Many wine collectors assume that they can only bring one bottle of wine with them through U.S. customs when they fly home from a foreign country, but this isn’t the case. The fact is, if you handle your wine label clearance properly, you can bring as much wine as you want, and pay less in duty taxes than you would buying from an importer. A wine blogger once went on a trip to Germany, and managed to stuff 23 bottles of wine into a few checked bags on the way back. Customs stopped the blogger on the return trip, but when the customs officer looked up the rules on shipping wine, he discovered that the blogger could bring up to a full gallon of wine for as little as $3.45 in taxes. Because the duty tax was less than $20, the officer waved the blogger on, and he ended up paying nothing in taxes for the wine.
However, not all wine buyers are so well-versed in wine label clearance. Another wine lover brought home just two bottles of wine from Chile stowed in a duty-free bag sealed in a shipping container. What he didn’t realize is that this kind of package can only be cleared in checked luggage, not as a carry-on. When he arrived in the U.S. and wanted to take his wine on his connecting flight, they confiscated both bottles for improper clearance. Wine label clearance is easy to understand if you know the rules, but if you don’t, you could end up losing your wine.
Why Wine Label Clearance Matters
Your freedom to move wine between different countries and states depends on the specific customs rules of both countries. You can see a good example of why wine label clearance matters when you look at how China has benefitted from expanding its clearance options for importers. In the past, it was difficult for established wine merchants to import wine into most districts of China, even from Hong Kong. When the country decided to expand its clearance options to Hong Kong and other areas of the world, about 2.4 percent more merchants were able to participate in the world-famous Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair than before clearance laws changed. These new customs clearance partnerships between countries have allowed more collectors in China to invest in wine from France, Portugal, and Italy, which has been a huge boon for collectors.
In the U.S., duty taxes and customs clearance with foreign countries is typically simple and inexpensive when you bring home fewer than about two or three cases of wine. However, if you’re having more wine shipped to you, you might need a customs brokerage to help. As shipping expert Raymond Rau says, “Having the wrong person handle your customs brokerage can be very problematic. Shipping containers are warehoused as they go through customs clearance. Warehousing and storage fees can add up quickly. If there is a problem with your customs brokerage and your customs clearance does not happen smoothly, your shipping costs could go up by hundreds to thousands of dollars.” This is why you should avoid shipping full cases of wine on your own; it might cost you more up-front to buy wine from distributors or trusted retailers that work with distributors, but this cost is almost always less than the cost of hiring a customs broker, or paying hundreds of dollars more in fees for improperly shipping your wine.
How Do You Get Label Clearance?
The steps to get wine label clearance depend on how you’re shipping your wine. If you’re going through a trusted retailer, you shouldn’t have to worry about shipping the wine properly. Vinfolio uses a commercial invoice that accurately values the wine being shipped. Because the value is accurate, the wine smoothly goes through customs, and you’ll pay any applicable duty taxes based on the amount of wine only after your wine arrives on your doorstep. If you were to ship this wine on your own, without the help of a retailer, you would first have to write up your own commercial invoice, value the wine properly, and in some cases, apply for a special importer’s license. You’ll also need to pay a Telex release, fill out an OB/L form, and pay ocean freight charges.
Failure to do any of these, or any incorrect valuation on the wine, can result in all of the wine being confiscated. You won’t get your money back on whatever you paid for that wine either. The most foolproof way to have your wine shipped is to go through a company that handles wine shipments professionally.
For collectors who plan on bringing home fewer than a case or two of wine, it’s much more reasonable to handle wine label clearance by yourself. Your first step will be to value your wines properly. Keep all of your receipts, and add up the exact number of bottles you bought, along with each listed value. Never round the value down, or you could pay a penalty fee at customs later. Next, pack your wine to make label clearance fast and efficient at the airport. Never put wine in your carry-on luggage, and if possible, keep your bottles in a single container that is marked and checked. Make sure customs agents have easy access to your wine, and can see every bottle. Finally, when you fill out your customs form as you enter the country, write down exactly what you are bringing, and be prepared to get stopped on your way out if you bring more than a bottle or two of wine. Pay your duty taxes when you arrive, but remember that anything under $20 might be waved. If you want to avoid duty tax, either stick with one bottle of wine (which is free to bring), or stay under $20 in fees.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine.
With over a decade of experience in the wine industry, Derek Cienfuegos serves as Director of Collector Services at Vinfolio. During his tenure at Vinfolio, he has had the good fortune to work with some of the most distinguished wine collections in the country. Trained in wine production, Derek spent many years making wines commercially for some of Sonoma’s top producers. In addition, he has designed, opened, and managed two wine bars in San Francisco.