Most years, January is a time for the wine trade to pause and congratulate itself.
It has weathered the lucrative deluge of the holidays, and should be well into the planning for the next six months, having placed orders for the summer’s supply of rosé and whatever else it expects will be in demand.
Instead, the last month has passed in a blur of fear and dread as the industry contemplates the Trump administration’s threat to impose 100 percent tariffs on all wines imported from the European Union, along with a variety of other goods including foods, spirits and clothing.
Make no mistake, a tariff of that size, or any number close to that, would be catastrophic for Americans in the beverage and hospitality industry. A 100 percent tariff would double the price of wines in shops and restaurants, with disastrous ripple effects.
Consumers may be furious if confronted with a $25 bottle of Fleurie that has doubled in price to $50. They will have to adapt, or drink wines from somewhere else. But that hardly matters when compared with the American jobs that may be lost and the businesses that could be threatened if the tariffs go into effect.
Nobody knows exactly what the outcome will be, or when it will be decided. The administration has a pattern of issuing dire threats and not always following up. Even so, the prospect has conjured up a pervasive feeling of fragility.
Some importers have postponed orders, fearing what will happen if, having calculated sales according to the price paid, a tariff is imposed while the shipment is in transit, requiring a huge lump payment on arrival and the prospect of not being able to sell the goods.
The fear does not stop with importers. An entire chain of businesses are built around the acquisition and sale of European wines and foods, from distributors to retail shops and restaurants, and all the associated workers — not to mention dock labor, forklift drivers and others.
“We hope this doesn’t happen,” said Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta, who, with her husband, Julio Pena, owns Il Posto Accanto, an Italian wine bar and trattoria that opened 21 years ago in the East Village, and whose wine list is almost entirely Italian. “We’re not a big company that can absorb this kind of thing. We are a local restaurant with workers who have been with us forever and neighbors who have supported us for years. This will be the end of us.”
The new tariff threat comes on top of a 25 percent tariff imposed in October on certain European foods, drinks and products — a fee that so far has largely been absorbed by importers, distributors and producers.
“The 25 percent was already really, really tough,” said Jon-David Headrick, who imports French wines exclusively, focusing on small family estates. “I was really proud that the growers almost to a one stepped up and helped, and prices in the market haven’t risen by a significant amount yet.”
The new rate will be another matter entirely.
“This changes the game completely,” said Harry Root, who, with his wife, Nicki Root, owns Grassroots Wine in Charleston, S.C., which distributes wine throughout the Southeast. “It would affect 60 percent of what we sell. These products are irreplaceable.”
The tariffs are part of an American retaliation against the European Union over subsidies it gives to the European aerospace company Airbus. In September, the World Trade Organization ruled that the company had violated global trade rules.
The Trump administration is also considering a separate 100 percent tariff on Champagne and other products in retaliation for a new tax it says unfairly targets American technology companies.
The Trump administration has not said why it has singled out wine and food in a dispute over industry and technology. Heavy machinery, aircraft and pharmaceutical products, for example, accounted for more than 40 percent of France’s exports to the United States in 2018, while beverages, spirits and vinegar make up about 9 percent of the French exports, according to Trading Economics, a statistical website.
“From a political standpoint, it’s completely ludicrous to have these trade wars somehow connect airplanes to wine,” said Danny Meyer, whose restaurants, including Marta, Maialino and Gramercy Tavern, depend on European wines. “It’s the one time I’m happy we have so many wines in reserve.”
The potential tariffs may be damaging as well to small producers in Europe whose businesses are focused on the American market. Luxury-goods corporations, with wine divisions and big wine companies, have the resources to adapt and find other markets. But tiny family estates as well as the small importers who work with them will be in trouble.
“Yes, they can find other markets, but that can take many months,” Mr. Headrick said. “The Europeans will recover, but Americans will be crushed by this.”
Good wine is the product of a culture and a place. If, for example, the already sky-high price of Burgundy doubles, consumers will not be able to replace it by switching to, say, Oregon pinot noir. It’s a different wine. Similarly, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon may have been inspired by Bordeaux, but the wines are not interchangeable. Without European options, Americans will be drinking differently.
Nor will high tariffs on European wines necessarily be a boon, as some have suggested, for the American wine industry, especially for small American producers who depend on their distributors to explain their wines to customers.
“The short-term impact is likely to be pretty serious and pretty negative,” said Jason Haas, general manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard, an excellent producer in Paso Robles, Calif. “All wines rely on the same distribution network. If the prices double on European wines, it will have an immediate negative impact on all those distributors.”
They will be consumed, Mr. Haas said, with finding new producers to replace the wines they will no longer be able to sell.
“They’ll be distracted. Their salespeople — who are almost all paid by commission — will see their incomes drop, and it will produce a lot of staff turnover,” Mr. Haas said. “They will try to get their sales team up to speed on these new suppliers, which will make them less focused on our products.”
Many in the American wine trade are trying to mobilize public opinion against the threatened tariffs, and to persuade the Trump administration that the immediate cost to Americans in jobs and income will be far worse than whatever pain the tariffs inflict on Europeans.
Mr. Root, of Grassroots Wine, has been talking to members of South Carolina’s congressional delegation, passing petitions and calling on people in the wine trade to bombard the office of Robert Lighthizer, the United States trade representative, with letters arguing against the tariffs. Since the World Trade Organization has already approved the imposition of tariffs, it will be up to Mr. Lighthizer to decide how high they should be and on what products.
The public may offer comments on the potential Airbus tariff until Jan. 13. The comment period on the separate tariff in response to the tax on tech companies closes Jan. 6.
“That’s our only hope,” Mr. Root said. “I’m not taking a stand on the disputes, but I do know this: Jeopardizing American small businesses is not a way to settle an international trade dispute.”
Small businesses are left trying to imagine how they will cope if they products they depend on become prohibitively expensive. Shelley Lindgren is the proprietor and wine director of A16, a southern Italian restaurant in San Francisco that since 2004 has been a showcase for little-known Italian wines regions and producers. She is concerned for her restaurant and the producers from whom she buys wine.
“We work with a lot of microproducers from Italy,” she said. “It’s punitive to the wrong people for the wrong reasons.”
Still she is optimistic, partly because of the hardships the restaurants have already endured in San Francisco, where rents have risen drastically over the last 15 years, the minimum wage has increased and new taxes have been imposed. Tariffs will be one more burden, but she is confident she will be able to adapt.
“Maybe we’ll have to have a smaller menu, or less wines to offer,” she said. “I feel optimistic because there is so much wine in Italy, so much still to discover.”
Mr. Meyer, too, is hoping for the best.
“The first optimist in me feels it’s a bluff, the second feels it will pass very quickly and the third hopes it will result in new discoveries,” he said. “It’s up to us to offer wines that people will pay for, and to find those wines.”
But importers and distributors like Mr. Root and Mr. Headrick are not feeling nearly so confident.
“I’m angry about this, and I’m going to fight to keep what I have built,” Mr. Headrick said. “It is a scary time.”