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Protectionism

US wine industry is drowning its sorrows over transatlantic trade spat


Published 21 February 2020

The US wine industry will face a lose-lose situation as tariffs get slapped on imported wine from Europe.

Tipsy trade policy

The United States imported US$6.5 billion worth of wine in 2018, equal to 17 percent of total wine imports worldwide. We like our Rioja from Spain, Bordeaux from France, and Italian Vernaccia as much as our California counterparts.

Instead of toasting, American wine importers — and the many businesses that rely on imported wine, from distributors to wine shop owners to restaurateurs — are protesting. Why? Because the administration was seriously considering raising tariffs to 100 percent on a range of imported European products, including French, German and Spanish wine.

Imported European wines are already more expensive due to a 25 percent the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) imposed in October 2019. The wine industry is concerned that raising the tariff to 100 percent will cost thousands of jobs as the higher prices on European wines knock out a large chunk of the industry’s wholesale and consumer sales.

A drunken trade brawl

European wine is but a pawn in a decades old trade dispute. In October, the World Trade Organization (WTO) found that Airbus, a European aerospace corporation and Boeing’s big rival, had illegally received over US$22 billion in state-sanctioned subsidies. The WTO authorized the United States to apply retaliatory tariffs on as much as US$7.5 billion worth of European exports each year until the subsidies are removed.

Under US law, the USTR must review and possibly revise (maybe increase) or “rotate” the list of products subject to tariffs after 120 days, known as “carousel retaliation,” to ensure the tariffs are causing enough pain to induce a negotiated resolution.

Even if wine were spared a tariff increase in the aircraft case, a new front has opened in this trade brawl. In July last year, France announced its Digital Services Tax, a tax of three percent on revenues generated in France by a digital company, independent of where that company was established. The tax appears targeted at American companies like Google and Facebook and was denounced by President Trump. When it became clear France had no intention of backing down, the US administration threatened tariffs of up to 100 percent on popular European imports — including wine.

Value of US wine imports

Friends don’t let friends retaliate

The US wine industry is getting whiplash from the prospects of cross-retaliation in this trade war. The Europeans are also awaiting a WTO verdict on their case against Boeing subsidies that could authorize tariffs on US imports. One-third of total US wine exports, some US$469 million worth, come from California shipping wine to the European Union, making it a prime target for retaliatory tariffs. The European Union could also decide to counter with tariffs in protest of the US response to France’s digital tax.

Wine tariffs will not age well

An attack on wine strikes at the hearts of many. French and Italian wines alone account for one-third of the US$70-billion US wine market. The very biggest wine distributors may be able to afford to absorb the cost to remain competitive, but smaller importers and distributors will have a much harder time. The higher costs are passed along to distributors, drivers, specialty retailers, supermarkets and hotels, hitting everyone from the specialist Italian wine store to the French bistro that makes its margin on alcohol sales to the forklift operator in the warehouse. Wine sales also generate local and state tax revenue, particularly in states like Mississippi and Pennsylvania where the Liquor Control Board is the main wine buyer and seller.

In January, House Small Business Committee Chair Nydia M. Velazquez (D-NY) and eight Committee Democrats sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer voicing their fears about the tariffs’ impact on small businesses in the United States. They project that even the original 25 percent tariff could cost as many as 12,000 American jobs. A 100 percent tariff could risk 78,000 American jobs.

The 106 bipartisan members of the Congressional Wine Caucus also got together in January to send their own letter to Lighthizer, urging him to leave wine out of the sanctions, emphasizing the potentially crippling effects on America’s US$220 billion wine economy.

Risk to wine chain of 100% tariff

Reason to celebrate?

Last week, the USTR made a sobering decision not to raise tariffs on imported European wines as part of the carousel review.

The entire industry is breathing a small sigh of relief, even producers in California. They would be unlikely to benefit significantly from the loss of competition from European wines. Due to laws on provenance, it is literally impossible to produce Chablis or Champagne anywhere else but France, for example. And compared to numerous competitors across the world, American producers have higher labor costs and limited supplies that could not fill the giant hole in the US market left by European wines. Instead it seems likely that lower-cost South African and South American wine would be the beneficiaries as the more economical switch. Tariffs are a lose-lose for the US industry.

In vino veritas

The tariffs are not an end unto themselves. They are meant to raise the stakes and bring the parties to the negotiating table. European trade officials appear to be contemplating measures to mitigate the trade row. Officials in Washington state appear to be reviewing its tax incentives to Boeing. The United States is seeking an international resolution to the question of digital taxes and French economy minister Bruno LeMaire seems more interested to resolve the digital tax dispute with President Trump.

Meanwhile, the US wine industry cannot raise a glass. They must continue to live with the consequences of the 25 percent tariff, which they say could cost as much as US$1.6 billion in lost wages throughout the distribution chain.

As for American wine lovers, another terrible reality sets in. After the 25 percent tariff went into effect in November, US wine imports from Europe fell by half over previous months. Over the same period, China’s imports of French wine rose 26 percent. If European winemakers can shift their export focus, they might avoid the US tariff pain and grow their market share in emerging economies while US wine drinkers are left to abstain or drown their sorrow over higher prices.

Let’s all hope the issue is resolved and tariffs removed long before Beaujolais Nouveau Day in November.

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Alice Calder is a writer for TradeVistas and and program manager with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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