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Vintage Ports: US or London

  • Windy Nov 26, 2007 04:49 PM
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A friend is off to London for work and offered to carry back port for me. This was before we realized he'd have to pack it in his suitcase and that Berry Bros had closed its Heathrow store.

So I've been researching prices online, to determine if it makes sense to have him bring a couple of bottles of 1963 or 1977 port back for me. It looks like there's much greater availability of 1977s in London, many for ~ 50 pounds.

K&L in San Francisco has a reasonable selection of 1963s at comparable prices (from $149 for a Croft to $399 for a Fonseca), and Golden West seems to have the best prices on 77s ($98 for a Croft, 115 for Warre). I realize condition of storage matters for a 30+ year old bottle; I don't usually spend hundreds of dollars a bottle, and would hate for it to taste like dusty.

My intent is to drink the port now; it's purely to celebrate with a wine as old as I am that's reaching full maturity. And while I've enjoyed drinking vintage ports tremendously in the past, I also like a lot of less impressive and less expensive fortified wines, from California and Australian port styled wines to sherries and madieras.

Any great London port merchants to recommend that don't require a 200-pound minimum? Is there any way to get around paying VAT? Any recent experiences with US customs collecting duty? (In the past, I've brought back four or five bottles, declared them, and never paid duty)

Or should I just make his life simple and ask for Blandys and a roll of GIngernuts?

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  1. I often pick up a single btl. (or maybe one for wife and one for me) at Duty Free, if there is something of interest. With the differential between the $ and the £, I do not do a lot of shopping for spirits, just the odd Port, if there are any. Also, London is not a cheap city, regardless of the exchange rate. Lately, I have not done this, as carry-on at LHR is limited to 1 item (no briefcase, purse, etc., in addition to that 1 item), I always declare my purchases at Customs, even the cigars, but do not specify their point-of-origin. Never had a problem. Duty Free will deliver to the jetway, for you, but you still have to find a way to stow it. I suppose, as one will have already gone through security with the one item, and most airlines have a two carry-on limit, the bag from Duty Free would be OK. We always fly BC, so room is never a problem.

    As of purchasing from a retailer, we only do that for local consumption. The Odd-bins, across from our flat has been re-vamped into a boutique store, with fair selections - nothing like Berry Bros., but still nice, for what we use it for.

    I've had many of the '63s & 77's, and feel that the '63s are the better (very broad brush here). I'd also suggest looking into the First Tier houses' '70s. Taylor's & Fonseca's were dynamite, last time that I tasted them. Matter of fact, the Taylor '70 outshown the Taylor '63 on initial tastings.

    I pick up some of my Ports from K&L and private estate sales, if I know the storage. I have yet to be let down.

    As for the VAT, I've purchased some items, where it was worth the effort, and there is paperwork to fill in to get the refund. In these cases, they have been at places like Thomas Goode's (not at wine shops), so I know that it can be done. Takes about 30 mins. to get everything copied. Seems that I needed the receipt, my passport, my tickets for return, and the refund came about 2 mos. later. In these cases, we were dealing with items of £1,000, or more, so the time wasn't an issue. Do not know about alcohol though.

    Sorry that I can only address little segments of your questions, and even those not too well, basing the answers on personal experience only.

    Me, I'd just buy in the US, unless there is something that one just can't get here.

    Hunt

    1. It only makes sense -- from the US -- to buy from UK merchants by the case, and have the wine imported on an "informal" shipment. Several US companies will clear the shipment for you. No VAT.

      In terms of bottles, Golden West, and K&L are both highly reputable merchants, and the old(er) Vintage Porto they offer for sale typically comes out of UK cellars, so . . . .

      You buy retail in the UK, you pay VAT. That said, as Bill points out, you can get it refunded with a lot of paperwork.

      I've never brought back less than six, and once as many as 36 bottles, and never paid duty coming into the US, but it depends upon your port of entry (e.g.: JFK is much stricter than Bangor, Maine; Phoenix is horrible, because the US Customs agents enforce AZ laws, too!).

      5 Replies
      1. re: zin1953

        I'll be interested to see how things are at PHX. We have always flown SFO, IAD, ORD or LAX to LHR - never a problem, so far. Next trip, we'll be doing the BA direct from PHX to LHR and back, so we'll get to experience it first hand. Maybe no Cohibas on that trip, eh? And, if Rush Limbaugh is any indication, it also does not pay to fly into Miami (think that was where he got "nabbed" for his contraband).

        Hunt

        1. re: Bill Hunt

          re: PHX . . . all I know is that there are LARGE signs warning you about how much you can bring into -- not the US, but AZ -- when you fly in from Puerto Vallarta on America West. The signs state how much AZ law permits you to bring in, and anything over that will be confiscated . . .

        2. re: zin1953

          Jason,

          How do the Customs' charges go with wine? We've had many items shipped to the US from UK, and I always get an extra invoice from DHL, or Fed-X for the duty. Once, I had to have my credit card cleared, before they'd deliver, but it's usually an invoice that comes later. Any difference with wine?

          Hunt

          1. re: Bill Hunt

            Well, keep in mind that I either carry the wine with me -- and have never been charged duty, no matter the quantity nor the value -- or I have it shipped as part of an informal entry as part of a much larger shipment that is cleared by an importer. (You may remember, I used to work for a wine importer in California -- one which does a sizable volume of business doing exactly that sort of "clearing" for both private individuals and retailers who lack their own import licenses.)

            1. re: zin1953

              Thanks. Yes, I remember, but assumed that you had also done some personal wine shipping.

              I'll see what the deal at PHX is. I'll pick up a btl., or two, at Duty Free, just to test them.

              As you can well imagine, I have to find every loophole in the AZ laws, that I can. I just hope that they do not start stopping the Landcruiser, when I return from Napa, Sonoma, Amador or the Central Coast, as I often have up to 19 styro-shippers of MY wine in it. The amount is usually predicated on whether my wife has meetings in SF and will be flying back later, or if she's along for the ride. Some have suggested that I should always drop her off at SFO, regardless, but I'm not that kinda' guy. What's a couple of cases, if my wife drives back with me? If they start an AG-station, or similar, I am SOL. Maybe one day, they will join the Union in the full sense.

              Time to climb off the soap-box and do some reviews...

              Thanks for the update,
              Hunt

        3. Thank you both for all the advice on suppliers and on the 70s. It's hard to come up with rules of thumb for such a variable purchase, and I don't want to create a lot of work (like VAT refunds) for someone doing me a favor. I do have fond memories of last-minute liquor purchases from Heathrow.

          To add to the excitement, another friend is headed to Lisbon for Christmas, so I've roped her into bringing me back a couple of bottles too.

          At SFO, I've never paid duty on declared wines.

          1. My rule-of-thumb is to buy 'highly rated' years in London. The Vintage Port market in US (before 1994 Vintage when the Wine Spectator went crazy on port) was very thin and people only seemed to buy the highly rated vintages (such as 63 and 77). Accordingly the prices for those vintages in US were much higher than say 66 or 80 (by multiples, not just a few dollars). So there were good deals on, say 1970's. But now the problem is sourcing the older vintages - especially as North American storage can be problematic.
            Accordingly, in London, I now search out 'drinking now' vintages that just aren't available here. For example there are still 1955's and 1966's around.
            VAT is always refundable through the airport. An issue now is that all liquids must be packed in checked luggage and 'theoretically' the goods must be shown to the VAT officer who stamps the refund form. At Heathrow, these are before check-in - i.e. you do the VAT refund before checking in (there is a second desk after the security check - but bottles won't get that far!). And you MUST get the form validated by the merchant where you purchase BEFORE you get to the airport (technically it's the merchant who refunds the VAT and who keeps the validated form as a receipt - so the refund is mailed to you). I maintain an account, so I just get a credit to my account. Smaller vendors don't always do the refund - and even if they do, send it in sterling which costs an arm & a leg to negotiate at most US banks. So the best deals are at auction, where smaller lots typically don't require VAT as they are secondary sales.
            As for Portugal - forget it! Vintage Port there is ridiculously expensive. It is sometimes possible to get a deal on an aged tawny but that's also a minefield. Typically you'll pay substantially less in US.
            Berry Bros used to offer a "buy at the store, collect at the airport" deal where the goods were sold net of VAT - and the collection was AFTER the security check, so you could do carry-on. Not sure if that still exists. Just be sure that you don't have to change terminals anywhere en route back - if you do it could be confiscated at an interim security check. ESPECIALLY AVOID PHILADELPHIA!

            9 Replies
            1. re: estufarian

              That's too funny about Portugal! It does seem ridiculous to be bringing anything back from London, given the dollar versus pound.

              Thanks for all the VAT tips; it's not like Canada, eh? The liquids ban certainly complicates everything. (I had a jar of Swanton's strawberry jam taken away on my last trip and had to contain myself so I wouldn't be taken away in handcuffs.)

              I'll see if Berry Brothers still does airport delivery. It makes the prices charged in the US by importers seem modest, once you realize what they've gone through, especially for collectables.

              1. re: Windy

                Keep in mind that, historically, Porto was bottled in London (and elsewhere in the UK). British wine merchants were, thus, the ones who kept -- and continue to keep -- the inventories of back vintages all through the 20th century and, some, even into the 19th. Very little old(er) Vintage Porto is available in Oporto, let alone Lisbon, and -- yes -- UK prices, and even US prices, have been cheaper.

                (This based upon my last trip when the dollar was much stronger than it is today.)

                1. re: Windy

                  Oh well!

                  BBR Services
                  Heathrow Tax Free Wine Shops
                  After twelve years of operating at Heathrow Airport it is with regret that we announce the closure of all four of Berry Bros. & Rudd's Wine Collection stores.

                  We would like to take this opportunity to extend our thanks to all our customers for your support over this time.

                  We will of course continue to offer the finest wines and range of services including worldwide delivery through our award winning website or by calling 0870 900 4300.

                  Alternatively if you are visiting London, customers living outside the EU may also take advantage of our VAT refund scheme on purchases from our historic premises at 3 St. James's Street.

                  1. re: estufarian

                    I would guess that this was in response to the hightened security, with regards to liquids. However, I find it a tad difficult to image a bottle of DRC Burg containing evil devices. Maybe I am just not paranoid enough.

                    Thanks for the update. I remember the BB&R's shops (maybe that should be "shoppes"), though never used them.

                    Hunt

                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      I'd just like to clear up some of the comments made about carrying liquids and handbaggage through London airports.

                      1) If you want to transport wine bottles or any liquid in a container larger than 100ml , check it in. There's no problem with wine in suitcases or hold baggage.

                      2) The '1 handbag' rule refers to passing security. The security line at UK airports is after checking in and before entering the duty free area. Liquid purchases made in the duty free area after security may be brought on board - there is no restriction on them.

                      3) The 1 handbag limit is no longer in force at number of UK airports, including Heathrow. However, different airlines may operate their own restrictions. If your destination is not your final stop and you need to change your plane at another EU airport, then your sealed duty free drinks bought in Heathrow should be OK, except if flying to the USA via Amsterdam or Zurich due to US restrictions..

                      Check the airport operators website at www.baa.co.uk for latest information

                      1. re: Gussie Finknottle

                        Thanks for the info, but given that this thread was about vintage port, I'll disagree with several points. My original question wasn't whether you can bring a liter of duty-free Scotch home but about the efficacy and logistics of asking a friend to locate and carry a specific rare bottle.

                        With Berry Brothers no longer having stores past security in London airports, a port buyer must buy in town, apply for a VAT refund, and pack the bottle. Anyone changing planes in the US will have to pack the bottle in advance of the second flight. Personally I'm not terribly comfortable putting a $200 40-year bottle in a suitcase, given the way most baggage is handled.

                        Quinta do Noval does have a store in Lisbon airport past duty free; but the port my friend bought there was no less expensive than in the US and there are no nonstop flights to the US from Portugal. As you note, different airlines and airports may have their own restrictions. This makes it difficult to predict if an agent is going to insist on taking away a rare and expensive purchase from you.

                        At this point, ordering from reliable importer like Golden West or K&L, or having the port shipped from the UK, probably makes the most sense.

                        1. re: Windy

                          Adventures in Wine is a company that imports Vintage Porto, primarily from UK suppliers, not only for themselves to wholesale to various restaurants and retail stores throughout California, but also imports wines for a number of different retailers (including from time-to-time Golden West and K&L). They also import wines from overseas into California for private individuals.

                          http://www.adventuresinwine.com/ or 415.467.0130.

                          Cheers,
                          Jason

                          P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I was their sales manager in the late-1990s.

                          1. re: zin1953

                            An interesting selection. Looks like it only makes sense for importing a case or more. Is that accurate?

                            1. re: Windy

                              Yes.

              2. A followup on the port tasting:

                I bought a 63 Croft ($169) from K&L and ordered an 83 Fonseca ($95) and an 85 Warre ($39 for 375 ml) from Golden West. My friend visiting Lisbon brought back a bottle of 20-year Quinta do Noval tawny (40 euros/$60 duty free). I also threw in a 2005 Justin Obtuse from Paso Robles (~$25) and a Chateau Reynella 12 year tawny ($14). Unfortunately the business trip to London which prompted this thread was canceled and then rescheduled for the same week as the port party...

                I agonized over decanting, but it went well. I put the bottles upright 48 hours before, borrowed a decanter, and used a basket tea strainer for the sediment, which I'm planning on using to baste a lamb tonight. No flashlights or candles. I also have individual fillable tea bags ($1 at any Asian grocery) which would be fine for collecting sediment.

                My decanter was a little small, so I ended up pouring into a huge pyrex measuring cup, which made it easier to pour back into the bottle after I'd rinsed it out. I used a cork puller. The 63 cork was crumbly but intact and eventually broke in half so I pushed it into the bottle. I decanted the 83 and 85 10 hours before guests arrived and the 63 about an hour.

                So how did they taste? I spent a lot of time planning this wondering if we would appreciate the more expensive wines or if the cheap port-style dessert wines would be good enough, especially those known to be happy drinking Smoking Loon. I waited until people had expressed preferences before telling them the prices. I also worried that my taste in port might not be the same as reviewers: who wants to spend $200 on a bottle that only Robert Parker likes?

                But worrying was all for nothing The 63 Croft shone, the best port I can remember tasting in at least ten years, when we spent a happy night at the Port Wine Institute in Lisbon, enjoying a stronger dollar. The 63 was light and delicate, lots of raisin and a subtle finish in the back of your throat.

                A few of us made the mistake of tasting it first. When we then started with the Justin Obtuse, it tasted like grape juice by comparison. I managed to save a little to see how it would evolve over the weekend. This morning it had more of a sherry flavor. I'm already saving up for my next 63 (possibly the Cockburn, the next least expensive 63 after the Croft and half the price of the Taylor or Fonseca).

                Next most popular by consensus was the 85 Warre. Personally I preferred the 83 Fonseca. A friend suggested the difference was more the vintages than the styles. The 85 had a clear fresh quality, amazing for a 23 year old wine. The 83 was delicious though; the Fonseca wasn't as overtly sweet and dense as the Warre. The remaining port is also quite tasty 24+ hours later. The 2005 Justin Obtuse is simply sweet like Concord grapes--a disappointment. I recently drank a half-bottle of 2003 Obtuse that I liked better, but not sure if that was because it was better or I was comparing the 2005 to much better wines. Typically my guests liked the Obtuse well enough until they tried something better.

                After snacking all evening, we took a food break before turning to the tawnies. My favorite pairing was toasted pecans with the tawnies. We had chicken liver & port pate, a homemade roquefort and tomato tart, toasted walnuts, roasted pears, a bit of foie gras on spinach leaves, dried persimmons, water crackers, Acme levain, chocolate truffles, Swiss spice cookies (an excellent pairing), and mounds of creamy Stilton.

                For dinner beforehand, I picked up a Chinese roast duck, which would have gone well with the port if we'd remembered to try it together. This party converted several who didn't think they liked Stilton (or port--how did she get invited?).

                The tawnies were a completely different experience. My cousin contributed a long-open 20-year Fonseca, so we tried it side by side with the 20-year Quinta do Noval and the 12-year Chateau Reynella from McLaren Vale. There was no comparison. The 20-year Quinta was just excellent, eminently sippable. I couldn't stop reaching for the pecans or my glass. A few people liked the Chateau Reynella until they tasted the Quinta do Noval (3x the price) I'm looking forward to continuing to taste the Quinta do Noval over the coming month. The open Fonseca was long past its prime but was flavorful and spicy enough to make me want to try it.

                Anyway, this has been a lot of fun research and an expensive hobby, but the results were certainly worthwhile. I do think there's value in trying several different ports (whether houses, vintages, or styles) together. A single possibly great bottle just raises the likelihood of disappointment.

                Thanks again to Jason and Hunt for the tips and encouragement. I'm glad to know my own great vintage is finally coming of age.