The temptation to spirit away a few bottles of France’s national elixir is great. But can you? Should you? If so, what? And how do you get it home?
What to buy
If you’re from the United States, the vast majority of the wines you’ll encounter are available back home, though perhaps not where you live. The state-by-state patchwork of shipping laws might make it easier to just buy in France, but that’s often not the case.
Contrary to expectations, most wines — after accounting for currency exchange — aren’t cheaper in France unless you’re buying them from the winery itself. There are exceptions, though. Champagne, especially from producers who own most of their own grapes (so few of the famous names), is one. Older wine is another, and that’s not hard to find in France.
Somewhat problematic are natural wines, which are more richly represented on Parisian shelves than just about anywhere else. But beware: many were not made with stability in mind, and the temperature vagaries of transoceanic voyages are the very definition of instability.
If you live in Australia or New Zealand, it’s certain that there’s a better, and much cheaper, selection in Paris than back home.
Always use protection
If you’re stashing a few bottles in your suitcase — checked, of course, due to universal restrictions on on-board liquids — bubble wrap (papier bulle or film à bulles d’air) and tape are recommended. Make sure to add extra padding to the bottles’ necks, tops, and bases, as that’s where most breaks occur. Cardboard boxes (even handmade) provide extra safety. Then wrap with the plushest clothing you own and cross your fingers, for the ability of baggage handlers to break even heavily-protected bottles is legendary.
Far better is an insulated shipping container — essentially a series of bottle-shaped styrofoam or cardboard inserts inside a box — in sizes ranging from single-bottle up to a case. They can be expensive and difficult to acquire in France, so sometimes it’s best to arrive toting an empty container among your checked baggage (the raised eyebrows at airport desks when you check an empty box are a hilarious bonus). Ask a good retailer back home for sources.
On the ground in Paris, the only store we know of with a helpful solution is La Dernière Goutte, which sells a handy six-bottle pack that you can check as luggage. And if you don’t feel up to carrying a newly-filled container, The Wine Check is an efficient solution that turns a twelve-bottle case into wheeled luggage. It and related packaging are also available in France — albeit at a significant premium — from Lazenne. A sturdier, hard-cased, (though much more expensive) alternative is the VinGardeValise, with the important caveat that a full cargo of especially heavy bottles can push it over most carriers’ weight limits.
On that note, remember that your airline’s baggage weight and quantity limits still apply. Bottles are heavy, and twelve bottles of wine push right up against (but only occasionally surpass) most weight thresholds. Saving $50 at a store only to pay twice that in excess or overweight baggage fees is no bargain.
The United States allows up to two liters duty-free, after which you’re supposed to be assessed a 3% duty. In practice, that almost never happens; the amount of paperwork and time required to collect this measly fee isn’t worth it. Make sure you declare everything, and if challenged state your willingness to pay the duty. Usually, you’ll just be waved through.
If not, an agent will likely just ask a few questions, grunt unhappily, consult their supervisor, and then let you pass. Note that an unusual quantity of alcohol will raise suspicion that you’re going to sell it, though this rarely results in anything more than a few extra questions. You’re supposed to supply receipts if asked, but if you can’t the agents will have to determine prices; something else they don’t want to do and that will, usually, lead to you being sent on your way, wine intact.
While individual state laws are supposed to be enforced at each airport, few federal agents have any interest in doing the states’ work for it, and so this rarely happens. One arcane exception: some (not all) absinthes are illegal in the United States.
Canada allows up to 1.5 liters of wine or 1.14 liters of spirits, after which a punishing duty is assessed…often between 50 and 100% of the value. Canada does not mess around.
Australia allows 2.25 liters of alcohol, after which they’re supposed to charge a duty/tax combination that starts at 29% of value and can go higher. This is only sporadically enforced. More often you’ll be “taxed” by jokes about bringing non-Australian wine into a country that produces so much of its own.
New Zealand allows a fairly generous 4.5 liters of wine, after which a duty is assessed: approximately $2.82 for wine up to 14% alcohol, a punishing $51.50 for anything over that. New Zealand customs agents are so strict and attentive that it’s unwise to attempt to bend these rules.
When you get your bibulous bounty home, let it rest — on its side (if it bears a cork) and in a cool place — for at least a few weeks before opening anything. “Travel shock” is a controversial phenomenon lacking a known scientific basis, but experience unquestionably demonstrates that wine is no more ready to face the world after deplaning than you are.
Though it probably isn’t in as dire need of a shower.
Where to buy?
You can also consult Our Guide to Paris Wine Shops.