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Originally published Wednesday, September 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

A cautionary tale on traveling with wine

With the holidays looming, many wine lovers are planning to travel to family gatherings in other parts of the country. Perhaps you thought you...

Special to the Seattle Times

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With the holidays looming, many wine lovers are planning to travel to family gatherings in other parts of the country. Perhaps you thought you would take along a special bottle or two to enjoy with your friends and family. Not so fast, bucko!

These days, wine cannot be carried on board a plane; it must be checked as luggage. Which is why the following e-mail should serve as a cautionary tale.

Sent to me by reader Dennis Smith of Rockville, Md., it was titled, "Sea-Tac airport wine mishap." "Mishap," in this instance, was perhaps too kind. It seems that Smith, his wife and a companion had just spent eight days exploring Washington and Oregon wine country. They purchased three cases of wine to take back home to Maryland, planning to check it as luggage.

"The sole purpose of this trip," Smith writes, "was to visit wine regions and bring back wines not available where we live. Our trip was going wonderfully ... and then we arrived at Sea-Tac airport, where things took an absolute turn for the worst.

"My wife, myself and our friend attempted to check the three cases of wine we had collected. The ticket agent explained we were allowed just five liters of wine [about six bottles] per person as checked luggage. We found this to be odd, as for the past five years we have been traveling to California and have checked on cases of wine as luggage many times. The agent explained this was a TSA [Transportation Security Administration] regulation.

"In truth, that regulation states you may check as luggage an unlimited amount of an alcoholic beverage as long as it's less than 24 percent alcohol."

Smith, let the record show, is absolutely correct. In fact, the federal regs (www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/assistant/editorial_1189.shtm) read as follows:

"Carrying Alcohol In Your Checked Baggage: Please note, you can't take alcoholic beverages with more than 70 percent alcohol content (140 proof), including 95 percent grain alcohol and 150 proof rum, in your checked luggage.

"You may take up to five liters of alcohol with alcohol content between 24 percent and 70 percent per person as checked luggage if it's packaged in a sealable bottle or flask. Alcoholic beverages with less than 24 percent alcohol content are not subject to hazardous materials regulations."

In other words, wines — even fortified wines such as Port — are not subject to the five-liter rule. Unfortunately, the story does not end here. Smith explains what happened next:

"I replied to the agent she was mistaken about TSA's regulation; the five-liter rule doesn't apply to wine. I requested she get her manager so we could clear this up. An airline supervisor came. The agent was correct, we were told, and five liters was the limit for all alcohol regardless of the alcohol content. We were in absolute shock that not only was the agent not aware of the regulations but neither was the supervisor!

"We spent the next hour trying to find ways to get the other 1 ½ cases of wine home. We went to [another airline's] ticket counter and explained the troubles we were having. To our surprise that agent stated that [her airline] too only allows five liters of alcohol to be checked as luggage per person — regardless of the alcohol content. We had no choice but to find a way to dispose of the wine."

Here's the capper:

"The agent asked if she could have the wine. So we let her have hundreds of dollars' worth of wine. Once home I decided to look on TSA's Web site. The sad thing was, we were correct about the regulations, and both airlines didn't have a clue.

"My reason for this e-mail is to alert other people that may try to check on wine as luggage through Sea-Tac, or any other airport for that matter. Have a copy of the regulations on hand. We will now always have a copy of the regulations when we travel to wine country."

The (somewhat) happy ending ... after weeks of haggling, Smith finally did receive reimbursement for the loss of the wines. Better still, he tells me, the airline admitted that its employees "were unaware of the law pertaining to the regulations for checking wine as luggage ... and are to be properly trained and should now be aware of the regulations."

Attempts to contact Sea-Tac personnel for a response to this issue were unsuccessful. However, I will echo Smith: If you plan to check wine as luggage, call your airline in advance and make certain it is familiar with these regulations. Print out a copy to carry with you, just in case.

Last, but not least: How should you pack wine to minimize the chance of breakage? The safest, most secure way is to place the wine in a separate piece of luggage, wrapped in many layers of cloth, Bubble Wrap, etc. For those who want the very best protection, I recommend the wine travel cases made by Winecruzer (www.winecruzer.com/). They're not cheap, but they are incredibly sturdy, water- and airtight and come in a range of sizes, some with wheels and telescoping handles.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines and Wineries The Essential Guide." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Wine Adviser
My column, Wednesdays in Northwest Life, is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices.
wine@seattletimes.com

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