Whether sailing across the Pacific or hiking the Arctic, wine importer Brian Larky always brings along terrific bottles. This is how he does it.

By Ray Isle
Updated May 23, 2017
© Francesco Lagnese

Whether sailing across the Pacific or hiking the Arctic, wine importer Brian Larky always brings along terrific bottles. This is how he does it.

You import wine from Italy, you travel continuously for work, and you always seem to be headed off to white-water-rafting trips or sailing meets. How many miles do you travel each year?
I’m happy to have just gotten, from United, my million-mile certificate. And that’s just from one airline. In terms of how many trips I’ve done across the Atlantic Ocean, I think it’s at least 200.

Where’s the most remote place you’ve ever opened a bottle of wine?
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I did a sailing race from San Francisco to Hawaii with my buddy Tony Soter, who makes his own wines in Oregon. Just a little two-man racing sailboat. We did a nice toast halfway there with some of his sparkling wine—we call it “Soter-pop.” I’ve sailed across the Pacific five times, and those halfway parties are always great.

Do you ever travel anywhere without wine?
Nope. River trips in Alaska, down in the Grand Canyon, anything; because, really, with a glass of wine, would you rather be sitting in the greatest restaurant in the world or the greatest amphitheater in the world? It’s all about the backdrop and the people you’re with. I’ve been up in Alaska on a 10-day trip with friends, and we’re making our G&Ts out of glacial ice that’s 10,000 years old.

What’s your strategy for packing up wine so the bottles don’t get smashed?
For just one or two bottles, I use inflatable bags called VinniBags. They’re reusable, they weigh nothing and they work—and you can use them for floaties on your kids’ arms after you get to where you’re going. Also, I love Champagne, which is just never going to break in the first place; those bottles are so heavy. So always bring lots of bubbly in your bags; right now I’m a big fan of Pierre Péters Champagne. On river trips I use these WWII-era aluminum rocket boxes that are airtight and watertight, but it’s probably easier for most people to go with reusable cardboard wine shippers [available at gorillashipper.com].

Do you have tips for drinking wine on planes?
Wine tastes different at altitude. Cabin pressurization is equivalent to 7,000 feet or so. This means aromas are more muted and the effervescence of sparkling wines is more aggressive because of their big bubbles. On top of that, your nasal passages get really dried out. I find that lower-alcohol wines with higher acidity do best: Rieslings, Vouvray, Sauvignon Blanc, things like that. The big, heavy reds are always a bit tricky.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s ever happened when you’ve traveled with wine?
Years ago, I almost put one poor lady in the hospital when a magnum came flying out of the overhead bin and bonked her on the head. But I apologized, and we actually became friends after that. Since 9/11, several times I’ve been running for the gate before reaching security and realized I still had bottles in my carry-on. But I look at it this way: Who do I give the wine to? That makes it fun. One time I stumbled into a birthday party for this gal who worked for Southwest Airlines. When I gave them the wine I was an instant hero. It was like, “If you want an upgrade, sir, you can have it!” Which would have been great, except that Southwest only has one class.

Your company, Dalla Terra, imports Italian wine. What’s the most interesting thing going on in Italian wine right now?
I’d say grape varieties. Napa grows about 10 different grape varieties; Italy grows more than 600. Everyone’s all about terroir and all that, but in describing the nature of a place’s wines, wouldn’t you rather have 600 words in your vocabulary than six? Yesterday, for example, I was tasting some wines from Puglia, a Verdeca and a Susumaniello—those are amazing varieties. You can’t say they’re new: Italy’s been making wine for thousands of years. But there’s been a rebirth of unfamiliar varieties that’s really exciting.

What are your favorite non-Italian wines?
French bubbly. Always. But I live in California, and I also love California wines. Some old-school stuff particularly—Philip Togni, for example. His wines are great, and his history is wonderful. He’s been up on top of Spring Mountain [in Napa] since I don’t know when—at least 30 years. He really understands his vineyards row by row.

7 Favorite Wines

Pez de Heredia Viña Gravonia Crianza Rioja Blanco ($33)
"Who else would produce a white Rioja with a current vintage that’s 10 years old? I pour this in red-wine glasses because the aroma is so intense: slightly oxidative, herbal, nutty."

2012 Philip Togni Tanbark Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($45)
"Togni’s wines have such honesty; they’re a great expression of what Napa can offer, from an old-school Napa visionary. This is his second wine—it’s from the same estate vineyards as the top wine, 2,000 feet up on Spring Mountain, but it’s much easier to find—and afford."

NV Rare Wine Co. Historic Series Charleston Sercial Madeira ($47)
"You can take this wine anywhere. Madeira is heat-resistant and can’t oxidize—pretty much indestructible. Sercial is on the dry side for Madeira, so you can enjoy it both during and after a meal."

2014 Dönnhoff Hermanschöhle Grosses Gewächs Riesling ($80)
"This stony white, from a vineyard on a 45-degree slope, shows what the Nahe region in Germany does so well. If I could have refrigeration on my desert island, it would definitely be one of my desert-island wines."

2010 Marchesi Di Grésy Camp Gros Martinenga Barbaresco ($85)
"I think this red is one of the best examples of Barbaresco. (Disclaimer: I also import it.) The marchese is one of the most elegant people I know, and his wines are equally elegant, so refined—this one may be the ultimate example."

2009 Pierre Péters Les Chétillons Cuvée Spéciale Champagne ($125)
"Not long ago I had a chance to meet Rodolphe Péters personally during Vinitaly. His wines are amazingly precise, but I also have a fondness for them for the simple reason that Rodolphe himself is such a fabulous person. This gorgeous, floral Champagne comes from one tiny plot of old Chardonnay vines in Le Mesnil."