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California Vintners Scramble to Deal With Carry-On Ban

Times Staff Writer

New security measures banning liquids from airplane carry-on luggage have some California vintners seeing red.

Passengers jamming multi-bottle wine carriers into overhead bins and under seats were a common sight on flights departing from San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento airports until Thursday’s ban -- sparked by the British authorities’ foiling of an alleged plot to blow up jetliners.

Since then, unwitting oenophiles have been chugging prized vintages or dumping full bottles of wine into bins with lipstick, sunscreen and other banned liquids.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of cases of wine travel across the country as carry-on luggage, a small but important part of California’s $16.5-billion wine industry.

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“More than half of our tasting room sales are to people who plan to carry the wine onto the plane,” said Michaela Baltasar, spokeswoman for Clos Du Val Wine Co. in the Stag’s Leap district of Napa Valley. “Hardly anybody ever checks it.”

They are people such as Linda Ulrich, a congressional aide from Vienna, Va., who was tasting the offerings at St. Supery Vineyard and Winery in Napa Valley when she learned about the ban Thursday.

“I was going to take a few bottles back because the wine is so much cheaper here,” she said.

Ulrich said several wineries balked at shipping any purchases to her home because of Virginia’s restrictions on direct sales to consumers. She plans to return home from her Napa Valley vacation empty-handed.

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Ulrich is typical of the tourists who wend their way through the tasting rooms of California’s wineries -- from Calistoga to Temecula.

On Friday, Clos Du Val began selling 12-bottle foam packing containers to its tasting room customers at cost, $10. Smaller containers are $5. The boxes are sturdy enough to travel as checked baggage, Baltasar said.

California’s largest wineries, which rely on a vast distribution network to get their vintages onto store shelves and restaurant menus, won’t be affected by the ban, said Joe Hart, who owns Hart Winery and is president of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Assn.

“This could have a significant impact for the small wineries” that depend on tasting room sales for their profits, he said.

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Hart sells about 80% of the 5,000 cases he produces annually directly to consumers, and “a lot of that is tourism-based,” he said.

His winery provides customers with a six-pack bottle holder that works well as carry-on luggage.

“This is a whole new issue for us,” he said.

Hart said he hoped that regulators would take another look at the rule “when things settle down a bit.”

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The ban on moving wine in carry-on luggage caught consumers and the industry completely unprepared, said Barbara Insel, managing director of MKF Research, a wine industry consulting firm in St. Helena.

“This is going to slow down sales while people figure out what to do. In the very short term, there will be a lot of wine stuck in airports,” Insel said.

“I saw people getting into the car at the Embassy Suites in Napa this morning, and they all had three-packs of wine from various places, and they were clearly on their way to the airport,” she said. “I don’t think they had thought about what they were going to do with the wine. You couldn’t check it in those packages.”

Tourists who find themselves with wine they can’t take on board will either have to buy packing materials and check the bottles or do a lot of preflight partying.

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Stopping off at a shipping company service on the way to the airport won’t help. UPS and FedEx won’t knowingly accept wine shipments from consumers out of fear of violating one of the many regulations that govern the transport of alcoholic beverages.

“If we find out shipment is a box of wine, we will just hold it wherever we discover the fact,” UPS spokesman Steve Holmes said. “It might be in the middle of Kansas. You would have a couple of days to retrieve it or else we are going to dump it.”

Fallout from the ban also is killing wine sales at airport gift and duty-free shops and wine bars.

Business at Greg Fong’s Wine Wisdom shop at San Francisco International Airport has fallen “into a holding pattern,” he said.

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Fong hosts special winery tastings at the airport wine bar and shop and sells travelers thousands of bottles annually. He canceled a visit from the winemakers at Napa’s Silver Oak Winery on Friday because no one was buying wine at the airport.

“Most of our sales are to departing passengers,” Fong said.

While they wait to see if the ban becomes permanent, some in the wine industry are looking for a silver lining.

“We are telling customers that as long as they have to buy a shipping box and are going to check their wine, they might as well purchase more,” said Baltasar of Clos Du Val. “They can get a 12-bottle box here and buy some of our wine and then a bottle at each of the other wineries they visit in Napa.”

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