How a Trip to California Opened My Eyes – Part 1

Just recently I returned from California, the Mecca of wine in North America and I am still pining over the amount of wine I left behind that I would have loved to bring home.  As you may or may not know you are not restricted from buying wine abroad, I probably purchased 15 bottles in the week I was away, but I had to consume the majority of it on that side of the border. Americans seem to have an almost unlimited carry-home amount, that’s because their taxation on alcohol is a mere pittance based on the amount they bring back above their personal exemption.  Many people I have talked to, and from first hand accounts I have read, state that US customs official are known to turn a blind eye on alcohol. Looking over US official regulations I can see why, they seem vague but sensible about the rules: “While federal regulations do not specify a limit on the amount of alcohol you may bring back for personal use, unusual quantities are liable to raise suspicions”.  In plain speak US Customs seems less interested in how much wine you are bringing back, unless they deem that you are planning to sell it on the other side. For example, a mixed case would raise little to no suspicion, while 3 cases of the same wine might garner further scrutiny and some duty.  Canadian customs is a different story and stopping extra alcohol from coming in seems to be high on its mandated list.

Here’s a story to illustrate my point:  Last summer I was bringing in some used furniture after being away for a week.  Your personal exemption after a week away is $750, I had about $1200 worth of stuff (I was furnishing my new house). Since I was trucking it in with a U-Haul I decided to try my luck with a mixed case of wines (12) I had acquired.  At the border I declared my furniture and presented the customs official with an itemized list of what I was hauling, I also remarked that I had 12 bottles of wine each with a retail value of under $15.  I knew I was going to pay some duty but was shocked to learn that my $180 case of wine cost me more to bring in than my $450 overage on furniture. It is also important to note that I was actually paying duty on only $150 worth of wine, as two of the 12 bottles were exempt.

Two more examples to illustrate the point …
Story 1: My wife travels to the US every day for work.  We were planning a get together with friends and thought we’d serve a shot called “little beers” (Liquor 43 topped with heavy cream).  The day before she was to buy it she asked a border guard what the duty would be if she were to bring it in.  She was told that depending on the alcohol content she could be paying as much as double the retail cost.  Double?!?  Needless to say she did not bring a bottle back, but I ask, whatever happened to free trade and the freedom of movement across the border?  By the way, Liquor 43 is coming to Ontario in the late November Vintages release and will cost consumers just over $40 whereas you can buy a bottle in New York or Michigan for less than half.

While story 1 illustrates what happens when driving across the border, but here is an example of how it affects other travel plans you might have:

Story 2: For my mother’s 70th birthday she wanted to visit a wine-producing foreign land.  She had visited Italy in the past but with a non-drinker who was not interested in partaking in touring the wine country-side.  As great a plan as it was, I reminded my mother that she could only bring back 2 bottles, no matter how many lovely Italian wines she found.  Her smile disappeared at the thought of having to reduce a trip to Italian wine-country to just two bottles, so instead we traveled to British Columbia where we could ship back wines to our own province with nary a second glance from the post office, or the prying eyes of customs officials.  My mother still wants to visit Italy for the wine but knowing she can bring back so little makes the trip seem less exciting.

From California we carried back three bottles each and luckily had a sympathetic customs official who allowed the 6 bottles in without much questioning.