September 16, 2007

A Turbulent Flight of Wine

2006 Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Funtanaliras D.O.C.G.

My wife and I decided to picnic in Fairmount Park on Labor Day. She put together some delicious chicken pesto wraps for us to eat. To celebrate the symbolic end of summer, I wanted to bring along a special bottle of wine. As soon as I opened my cellar, I knew exactly which bottle to bring—the 2006 Vermentino di Gallura Superiore Funtanaliras D.O.C.G.

A gentle swirl released the subtle fragrance of apricots and mild flowers. On the palate, the tart apple and apricot flavors that introduced this wine were supported by a clean mineral texture and a slightly briney undercurrent. As these flavors began to fade, a playful arc of bitter almond breached the finish.

But what made this wine drink so well had nothing to do with its flavor profile or the fact that it paired well with the chicken pesto wraps. It had nothing to do with the vintage, the soil in which the grapes were grown, or even the fact that it was among the six bottles of wine that US Airways took from us in Rome. Rather, what made this Vermentino so special was that I kicked US Airways' ass to get it back.

Before we left for vacation in Italy, I knew we would be bringing home Italian wine. I also knew it was legal to do so. PA’s liquor laws are notoriously antiquated. It is illegal, for example, to bring wine across the border from New Jersey. However, strangely enough, it is completely legal to bring wine into PA from a foreign country—up to a gallon (a little over 5 bottles) per person. What’s even more surprising is that you don’t have to pay any taxes on it, not even the Johnstown Flood Tax. See 47 P.S. § 4-491(2).

Box of Wine

Knowing this, we brought with us to Italy a cardboard box that snugly held a two-piece Styrofoam container tailor made to cradle six bottles of wine (well under the PA limit for two people). This packaging is not novel. It is specifically designed to protect bottles during shipping and it’s used by wine merchants all over the world to ship wine safely to their customers.

L'Angolo Divino

In Rome, we befriended a wine purveyor named Massimo who owns an enoteca called L’Angolo Divino near Campo de’ Fiori. We asked him to fill the box with five bottles of wine, including some of the wine we enjoyed there the night before with relatives from Washington who were vacationing with us. The sixth slot would be used to carry the 1989 Chateau des Deux Moulins our relatives in Rome gave us.

1989 Chateau des Deux Moulins

When we arrived at the airport in Rome for our return trip, I placed the box on the counter to be checked in. When the US Airways clerk asked me what was in the box, I told the truth: wine. With that, she called over her manager, whom I’ll call “Mario” (not his real name). Mario took one look at the box and refused check it in. His initial reason for not checking the box was that the bottles would break. When I tried to explain the nature of the packaging, he cut me off and mindlessly repeated the bald conclusion that the bottles would break. Another clerk even joined in, shaking the box and mocking my explanation. It was insulting. And now I was fuming.

Mario then said two things: (1) there was a new policy prohibiting the wine from being checked unless it was in a wooden crate; and (2) FedEx would pick up our box at the airport and ship it to us in the states, which, he claimed, FedEx had done in the past for travelers like us.

Both of these statements, it turned out, were complete bullshit.

Within minutes of landing in Philadelphia, I was on the phone with US Airways. They confirmed that there was no “wooden crate” policy and that Mario had no right to prevent us from checking our wine. I also called FedEx. They don’t ship wine for consumers; you have to be a licensed distributor to enlist them to ship wine. The same is true of UPS.

Surprisingly, and to their credit, the US Airways folks I dealt with here in the states in the days that followed were sympathetic and proactive. For example, the representative at the Philly airport with whom I filed a claim report actually called Mario on the phone, told him he had no right to prevent us from checking the box and instructed him to put it on the next flight. Also, the representatives working the Central Baggage helpline sent Mario several messages telling him to ship the box. A manager from the baggage department’s corporate headquarters in Arizona kept me informed throughout the process.

But the problem wasn’t them. It was Mario. He stubbornly refused to return the wine. For example, although he told the US Airways representative at the Philly airport that he would put the wine on the next plane, he failed to do so. He then claimed that the instruction needed to come from Central Baggage. However, Central Baggage had already advised him several times to send the box.

I knew from the beginning that Mario would not budge unless one of his superiors here in the states called him on the carpet. It took ten days, but I made that happen. And we finally got our wine. Plus, as a result of this incident US Airways said they planned to have a sit down with the Rome office to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. Now, a US Airways customer should be able to check wine at Rome’s airport without any problem. That’s what happens when you mess with a lawyer’s wine.

2003 Rosso di Montalcino Ridolfi

Given the fierce campaign I waged to get the box back, you would expect that it contained expensive, extraordinary wines from legendary vintages. But it didn’t. Aside from the 1989 Chateau des Deux Moulins, all of the wines in the box were modest and inexpensive. Yet, they have more meaning to me than some of the esoteric Bordeaux and Burgundies I have in my cellar.

Massimo Pours

Wine can be more than the sum of its parts. It has the ability to capture a moment—and you along with it—even if that moment is something as simple as a meal with family or good friends. For me, those bottles are worth fighting for.


Matt said...

nice piece. way to not back down.

E said...

Great post.

David McDuff said...

Nice post, David. I have to say it's amazing that you ever saw the wine again after having it confiscated in Rome. I would have guessed it had gone straight to the trash... or straight into Mario's collection. I guess I should count myself lucky never to have encountered any troubles in bringing wine back from abroad.

FrankRoche said...

Man, that's a beauty did kick their ass. I mean, it's ridiculous. I am surprised it didn't go away though...Mario could have "dropped" the case a few times. Glad you got it back...sounds tasty.


Amanda said...

David! Great post about the wine... I was in Rome a few years ago and absolutely loved it... I didn't have my wine confiscated though!! My name is Mandy McFadden and I am the social media specialist for Ripple Effects Interactive, an interactive agency in Pittsburgh. I have been given the opportunity to create a blog for the state of PA and while it is not up and running yet, I encourage you to check out as well as in the meantime! The blog will focus on travel and tourism throughout the state and this fall we are featuring roadtrippers! One of the posts touches on the best places in PA to go for wine! You may be able to add some great insight!! Thanks for all the great content and keep up the good work! Look forward to talking soon!

Dan said...

Good Job. Now if you can only help remove some of those byzantine PA laws so I can ship my parents a couple bottles of wine for Christmas!