For the most part, I have tried very hard to remain a-political on this blog. Why? Well, for the simple reason that I don’t believe that people come to a wine blog to read about politics. There are no doubt thousands of sites dedicated to the ins and outs of government policy and political ideology.
This is not one of those.
I do believe, though, that this country is severely lacking in civil political discourse. There was a time, not too terribly long ago, when liberals and conservatives would actually sit down with one another and reach compromises. Neither side was particularly happy with the final outcome, but nor was either side completely distraught.
By writing this post I hope to encourage healthy discussion. I do not expect all to agree with my point of view, in fact, I hope that there are at least some that disagree and explain why so that I (and people who feel the way I do) can better understand the other side with the goal of eventually reaching some sort of compromise.
All cards on the table: I am a liberal and proud to be so. I usually even state that I am “quite liberal” and, as one would likely surmise, I am not a supporter of the current president.
Having stated that I am not here to discuss the various shortcomings (as I see them) of Mr. Trump, but to discuss one of his administration’s use of tariffs in economic policy.
I am not an economist, nor am I an expert on the subject of tariffs, but I am a lover of wine, including European wine, so the proposed tariffs on many European goods (including wine) are of considerable concern to me.
After considerable research, it seems as though many people either don’t understand how tariffs work (or worse, don’t care) and how, if implemented, could greatly alter the wine business here in the U.S.
Here is how I see it (and please point out any inaccuracies–again, I am not an economist):
How trade normally works
Basically, importers to the U.S. order goods (e.g., wine) from a foreign company (e.g., France), who then ships the goods to a port of entry (e.g., New Jersey). The U.S. importer then has 30-60 days to pay the French company for the wine. For many, that 30-60 day cushion is key, to allow the importer to sell some (most?) of the wine to wholesalers/retailers by the time the bill comes due.
How many people think tariffs work
On the surface, the idea of a tariff seems sound: when a foreign government, industry, or company is conducting unfair practices, a tariff, or tax is applied to the goods as a punitive measure. Many people (including, apparently, the president) seem to think the foreign entity is paying this tax (tariff) directly to the U.S. government.
For example, for years, the Chinese government has been subsidizing its domestic steel production, rendering Chinese steel less expensive than U.S. steel. The Trump Administration levied a tariff on Chinese steel, making U.S. steel much more competitive in pricing. Given the choice, American companies in search of steel for their products (e.g., auto manufacturers) opted for the more expensive but similarly priced, U.S. steel.
How tariffs actually work
Rather than the foreign entity paying the tariff, it is the responsibility of the importer in the U.S. to pay this tax immediately upon receiving the goods. In other words, there is no 30-60 day grace period to pay the tariff. Additionally, tariffs rarely are imposed without retaliation by the foreign government. In the case of steel, the Chinese government increased tariffs on many American goods that China imports, most notably agricultural products (e.g., soybeans).
The results? While on the surface it might seem like a good outcome, U.S. steel production increased, and more steelworkers were hired, but in reality, it resulted in substantial losses in agriculture (many family farms have gone bankrupt) and products that require steel became more expensive to consumers (as the American companies passed on the higher cost of steel).
The Current Situation with Wine
As of October, the Trump Administration has levied a 25% tax (tariff) on many U.S. wine imports from Europe in response to the European Union subsidizing Airbus, a French manufacturer of airplanes (and the largest competitor to Boeing, a U.S. manufacturer of planes). For the most part, this 25% tax has been absorbed by the importers and retailers who are loathe to raise prices for fear of losing sales altogether. In order to do so, many companies have been forced to layoff staff and/or not hire new employees.
This past December, the Trump Administration upset by the European digital services tax, which the Administration feels unfairly targets U.S. companies (Amazon, Facebook, Google), threatened to increase the tariff on European wine up to 100%. While the 25% tariff could be absorbed (at least in the short run), the wine industry is virtually unanimous that the proposed 100% tax would cripple the industry, having the largest detrimental effect on wine sales since Prohibition in 1919.
While some (including the President) think that the tariffs will simply increase interest in American wine (thus further benefitting American workers and companies, including, which often goes unmentioned, Trump’s own winery in Virginia), those affected negatively will likely far outnumber those who benefit.
The Wine and Spirits Shippers Association estimates that nearly 80,000 Americans could lose their jobs if the tariffs were to be implemented. This includes importers and wholesalers (forcing many out of business), retailers (particularly fine wine shops), and restaurants (where most profits come from wine and alcohol sales).
Additionally, there are countless small producers in Europe that depend on the U.S. market for the viability of their business. If that market were to disappear, it is conceivable that the small winery would either have to find a new market for their wines (a costly and time-consuming process) or go out of business altogether. If they are lucky, they will find a buyer for their assets (i.e., vineyards), thus eliminating from the market forever many small, artisanal producers.
A good friend of mine is the export manager for the oldest producer in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He intimated that the U.S. represents roughly 20% of its business. A 100% tariff on their wines would likely cause them to pull out of the U.S. entirely, shifting those wines to Asia, Europe, and South America. In order to get those new contracts (if they can indeed procure them), it is likely that they will have to guarantee that they will continue to supply their new customers even after (if?) the tariffs are removed, thus eliminating a market that has been vital to the house since 1786.
Domestic producers will also be affected. Since many distributors have a diversified “book” of producers, eliminating a large percentage of their products will certainly affect their bottom line. This would undoubtedly cause most distributors to lay off sales staff. With fewer salespeople working the market, fewer American wines will be sold. This might cause a few to go out of business as competition for replacement wines increases.
As always, I would love to hear your thoughts…