trivial. (This is Canada, after all.) Typically, besides GST and PST, you'll get dinged for import and excise duties, plus a substantial provincial border levy. In Ontario, the provincial levy is 39.6 per cent on the landed cost of the wine and 59.9 per cent on the landed cost of a spirit. Result: A $14 bottle of wine will end up costing you $23.38 at the Canada Customs desk at the airport. In British Columbia, a $14 bottle would end up costing $29.40.
Like I said, that's not trivial. For this reason, I tend only to bring back rare wines that have special meaning, or bottles I'm unlikely ever to find in Canada. But if you're carrying, say, no more than three or four bottles (as opposed to my usual 36), you may find the Canadian Border Services Agency staff a lot more congenial than they have a reputation for being. Earlier this month I declared five wine bottles while returning from the United States through Pearson International in Toronto. Total charge: nada.
The key, and I'm not just being an earnest do-gooder here, is to always declare what you've got. "The last thing you want is any kind of red flag beside your name," Mr. Fekete said. "Really, there isn't a bottle of wine that's worth it." No, not even a '47 Cheval Blanc.
If you're carrying really precious cargo, you can ask for "special handling." Most airlines, including Air Canada, offer this service free to people with things like cellos and snowboards. (It's amazing how many kids treat their snowboards with more care than their parents' cars.) In this case, you must go to a special counter at the destination airport, where your box will be delicately brought out - after an interminable wait - by hand.
Usually, they're pretty good at honouring special-handling requests, but don't bet your snowboarding career on it. I've asked for special handling in the past only to watch my 12-bottle wine box tumble down the regular conveyor. (None the worse for wear, thankfully.)
For tourists who intend to return with no more than two bottles, another U.S. company has come up with a hassle-free solution. BottleWise Duo is a padded bag containing two removable watertight pouches. The whole thing then rolls into a tight package and is designed to be packed into your checked luggage.
BottleWise Duo may also give peace of mind to travellers labouring under a misconception about bottles and planes. On a recent Caribbean cruise, several passengers sought my advice on how to transport Champagne back to Canada. Their concern: whether sparkling wine would burst in the airplane's cargo hold.
In theory, they're not wrong to wonder. Sparkling wine exerts about the same pressure as a truck tire. As air pressure outside the bottle drops with altitude, the tendency is for the dissolved carbon dioxide gas - the bubbles - to either pop the cork or burst the glass.
But there's no real need to worry. For one thing, thick Champagne bottles and the wire cages that fasten the cork to the neck are sturdy enough to withstand the pressure differential. More importantly, most airline cargo holds are pressurized these days. (They wouldn't be sticking pets down there otherwise.)
By way of personal testimonial, I can say I've returned home on planes with numerous bottles of sparkling wine over the years and have never had a problem. .
Bringing it back safely
With new airport restrictions on carry-on liquids, here are some solutions to the challenge of travelling with wine (or spirits or olive oil).
Uline, based in Illinois, is one of several companies selling inexpensive, reusable "Styrofoam wine shippers" (Uline.com or 1-800-958-5463). The shippers are heavy cardboard boxes lined with thick Styrofoam inserts configured for one, two, three, six or 12 bottles. A typical minimum order of four six-bottle shippers costs $42 (U.S.) plus shipping. (Shipping charges to Toronto $21.21, to Vancouver $29.11. But the shipping charges will probably come down next month as Uline opens a Canadian warehouse in Toronto.) Another vendor is Oakland Packaging & Supply of California, which also ships to Canada (Oakpackaging.com).
In the wake of airport restrictions, many wineries in such consumer-friendly regions as California now offer Styrofoam-padded boxes for sale in their tasting rooms. Ask before you buy.
Ken Chase, Air Canada's wine expert and consultant, recommends the Styrofoam boxes. For consumers travelling with fewer than six bottles, he suggests inserting each bottle into a high boot and wrapping clothing around the boot before placing it in luggage.
BottleWise, another U.S. company, has just launched a reusable padded tote bag with two waterproof inner sleeves. The two-bottle bag, which costs $48.95 (U.S.) for the basic version, is designed to be placed inside regular luggage and protect your precious bottles better than soiled towels or socks. It also folds flat for outbound travel and can be used as a BYOB tote bag back on land. Bottlewise.com