An Albertan’s Guide to Grabbing US-Only Wines

29 03 2015

You may have experienced the frustration of being a wine-loving Canadian.  You finally get on the mailing list of your favourite cult US winery – only to find that they don’t ship to Canada.  You track down a rare bottle on an American retailer’s site or win an online auction – but they won’t get your wine across the border for you.  As far as I know, it’s not illegal to ship wine from the US to Canada, but if you try to get FedEx or UPS to do just that they generally won’t touch it with a ten foot pole.  I have heard of the odd case where people have successfully had bottles sent to them up here, but I’ve never had any luck with it myself.  So I decided to do it a different, admittedly less convenient, but far more fruitful way.  Here’s how.

Want to be on a US winery mailing list?  It's possible, but complicated.

Canadians: Want to be on a US winery mailing list? It’s possible, but complicated.

First, some qualifications.  The info below about acquiring out-of-market US wines is probably best used for rare, pricy or limited bottles that can’t be obtained any other way and are worth a little bit of effort to get; if there’s a way to get a wine through a local retailer or importer (and if the wine shows up in a product search on liquorconnect.com, there usually is), I would exhaust that avenue first.  It’s also more commercially viable when the Canadian dollar isn’t the disaster it is currently.  Finally, this is a more useful plan for people who live closer to the American border, as it will require actually going to the US:  it’s quite handy for Calgarians, less so for Edmontonians.  Sorry Edmonton. With further ado, here’s a step-by-step guide for what you have to do to make all your mailing list dreams come true, and what you’ll have to pay to make it happen.  I just lived this exact process and am freshly returned from a jaunt to the US yesterday, so I can vouch for its effectiveness.

  • STEP 1:  GET A US SHIPPING ADDRESS.  If wineries and retailers won’t ship outside of the US, you have to come to them, and that means obtaining a proxy American shipping address that will receive and hold wine packages for you.  I would suggest signing up (free) for an account at www.kinek.com, a US delivery and storage network that specializes in package services for cross-border Canadian shoppers.  Kinek picks its storage centres for their extreme proximity to the Canadian border:  its Alberta-centric depot can be found in the charitably described “town” of Babb, Montana, which is about 10 feet (OK, 10 miles) across the border southwest of Lethbridge.
Downtown Babb, Montana.  At the end of the rainbow.

Downtown Babb, Montana. At the end of the rainbow.

  • STEP 2:  ORDER WINE.  When you sign up for Kinek, you get a unique account number that you then add to the Kinek depot shipping address when you order wines online.  This ensures that your package gets linked with your account when it arrives.  Kinek also has a phone app that offers live tracking of packages in transit and an updated list of what has arrived in your name.  Keep in mind when you’re ordering that Canadians are currently only allowed to bring back 45.45L of wine across the border in any 90 day period:  that’s basically 5 cases of 750mL bottles plus a lone extra 375mL half-bottle every three months.  Most wineries will also help you synchronize their shipments so that your wine arrives shortly before you’re ready to pick it up — wine shipments from Washington State to Montana usually take 2 days to arrive.
  • STEP 3:  HEAD TO THE BORDER.  The Kinek depot will hold your packages for up to 30 days post-arrival, after which you start incurring late fees.  The Babb, Montana location can be found due south down Highway 2, which turns into US HWY 89 after the border crossing in Carway, Alberta.  From my house in western Calgary, the drive to Babb took a shade less than three hours door to door, including a stop at the (very quiet) border.  I won’t lie:  until you get about a half hour away from the border, the drive is pretty boring.  And windy.
  • STEP 4:  PICK UP.  I would say that you can’t miss the Kinek depot…but you totally can, even though there might be fewer than 15 buildings in all of Babb.  That’s because it looks like this: FullSizeRender-51 Seriously.  You can’t see this little 12′ x 10′ corrugated metal shed from the highway, but if you keep an eye out on the left-hand side of the road as you’re cruising through downtown Babb (which is a half-dozen old buildings on each side of HWY 89, less than 10 minutes from the border), you will see a slightly larger shed with the words “BORDER TIRE & KINEK PICKUP <——” painted on them.  The depot is directly behind that building.  For those of you wondering if a building that looks like something that holds your lawnmower in your backyard is a proper storage location for fine wine, I can report that, despite an apparent lack of interior insulation, it was noticeably colder inside than standard room temperature — I would guess it was 17 or 18 degrees.  I was told this temperature (somehow) stays fairly constant even in the heat of summer, and there was a space heater inside to make sure that it doesn’t get any colder.  Would I trust my cult wine in there for any significant length of time? Not really.  But for a week or two?  Sure.  Despite the highly questionable exterior, nothing inside was immediate cause for panic.
  • STEP 5:  PAY. EVERYBODY.  Now comes the fun part.  This is where your brief flame of joy that your favourite US winery offers discounts to its mailing list members is met by the fire hose of Canadian wine consumer reality.  On top of that highly enticing bottle price you pay directly to the winery, never forget that your access to US-only wines will also cost you:
    • CURRENCY CONVERSION:  I had to add about a 30% premium to the wines I picked up yesterday thanks to the current tire fire that is the Canadian dollar.  Fiscal parity feels so far away all of a sudden.
    • SHIPPING:  Some wineries offer free shipping of their wines within the US; others add shipping charges at checkout.  Where a winery does add shipping, it’s usually around $15-$20US per case-or-smaller order.
    • KINEK STORAGE FEES:  The charges for receipt and storage of packages in the shed in Babb depend on the weight of the package received, but in all cases they’re between $4-$10 US for stuff under 100 pounds.  A case of wine weighing between 30-40 pounds cost me $7; a half case from a different winery cost me $5.  Note that the charge is per box, not per delivery, so if you get two cases from a winery but they come in two different boxes with two different tracking numbers, even if they ship and arrive at the same time, you’ll pay the storage charge for each box.  Prepare to pay cash for this particular expense:  the Kinek in Babb doesn’t take credit card, and the closest Montana ATM is slightly terrifying.  You’ve been warned.
    • DUTY:  I was a bit concerned at how much duty my wines might attract, but it’s minuscule compared to the other costs of the venture:  federal duty is 62 cents per litre, or 47 cents per 750mL bottle.
    • PROVINCIAL LIQUOR MARKUP:  The provincial markup for wine just increased, but it’s still a palatable $3.52 per litre, or $2.64 per 750mL bottle.  Just be thankful you’re not British Columbian, where the provincial markup can be 80% of the cost of the wine.
    • GST:  I paid 5% GST on the converted cost of the bottle plus the accrued duty; the provincial markup did not attract GST, and winery shipping charges were similarly excluded.

IMG_2534Expect to burn through at least a tank of gas and the cost of a crappy fast food meal on the trip too.  If you want to get a sense of what all of these combined costs do to the final price of a bottle, here’s an example.  Part of my recent international purchase was 3 bottles of the 2012 Estate Syrah from the Force Majeure winery in Washington State.  I’m a huge FM fan (hard not to be as a lawyer), and 2012 was an absolute rock star vintage in both Washington and Oregon.  The Syrah cost $65 US a bottle, plus $20 US shipping for the three-pack, or $6.67 a bottle.  Converted to Canadian dollars, that bottle + shipping cost equalled about $93.  The Kinek storage charge was $5 US ($6.50 CDN), roughly $2 CDN bottle.  Add 47 cents duty, $2.64 provincial markup and $4.25 GST, and the total cost of my $65 US Syrah ended up being about $102.  (American wineries:  I hope you now feel our national pain.  This is what we do for you.) As you can see, this is far from a value-hunting exercise, but it IS a realistic way to get your hands on wines that you have only dreamed of up to now.  My Babb trek took up half a day on a weekend and landed me (among other gems) a wine that has been on my bucket list for years:  the John Lewis Syrah from Gramercy Cellars in Washington.  I would have done a lot more than this to track down that particular labour of love.  And I’ll do it again.

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