Almost everyone who travels to Italy brings back at least a bottle or two of wine. I have brought home 22 bottles in carry on before. We had two leather bags jammed full. The strap broke on one bag but I was able to avert disaster. However, the memory of lugging 68 pounds of wine through the airport is indelibly etched in my mind (not to say on my shoulders). Nowadays I check all my wine and use luggage carts.
How to carry back your wine
Since most of us go to Italy only every so often, buying wine there takes a little planning. And somehow checked luggage is always taken up by such things as clothing! This trip I am taking 2 Styrofoam wine carriers with me as checked luggage and will fill them over there with mostly Brunello. We will return with 5 pieces of luggage – 2 checked pieces of luggage (extra room for all the clothes buying we are planning to do!), one carry on and 2 wine shippers. I have checked with United and checking an extra case would run $105. With the savings on good bottles running $20 to $40 a bottle, an $8.00 freight charge per bottle would be worth it.
If you do go the checked baggage route, use only shippers with Styrofoam inserts. Do not use the pressboard shippers or boxes with foam pellets or bubble wrap as many airlines will not allow these to be checked. Go to the airport with the cartons open so they can be inspected at check in. The airline will give you tape to seal your baggage. The folks behind you may scowl but… We have moved upwards of 50 cases in Styrofoam shippers and never lost a bottle. Some of my wine carriers would have already earned a free ticket if only they had a frequent flyer number. You can buy the Styrofoam shippers most anywhere but I fill out my allotment of luggage with shippers whenever I travel to wine country so I don’t get caught short.
Wine Buying Strategies
Now on to considering a strategy for what YOU are buying. What I buy has no relevance to what you are buying. I will buy about 80% or more red wines. You may not drink the stuff. I know a lot of people who buy some every day stuff in Italy and then find they have only saved a few dollars over what they could have bought it for here in the US. While it is a fun reminder of your trip to pull a bottle with a label all in Italian and without all the US regulated verbiage on it, the wine is the same stuff inside (unless you are dealing with large winery plonk). If your wine merchant knows you by name, you will probably have a very different strategy than if your wine drinking consists of the occasional bottle when you have company over. If your wine merchants rub their hands with glee and say “Look honey, we just paid for another year of Suzie at Harvard!” whenever you walk in … just move over there!
Your strategy has to work for your drinking style. While it is fun to find some really inexpensive and wonderful wines in Italy, do the math when figuring out what to bring home. I love to drink local and obscure wines that are dirt cheap over there and are much more expensive or not available over here. However, I never buy anything inexpensive over there to bring home unless the bottle has some great sentimental value. It is the same hassle and cost per bottle to bring home a great bottle as for a bottle of plonk. I target wines that cost $30 to $50 or more over here and shoot for a $20.00 a bottle savings or more.
For example, Rosso di Montalcino that sells for $12.00 in Montalcino and $30 in Washington DC are almost as good a buy as Antinori that costs $70 in Toscana and $100.00 here. Plus I drink a heck of a lot more of the $30.00 a bottle wine than I ever do of the $100.00 a bottle wine. My typical wine drinking runs to the $15-20.00 bottle but I drink a $30.00 bottle about 1-2 times a month. Those 2 cases from Italy will supply me for a year with some pretty good drinking (or actually add to my cellar as I pull out some of the older stuff!). If you do drink a lot of Amarone, Barolo and Brunello etc., you can save a lot. A case at $30 to $40 a bottle average instead of the $60 to $70 you would pay for the really top flight producers here is going to add up. It almost pays for the trip! At least that’s what I tell my wife.
Do your homework before you go. You will almost certainly know what part of the country you are traveling to. Do some research on the wines of the area. Check out Victor Hazan or Burton Anderson (my 2 favorite wine writers on Italy). Go to wine shops and find out pricing on wines from the area. Even do a little tasting to see what you like before you get there. Once there be sure to stop in at wine bars where you can taste through a range of wines to see as wide a variety of styles as possible. I am past the stage where I like to make my dinner into a wine tasting so I do my comparing before dinner at the enoteca where we all have different wines and trade tastes. When I do find a great wine at dinner, I ask the waiter where I should go to buy wine locally. I have been turned on to several great shops that way. Markups in restaurants over retail can be a lot less in Italy so I have actually bought bottles from the restaurant and still got a great buy.
While I love to drink local, there is many a great wine shop where you can buy wines from all over Italy. There is a wonderful shop in Monteriggioni with not only great Tuscan wines, but also a very good selection of Barolo and Barbaresco at great prices. Any good enoteca or wine shop will have some Amarone, Barolo and Barbaresco as well as others. Try a few tastes if offered and give your opinion to the wine seller. They should then be able to steer you to some other things you will also like.
I would rather buy fewer types of wine and get more bottles of each. For example I am not buying the last of the 1996 Borolo’s and Barbaresco’s I can find. The 1997 and 1998 vintages are also good, but I am sticking to ’96 mostly. Why? Because there is a vintage effect. The 1996’s will vary from producer to producer but there will be some vintage wide characteristics across all producers. The long lived-ness and ready to drink-ness of the wines will have some similarity. For example the 1996 Barolos are less ready to drink than the 1997’s, as a whole. By buying 3 or 4 bottles of each wine, I can go back and taste the wines as they develop. Also a great way to learn about a region is to compare different producers in a given vintage. Also, by sticking to estate bottlers (that is wineries that own their vineyards) you will get to know a house style which will help you decide on the next good vintage. If you do not cellar wines as I do, this is not a factor in your strategy. Also, if you do not cellar wines, you have more options as many vintages are quite good to drink young but not age-worthy. 1998 in Toscana is a prime example. I have yet to taste anything worth extended cellaring but some wineries have produced perfectly lovely wines.
A last point: as good a buy as you can get on wines, high end spirits may be an even better buy! The liquor market is dominated by huge and very expensive importers. Great cognacs and single malts are often available at a third of what they would cost in the US. Since really great cognacs and malts can easily cost $100.00 a bottle over here, a few bottles of the good stuff can really add to your savings.