WASHINGTON, Jan 13 — Lovers of Champagne and other French sparkling wines should brace for big cost increases if the United States makes good on a threat to impose 100 per cent tariffs on French goods in a dispute over the country’s planned digital services tax.
A US$70 (RM284) bottle of Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage could surge to US$130, for example, said David Parker, chief executive of Benchmark Wine Group, the largest US supplier of fine and rare wines for wine retailers.
The US government said in December it may slap duties of up to 100 per cent on US$2.4 billion in imports from France of Champagne, handbags, cheese and other products over the tax, which it concluded would harm US tech companies.
The Trump administration had already imposed 25 per cent tariffs on many non-sparkling European wines in October in a dispute with the European Union over aircraft subsidies. It is separately reviewing whether to increase those duties and expand the list of products affected.
Washington did not specify an effective date for the proposed duties, but the two countries have given themselves two weeks to try to resolve the tax row before officials meet at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in late January.
While the industry has largely absorbed the cost of the 25 per cent tariffs imposed in October, it won’t be able to do that if tariffs rise to 100 per cent, industry executives say.
EU Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan will discuss these issues with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer when he visits Washington this week.
If those efforts fail, the USTR’s office could announce a new list of goods facing tariffs by late January, said Warren Maruyama, a partner at Hogan Lovells and former USTR general counsel.
The looming tariffs pose the greatest threat to the wine industry since Prohibition, industry officials said in Washington last week, referring to the US ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933.
How US wine costs add p
Thanks to post-Prohibition regulation, the non-domestic US wine business is divided into hundreds of importers, wholesalers and retailers. The 21st Amendment allows states to control the sale, distribution, taxation and importation of alcohol.
“Because of the way Prohibition was repealed, essentially, every business in the wine business is a small business,” said Benjamin Aneff, managing partner with Tribeca Wine Merchants.
An importer pays about US$30 for a bottle of Moet & Chandon, plus transport, said Parker, who is also a member of the board of the National Association of Wine Retailers, adding a 25 per cent markup before handing off to a distributor.
Distributors generally add an additional 25 per cent markup, he said, then retailers tack on 20 per cent, for the current price of US$70.
If the original import price doubles to US$60, US wine businesses would be forced to pass along the increase, wine industry experts say.
American consumers simply will not tolerate that kind of price hike, Aneff said.
“We believe that for a huge percentage of this category, we’re simply going to lose the revenue in the United States,” he said, and estimated the industry could lose 50,000 jobs.
How much French bubbly do Americans drink?
The United States is the largest foreign market for French wine, importing nearly €700 million (RM3.1 billion) of French sparkling wine per year, according to the Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins & Spiritueux de France (FEVS) trade group.
If the US market for Champagne weakens due to higher prices, French producers can easily sell their products in Asia and South America, where demand is growing rapidly, experts say.
By definition Champagne can only be produced in the northern French region of the same name.
US vintners make sparkling wines that perform well against Champagne in blind taste tests. But there is no current surplus of US wine production, and it takes seven to 10 years before a new vineyard matures and can produce good wines, experts say.
Averting higher tariffs?
The US Trade Representative’s office is accepting public comments on the French tax issue through Tuesday, and an expanded list of European products that could face tariffs under the WTO aircraft subsidy issue through today.
It is not expected to act on either issue before the upcoming meetings with EU and French officials.
But Robert Tobiassen, president of the National Association of Beverage Importers, said there was little hope of averting higher tariffs since the Trump administration continues to view them as a linchpin of its trade policies.
“I believe the existing tariffs will continue and there is a very strong likelihood that other tariffs will come on,” he said. “They have their strategy.” — Reuters