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Published:  23 July, 2008

Many wine writers and people in the trade will remember Decanter magazine's successful 2003 tribunal appeal against Customs duties levied on bona fide samples for tasting analysis. These same observers may have assumed that the case - which made a splash in The Times - had rectified a previously confusing situation regarding the right to free receipt of tasting samples.

To recap, Decanter received a surprise visit from a Customs officer in July 2002, followed by a demand for 6,619.91 in estimated back-payments of duties and VAT on three years' worth of tasting samples. Decanter's feisty publisher Sarah Kemp issued a challenge. With the UK wine-writing fraternity watching closely, the magazine sought to clarify the still rather vaguely worded and somewhat randomly applied piece of legislation covering situations when imports of an alcoholic nature may be exempt from normal duties and VAT.

We wanted to set a precedent,' says Kemp, remembering her time in the dock. Our understanding was that any wine consumed was liable for duty and VAT payments, but that wine blind-tasted for analysis purposes and then disposed of

[for example, spat out and the remainder poured down a sink] was not being used for promotional purposes and so should be exempt.'

Perhaps fortunately, Kemp says, The judge, Mr Huggins, turned out to be a wine lover, and after innumerable questions about professional methods of tasting, whether we used Riedel glasses and so on, he came down on our side.' Huggins ruled that although Decanter had to pay the outstanding duties and VAT because it

had failed to inform Customs of its previous tasting activities, it would be exempt in the future so long as detailed records were kept of tastings, quantity of samples and the disposal of the wines.

In addition, Decanter agreed to forward advance details of its tasting schedules to Customs every six months.

So, precedent set, matter cleared up. Game, set and match to Decanter on behalf of those wine writers across the UK who depend on tasting samples for their living. Keep detailed records and you should be exempt. Except this isn't quite the case

A grand magnum

Customs demands for duty payments on tasting samples are still frequently issued. These demands are often via the delivering courier companies, leaving wine writers in confusion over whether they have to pay and, if so, whether to approach the sender for a refund. And, as Anthony Rose, wine columnist on The Independent, argues, This puts the recipient in an invidious position: who would relish having to write to a winery and ask, "Can you refund me for the samples you forwarded?"'

Rose, like many, has his tales of dealing with unexpected Customs duty demands, and his most memorable instance borders on high farce. A couple of years ago he received an unsolicited magnum of Cuve Alexandre Chardonnay from Casa Lapostolle, along with a bill from the courier company on behalf of C&E for more than 1,000. The only explanation I could think of for the absurd charge was that pesos had been confused with pounds. Communications [with C&E] went backwards and forwards several times while I explained that not only was the amount ludicrous, but as a sample there should be no duties to pay anyway.'

Rose finally sent the bill to Casa Lapostolle's UK agent, which settled with Customs. Being a solicitor, I was not particularly worried and thought, "Right, if you take me to court, we'll see who ends up with egg on their face",' he says. But for anyone not used to dealing with the law, this could be a daunting situation.'

Tim Atkin MW of The Observer is another to experience the problem. If DHL or FedEx deliver a demand, I refuse to pay the charges,' he says. We are professional wine writers, and part of the job involves receiving samples from all over the world.

If we were expected to pay, we couldn't continue to work.'

Champagne specialist Tom Stevenson has gone one step further, writing to the CEOs of all the major courier companies (and regularly reissuing the letter) explaining that any duty and VAT charges are the responsibility of the sender, not the recipient. Stevenson also cites cases where [the courier company] appears to be illegally charging both the sender and recipient. The airway bill in question clearly indicates that the sender's account should be charged, and the sender's account number is shown.' He says, They still try it on, but I just e-mail the person who was delegated to correspond with me, stating "Another one" and the airway bill number, and shortly after I receive a credit note.'

Of course, these hassles are part and parcel of being a wine hack, and frequent deliveries themselves are a constant problem. Understandably, few weep for those poor hacks complaining about receiving endless bottles of free booze, but much of the stress involves dealing with the courier companies themselves. Most are utterly appalling - and who hasn't encountered endless recorded menus coupled with long waits on the telephone while chasing missed deliveries? Add in the lack of guarantee to deliver to the named recipient within a reasonable window of time plus often-surly deliverymen, and it's no wonder few have a good word for these companies.

Courier rage

Personally I'm fairly surprised that I haven't yet been punched in the nose by a courier. My personal gripe is that the alphabet seems beyond them, and they are a constant annoyance as samples both requested and unsolicited arrive at the door. It would be fine if deliverymen only pressed my bell (clearly marked A), but the majority insist on pressing both A and B several times over like some psychopath attempting a rendition of Tubular Bells.

In a voice weary with repetition, I often point out that A is for flat A, B is for flat B and my long-suffering retired neighbours who have just come down three flights of stairs and perhaps C is for courier'. Momentarily looking for the missing third bell, they then extract a chewed Biro from behind an unsavoury ear and ask me to sign here, guv', dismissing my comments with a perplexed wobble of the head.

I finally had my comeuppance with Parcel Force, when a demand was recently delivered for 37.14 for duties on a delivery I had missed. Having a penchant to hang up after 20 minutes of piped Coldplay, it took me nine calls over the course of three days to break through customer service's recorded menus and speak with a human being. After congratulating my customer-service representative on the apparently irony-free choice of Clocks' as holding music, I then asked what consignment EC757204481GB was and why there was a charge being levied.

The Customs advice line given out by Parcel Force informed me that a case of unsolicited samples from Pierro in Western Australia was considered to be for promotional purposes, and that I should pay the charge. I was told that the case wasn't clearly marked as duty-and-VAT-exempt tasting samples, although Pierro later insisted the paperwork had been correct. Since no one else had signed for the case on my behalf and taken it in - which has occasionally resulted in my spotting samples I've been waiting for in other houses' recycling bins - a simple refusal

to pay sent the shipment back by ship to sunny WA.

I should point out that Dr Mike Peterkin at Pierro was apologetic and offered to refund the charges, but I'd left it too late anyway by the time I contacted him for this article. We are reluctant to send samples because of this problem,' he told me. But getting you guys to taste our new-release wines is an important part of our business, and to send samples via our UK agent to be forwarded to you seems like a nonsense.'

A matter of principle

Others have been less lucky, having had goods signed for and taken in by neighbours (and thus opening themselves up to the charges) or receiving charges after the goods have been delivered and signed for. As Joanna Simon says, The problem is when a demand arrives after the samples have been delivered. I just sign and take the samples in - I don't have time to check what every delivery contains,' she continues. I spend all day taking deliveries in as it is. I recently received a demand for 18 on three bottles, and it came 10 days after the delivery had been made.' Simon, who has also been informed of samples destined for her being impounded at Heathrow, refuses to pay these charges on principle. In this case I had to be very forceful,' she says. I refused to send the samples back but said I would pack them up and the courier could collect.' This seems to be the last she heard of the matter.

A major problem - and one of which perhaps few producers are fully aware - is that the major courier companies only guarantee address-to-address delivery, not person-to-person. When I raised this with spokeswoman Grace Dury at FedEx, asking if it mattered whether the recipient signed for the parcel, she confirmed that it's no problem - we'll deliver anyway'. For DHL it can be anyone in the building', and despite my last effort to get hold of anyone at Parcel Force - I hung up after 46 minutes and 17 seconds of Coldplay on a loop and also had no response to an e-mail - I can only assume the policy is similar.

Having samples nicked by opportunistic neighbours is one result of these policies, and something several wine writers have experienced. I remember Tim Atkin discovering that the chap who bought his old house had merrily quaffed his way through a case. Joanna Simon admits that she, too, has lost samples to (presumably) delighted neighbours. In the weirdest instance, a neighbour munched their way through a cake (which they admitted to) but then handed over an accompanying bottle of demi-sec Champagne.

My own experience includes challenging some nightmare neighbours after a courier company dropped samples at a nearby house - samples that I desperately needed for a soon-to-be-overdue piece. Err, sorry, we've drunk most of them,' came the sheepish reply. Would you like a few joints in return?' The point about all these examples is that the courier companies concerned clearly didn't deliver to

someone in the same building.

FedEx's Dury did come back and help clarify the position on delivery and later charges: Duty is usually paid by FedEx Express and then invoiced to the customer, since we have special arrangements with Customs so that we can meet our delivery-time commitments. All invoices for duty must be paid within 14 days.' This raises an interesting point about when the goods actually become the recipient's legal responsibility. If there is no record of you having personally signed for them, can Customs levy charges against you?

This is a grey area, but the legal expert I spoke with suggested that, so long as the bottles remained unopened and the courier company was advised that such a delivery, which had not been signed for and therefore accepted by the intended recipient, could be collected, then Customs would have scant grounds to proceed with charges.

Julien Brugeres, the solicitor at Time Warner who represented Decanter at the tribunal, also has the following advice: With larger organisations that run regular tastings, such as Decanter, to qualify for relief it is essential to keep accurate records.' This means advising Customs in advance of tastings - in practice every six months is ideal - and informing them of approximately how many wines are to be tasted and when. Detailed, dated records of each wine tasted must then be kept (such as tasting notes), as well as who tasted, and information on any leftover stock and how this was disposed of.

The same goes for individual wine writers,' says Brugeres. While it may be impractical to advise Customs on every sample in advance due to the irregular nature of freelance work, you must keep accurate records, including how the remainder of the sample was disposed of.' He warns, though, that if you are tempted to drink an agreeable wine later and don't declare this - and Customs discovered your action - then Customs would feel entitled to smack you for all you have received'. In essence, it is essential to keep records and, like Bill Clinton or David Cameron, never to admit to inhaling.

No end in sight

Deliveries to incorrect recipients may occasionally be unavoidable, but my recent dealings with a Customs spokesman also left me unconvinced that wine writers will be untroubled by demands for duties and VAT in the future. HMRC responses to journalist enquiries must come generically from the department - so no names or direct quotes. And in a flurry of phone calls and e-mails over several days, HMRC essentially said that relief was due as defined by the Decanter case. For those who wish to wade through the Customs website, Notice 143 at


HMCE_CL_000014 may help clarify HMRC's position. It is far too long and convoluted to print here.

Otherwise, it is essential that all producers and similar forwarding samples take care to correctly fill in all paperwork and airway bills and then ensure the shipment is clearly marked NOT FOR SALE. If you can get through, all couriers have staff trained to provide assistance on completing airways' bills (or check websites such as This should help reduce the payment demands that still too often follow those essential samples.

And, as for wine writers: no sneaky slurping of samples, please.