Moving Wines About the Planet

Perils of Wine Transport

By Dr. Jack C. Fisher

jack Fisher

Just imagine the following scene: after visiting a few favorite wineries, in Napa or Santa Inez or maybe in Beaune, France, you‘ve managed to collect a half dozen prime bottles and they’re packaged in a six bottle carrying carton. So for the flight home, you check your baggage and bring the wine on board for safekeeping in the overhead compartment.

TSA guy

Tighten up; there’s a cavity search coming!

            “What’s that?”“ you say. “Impossible… you’ll never get past airport security!’

Well, some of us older wine nuts can remember a time when there was no Transportation Safety Administration (TSA). Back in the 1960s…dark ages according to my adolescent grandsons…when I was first traveling by air to surgical meetings, I took side trips to wineries whenever practical, and my natural vinous acquisitiveness led to wine bottles for transport home. Understand that I am not claiming that immunity from regulators existed during that bygone era. The statutory residuals of 19th century temperance and 20th century prohibition meant different rules for different states. Furthermore, tariff policies were in constant flux, necessarily influencing the behaviors of U. S. Customs agents.


This will only take a minute

Consider this tragic and unforgettable incident: Arriving at JFK from Europe, I forthrightly declared two bottles of fine Bordeaux, one of them gifted by a French colleague.  Vaguely aware of volumetric limits and believing I was below the operative threshold, I was horrified when asked by the agent, “Which one do you want me to pour down the drain?  That particular year, the limit was one bottle…any size bottle. A magnum or a jeroboam of either wine would have passed scrutiny. On future trips, I looked for interesting magnums to bring back and often found them at the classic London wine shop on lower St. James (Berry Bros. and Rudd, est. 1698).

Most of the time, however, the challenge of bringing wine home involved little more than volumetric desire exceeding practical limits. Just how many six-bottle cartons can one bring on board? Most times the answer was two. But on one journey soon after luggage with wheels became the standard for travelers, I sent some clothing home parcel post and packed my bag with nearly a case of wine. That plus a couple of six bottle cartons and the entire journey seemed more than worthwhile. Living in Virginia at the time, my alternatives were the local state-operated outlet (not satisfactory) or else a two-hour drive to the nation’s capital to revisit familiar wine shops along Wisconsin Avenue.

Everything has since changed given regulatory easing of interstate wine shipment, direct online sale of wines, etc. But it wasn’t a fast or simple transition. Unreasonable regulatory policies will never vanish altogether in this risk-averse world in which hazards are predictably exaggerated.

Distributors and retailers ruled the day

TSA x-ray

Let’s put old ladies through this too!

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court engaged with wine commerce by agreeing to hear Granholm vs. Heald 544 U.S. 480 (2005). The issue under legal review was whether states, e.g. Michigan and New York, could allow its own wineries to ship directly to consumers while restricting out-of-state wineries from doing the same. In a 5:4 decision, the court ruled that such laws are unconstitutional. As a result, more states currently allow shipment from wineries direct to the consumer. New York State set a two-case limit on direct wine sales. Michigan along with fifteen other states elected to ban all direct purchase of wines from their source. 


All of this happened despite ratification of the 21st Amendment that rescinded prohibition in 1933. What it came down to was a pitched battle between proponents of the Constitution’s commerce clause and advocates of an individual state’s control of alcoholic beverages.


Viewed from a global perspective, there is a lot more wine moving about the planet today than there was when a few wine nuts like me were transporting six bottle cartons of wine on Boeing 727s. Wine production worldwide has increased (264 million hectoliters in 2011) since the 1960s and all that wine isn’t consumed within its nation of origin. What this means is more cargo containers filled with wine traversing the globe, hopefully protected from potentially variations in temperature.

And this brings me to a final “wine tale” about my biggest wine move…a twenty-eight case collection…transported in mid-winter from Virginia to California. It was all handled by a carefully selected driver for a major moving company who was recommended to me by a colleague who had recently moved his classic Porsche in the opposite direction. Unlike the automobile, which was insensible to thermal variations, the wine was clearly vulnerable to climatic extremes and did suffer damage. Even though every single bottle arrived at its destination intact, their latitude along the way was beyond my control. My guess is the truck’s itinerary varied from Louisiana to Northern Montana.

Notwithstanding the whims of state legislators and the self-interest of merchants who place limits on fair trade, it is pretty easy to visit wineries today, select a few prize bottles, and then have them shipped home; or you can sign-up for the wine club, unheard of in the 1960s, and expect shipments on a  regular basis. Airport security measures therefore do not represent very much of a barrier to wine movement. I am guessing there won’t be much demand for wine bottled inside the TSA 3oz. limit…at least not until the regulatory environment changes once again.



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