Wine Route Final Post

“We need to verify the credit card that you used to book the flight” said a dead-eyed Delta agent at the Buenos Aires airport.

I adjusted the 6 bags on my rolling cart for the twentieth time and recalculated the time left until our departure.  “Like I’ve said twice, I cancelled that card 6 months ago.  Why do you need to see it?”

“We need it to confirm the ticket.  Without it we can’t issue boarding passes.” He stated.

“This is our 15th and last flight on the same ticket and this is the first time that we’ve been asked to produce a credit card.  You need to explain to me why this is critical to us boarding the plane.”

“I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do.”

Final post pic 1

Kate looking appropriately annoyed while we wait for Delta agents to issue us our tickets

Why the verification? We used miles to book our around-the-world ticket, but there was still a $125 fee per ticket.  I paid this fee with a Delta AMEX card but cancelled the card soon after. For our last flight home they insisted that they needed see this card.  It didn’t matter that the card no longer existed.  From the Delta agent’s perspective, producing the card was our problem, not theirs.

Finally, after our 10th heated exchange, less than an hour before our flight took off, they magically produced the boarding passes with no explanation on why they needed to see our credit card in the first place.  We checked our bag, got on board and flew home.

Phew! Here’s our trip by the numbers:

  • 279 bottles of wine purchased
  • 60 days
  • 15 flights
  • 9 countries visited
  • 6 articles of underwear left in Bali
  • 4 car rentals
  • 4 ferries
  • 3 luggage bags purchased
  • 2 wine bottles lost in transit (not including 8 Croatian pinots that boiled in my car AFTER returning)
  • 1 speeding ticket

Final post pic 2

Obligatory luggage before / after pic

This final post summarizes our thoughts on an extended travel vacation focused on wine tasting.  We learned a lot about the challenges of buying and shipping large amounts of wine and about wine tasting in different regions.  We certainly aren’t the first wine lovers go tasting somewhere and dream of being able to import the wine to the US.  While initially appealing, the more we learned about it the less appealing it became.  The fact is that it is really hard to make money importing wine for several reasons.  First is it is important to understand the US three tier system (producer, distributor and retailer) that is set up to keep prices high.  The supposed greater purpose here is to lower alcohol consumption and to limit the power of massive producers but at this point it probably is just protecting the incumbents (learn more here: http://winefolly.com/update/three-tier-system/).

There are some importers that are trying to act as both importer and retailer online (https://fatcork.com/) to reduce costs, but significant challenges still remain.  First, it is really hard to find great undiscovered producers in popular wine regions.  If you find a great producer in a region that isn’t as popular, there are usually reasons that make it difficult to import wine from that region (either you can’t ship out of the country or it is difficult to setup contracts with the producers).  We got lucky that we found an importer that could gather and ship all of the wines out of France for us at a reasonable price of ~$10 a bottle.  No such luck in Croatia, Canary Islands or Mendoza.  Of course, it is possible to ship wine back from anywhere but in order to get decent rates, you’ll need to fill a refrigerated container to make it cost effective (about 1400 cases fit in a 20ft container).  So…we hand carried all of the wines we brought back from these regions.

Even if you find a producer that you want to work with (speaking their native language is required), they expect you as the importer / distributor to be the person that promotes their wine in the area in the country of import.  In addition, they expect you to buy most of their wines, usually over a multi-year period, not just a single bottle from a single vintage.  To do this with a relatively unknown producer is a risky proposition because their vintages might be inconsistent year to year.  If you sign a multi-year contract based one transcendent vintage, you can be stuck with a lot of wine that you can’t sell in an off year.  The reverse is true for the producer as they might get stuck with an importer that does nothing to promote their wine.  The bottom line is that unless you have some terrific insight and connection to a wine region that is on the cusp of fame, it’s damn near impossible to build a successful wine importation business.

Final post pic 3

Even before you can consider importing wine, simply developing an insight and connection to a wine region is difficult.  Places where wine making is a major part of the local economy and culture typically specialize in only a few types of wine (Southern Rhone is an exception).  Usually that wine is a specific varietal or a varietal blend optimized over centuries for the terroir by local winemakers.  Because they’ve had a lifetime of practice, locals have a distinct edge in their ability to “taste” differences between local producers. This gives locals a distinct advantage in determining if a young wine will develop into great wine as it integrates.  Of course, buying a wine young is requisite in most cases so a lapse in judgement on how a wine will evolve in the bottle can be a costly mistake.  This is especially true in a regions like Barolo or Bordeaux where it takes years for complex tannins to integrate into the wine.   One rule of thumb that has never lead us wrong: in the local village, find out where the wine makers (the actual farmers – not necessarily the owners) eat lunch.  Typically it’s a little café nestled near the center of town.  Ask what their house red and white wine is.  Then buy as much as you can of it.

Upon reflection, I had a few travel thoughts that might be worth sharing (I’ll keep it in bullets to keep it concise):

  • There are different schools of thought around how much you should plan vs keep open ended a big trip. For us, it was important to find a home base in each location that was comfortable but not expensive.  Airbnb, or something similar, worked in all the countries we visited.  In addition, we found the level of comfort and service in international Hilton and Marriott resorts was far greater than domestic.  In the end we were thrilled with all the places that we stayed without exception and glad that we planned it out in advance.
  • Some wine regions you can figure out on your own, and other places it is worth getting a guide. Doing your research ahead of time and figuring this out is worth it.  Places like Jura don’t have a guide so that was really a challenge for us (and when I say us, I mean Kate who had to shoulder all of the translating).  Croatia was surprisingly easy without a guide. Bordeaux, on the other hand, is near impossible without a guide.  We found various travel websites helpful for finding reviews of guides.
  • Traveling with someone else for 60 days in new places is exciting but not necessarily relaxing. Sticking to a minimum of three days at any one place is a good rule of thumb because it helped me to relax as I got acquainted with each location.  We forget that as a couple we often spend 10+ hours waking hours apart so this was a change of pace.  It wasn’t always easy but I’m happy to report that I thought we did great.
  • Being on the road and not having a job to go back to was challenging because it is very difficult to stick to a budget. I was fine for a couple weeks but after a while it became stressful for me.
  • On the other hand, later on in the trip there were stretches, for the first time in my life where I didn’t know what day it was. That was truly freeing.
  • I recall the saying “You should buy experiences, not stuff, because the experiences will last you a lifetime.” Upon reflection a few years after the trip, this rings true and recording the experiences in writing helps.

Final note from Evan:  Traveling with the better half of Kakera was a tremendously fun experience.  That being said, two months on the road was not without the occasional difficulty.  Acclimating to each new environments caused stress and staying on budget was a challenge.  Through it all, Kate was a calming influence and a perfect travel partner.  It’s been funny finishing this write-up several years after our trip because time washes away remembrance of any difficult patches and the vivid memories we are left with are jewels we’ll never forget.  Whether it was swimming in warm waters off the coast of Croatia, tasting wine grown in volcanic soil on the Canary Islands, meeting a couple of our favorite French winemakers or threatening to kill pickpockets in Argentina, this trip was a treasure beyond measure.

It was a life-defining two months and a wonderful start of our union.  To my wife and fellow adventurer on the honeymoon wine route, may our adventures and our love never end.

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