This week’s wine news: Supermarkets embracing Drink Local during the pandemic, plus one more study about pandemic drinking and wine tariffs
• Drink Local thrives: Supermarket News reports that “Retailers deepened their relationships with local beer brewers and winemakers in 2020 to satisfy customers and support their local economies.” Which, of course, is something those of us who have long believed in local wine are very glad to see. The story looks at one California grocer, where virtual tastings with local wineries have far exceeded expectations.
• One more study: The Wine Curmudgeon has been keeping close track of the various pandemic drinking studies, if only because the results show hat we’re drinking less, drinking more, and passing out in front of the TV set – or all three.. The latest study comes from a browser app that offers retail discounts; its findings seem just as reliable as any of the others, which is to say not necessarily reliable at all. There’s no methodology in the release, for one thing, and it claims rice wine sales have increased 37 percent – more than any other kind of wine, more than most spirits, and more than something called “imported craft beer.”
• Whoops: About 10 days ago, U.S. trade officials said they would extend and increase tariffs on a variety of French products, including much wine that had not been taxed in October 2019. Then, at the end of last week, they said they wouldn’t up the tariff, after all. And then maybe they did, depending on news reports this week. Don’t worry if you’re confused. So am I, and even the normally reliable BBC seems confused in the story in the link. Just know that the situation remains the seem as it was before the end of the year, awaiting the new administration.
Is it possible a wine tariff trade settlement is finally possible?
The Trump Administration won’t raise the 25 percent on selected European wines, which is about as much good news as we can hope for these days.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s statement yesterday said it wouldn’t increase the tariffs on French, Spanish, German, and British wine that have less than 14 percent alcohol. The agency had been re-examining the tariffs, as required by law, and had intimated a couple of weeks ago that it would consider upping the 25 percent rate. Instead, it left the tariff unchanged, as it did on some whiskeys, other spirits, and some food like Italian cheese.
European Union officials welcomed the news, saying the decision to refrain from an increase would help prevent a further escalation in the trade war. Both sides said they would try harder to reach a settlement.
The tariffs were enacted last October as part of a decades-old dispute about airplane parts, which keeps getting sillier and sillier as the world battles both a recession and the pandemic. Those of you who aren’t worn out by all of this can check out the tariff’s history here.
This week’s wine news: U.S. wine tariff update, which may include some good news. Plus, is this the beginning of the end of icewine?
• Big tariff losses…: The Robb Report, addressing last fall’s 25 percent wine tariff, says “The resulting price hike has made many bottles simply too expensive for U.S. sellers to import. Now, with an abundance of wine bottles in reserve, French vintners are reportedly slashing prices to stay afloat.” The story doesn’t get much more specific than that, though it does cite the French wine industry’s continuing woes. Still, one of the smartest people in the wine business told me, after the tariffs went into effect, that this was possible. Wine can’t be stored like steel, to be sold when demand picks up. It needs to be sold every vintage, and if vintages start backing up, the only way to sell them is to cut prices. We shall see.
• Too warm for icewine: Icewine is one of the wine world’s great treats – rare, expensive, and incredible to drink. Now, thanks to warmer winters in Germany, it may be going away. That’s because icewine is made by harvest frozen grapes on the coldest of winter mornings, and there haven’t been enough of those mornings this winter. The German wine trade group says there will be icewine vintage for 2019, and only one producer will make a tiny amount.
The bad news? We’re stuck with the 25 percent tariff imposed last fall until the next review, set for August.
Still, this is much more than a half empty glass. The decision seemed to reflect the wine industry’s tremendous and almost unprecedented lobbying effort against the 100 percent tariff, in which representatives from each of the three tiers testified at U.S. Trade Representative Office hearings, blitzed the old and new media, and organized public anti-tariff campaigns. In this, groups that typically disagree as often as they agree worked together for the greater good.
For example, the Wine Institute, the trade group for California producers, has been working for years to change state laws to make it easier for consumers to buy directly from wineries. This has been opposed by most of the second tier, since wholesalers have a monopoly on selling to retail and restaurants under the three-tier system and don’t want to allow any exceptions. But the two groups were side by side in opposing the tariff.
“It was one of the rare cases in the industry when everyone’s interests aligned,” says Cindy Frank, a long-time wine industry executive who has worked as an importer, wholesaler, producer, and retailer and who testified at last month hearings before the U.S. Trade Representative in opposition to the tariffs. “It’s the one issue that has worked itself all the way through the three-tier system.”
So where does this leave us?
• The tariff decision was announced on Friday afternoon. This timing, after everyone leaves for the weekend, almost always means the people announcing the news didn’t want to talk about it. Which often means they did something they didn’t want to do, and so didn’t want to have to explain their decision. Still, that aircraft tariffs were increased, when the initial dispute was about aircraft, speaks volumes. The World Trade Organization ruled in October that EU subsidies to Airbus were illegal, and that the U.S could impose tariffs in retaliation.
• Credit some of the decision to our friend, the three-tier system. Apparently, Trump Administration officials didn’t understand what three-tier was or how it worked. Their questions, said several people who testified, assumed retailers, importers, and wholesalers could easily replace European wine with imports from other parts of the world, just as they would steel or soybeans. The officials didn’t know how severely three-tier restricts how wine can be sold in the U.S.
• Economic turmoil. The wine industry lobbyists, as part of their effort, did an excellent job in showing that higher prices for imported wine would lead to job losses, bankruptcies, and lost sales up and down the U.S. supply chain, whether big or small retailers, producers, importers or distributors, says Southern Glazer’s Barkley Stuart, the chairman of the Wine & Spirits Wholesaler Association’s board of directors.
• The tariff was re-examined four months after it was applied as required by U.S. law. This was a point of confusion after the October ruling, and I reported the process incorrectly in the “Does anyone have any idea what’s going on?” post (and since updated). The next tariff review, as required by law, must come by August. In addition, the WTO is expected to announce later this year that the U.S. gave Boeing illegal subsidies in retaliation for the EU subsidies to Airbus. If that happens, then there’s political cover for both sides to negotiate away the tariffs, but no one knows if or when that will happen.
• Retailers, pricing, and rose season. As reported here and elsewhere, retailers, distributors, and importers have worked together since October to minimize the 25 percent tariff’s effect on prices. But, as one Dallas retailer told me, all bets are off on holding the line on prices when rose season arrives in the next month or so.
This week’s wine news: A comprehensive look at the sommelier cheating scandal, plus the wine tariff sinks French wine imports and wine list foolishness
• Sommelier cheating scandal: The trade website SevcenFiftyDaily takes a long, thorough, and comprehensive look at the 2018 sommelier cheating scandal – some 4,000 words. It’s mostly well done, fair, and reaffirms the suspicions that those of us had about the lack of transparency surrounding what happened: The “events of the past year raise broader questions about an organization—and the title it confers—that’s one of the wine world’s most powerful. And not just for the trade: With the 2012 release of the film Somm, which details the efforts of four Master Sommelier candidates to pass the exam, and its subsequent appearance on streaming services like Netflix, many consumers have come to view the MS title as the standard of wine culture.”
• Plummeting exports: The 25 percent U.S. tariff on some European wine has pounded French wine exports to this country, says a French government official. They dropped 44 percent by value in November 2019 from the previous month, after the import penalty went into effect on October 2019. The story also says that the “tariffs have been especially painful to producers at the lower ends of the market, where a 25 percent price hike can turn an affordable bottle into a once-in-a-while luxury.” We should know something this week or next about the next stage in the trade war after the World Trade Organization rules on a complaint by the European Union about illegal U.S. subsidies to Boeing. It was illegal EU subsidies to Boeing competitor Airbus that started this mess.
• Incomprehensible wine lists: A recent Vinepair podcast takes on a subject guaranteed to make the Wine Curmudgeon crazy: The “many wine lists floating around out there that seem to revel in being inscrutable to all but the most sophisticated and educated wine drinkers.” The podcast talks about the problem, explains why it doesn’t have to be one, and offers more pointers on buying wine in a restaurant.
The good news: The Financial Times reported yesterday that a French finance ministry official said the two sides had agreed to a “ceasefire” until the end of the year. He told the newspaper that no tariffs would come into force before then and talks would continue on digital taxation.
Where we are with the 25 percent European wine tariff, and where we may be going
A few thoughts after talking to a couple of dozen people – importers, distributors, retailers, and producers – about the 25 percent European wine tariff (and most asked not to be named, citing the nature of the dispute):
• How long will the tariffs last? Almost all I talked to were pessimistic – one official at an important New York importer said he was an optimist, which meant 12 to 18 months. “And that’s because I’m an optimist,” he said. “Others are telling me the tariffs will be here forever, because who lowers taxes once they’re imposed?” In this, he told me, the tariffs will almost certainly change the way Americans buy wine. This was echoed by an employee of one of the biggest distributors in the country and a prestigious Dallas retailer. If $15 French and Spanish wine suddenly costs $20, who will buy it? They’ll just switch to another $15 wine
• Will anyone “win” this part of the U.S.-E.U. trade war? If winning is scoring political points, then the Trump Administration is having a victory party. And I have no doubt Jackson Family Wines is celebrating, as short sighted as that might be. But if winning is solving a problem, then no one has won and almost no one will win. As a former newspaper colleague of mine, a respected South Carolina political writer, said recently: “Tariffs are a mug’s game.” These were imposed as punishment for something that happened 14 years ago, and it’s difficult to see how taxing British wine will solve an aircraft parts dispute.
• When will prices go up? The tariff only affects wine imported after Oct. 18, so if it’s already in the country, we’re probably safe. The New York importer said his company will raise prices on wine brought in after Oct. 18 in the next 30 to 60 days. On the other hand, a Dallas retailer told me his very large chain is trying to figure out a way to absorb some of the increase for less expensive wines, since it doesn’t want to see them priced out of existence. He said large retailers, thanks to economies of scale, might be able to work around some of the the tariff’s effects.
• What’s the Wine Curmudgeon doing? Trying not to panic. The blog’s reason for being is cheap wine, and much of the world’s most interesting cheap wine comes from France and Spain. Price that out of reach, and I don’t have much to write about, do I? I can still count on Italy, and I’ve spent considerable time in local retailers looking for wine from countries not affected by the tariff. The good news is that I stumbled on a $10 Chilean pinot noir and a $10 South African white blend. The bad news? That doesn’t make 52 wines of the week. And availability is almost certainly going to become even more uneven than it is now, and we know how uneven it is now.