Wine as bullet in trade war hurts gourmets

November 06, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

The news was as welcome as an ice cube in a glass of fine white Burgundy.

From the cellars of France to the wine shops and law offices of Baltimore, producers, distributors and consumers reacted in horror to the announcement yesterday that beginning Dec. 5, the Bush administration will impose a 200 percent tariff on all white wines from Europe.

It's not just a matter of higher price. The 200 percent tariff is steep enough to cut off the flow of every Western European white wine from $5 vin ordinaire to $200 Montrachet.

French Chablis would be passe. The market for Germany's Liebfraumilch would be kaput. And you could say arrivederci to Italy's Soave.

The implications reverberated throughout the distribution chain.

"It would hurt," said Hubert Trimbach, whose family has been making white wine in France's Alsace region since 1626 and now sells 25 percent to 30 percent of its production in the United States.

"We are definitely in the front line. We would be the most badly affected in Alsace," said Mr. Trimbach, reached by phone at his winery in the village of Ribeauville.

"It seems really stupid," said Richard Watson of Robert Kacher Imports in Washington, a critically acclaimed specialist in French wines, about half of them white. He fears that if sanctions are in place next spring, the tiny firm might not be able to survive.

pTC "This could get ugly," said Mitchell Pressman, vice president for sales of Franklin Selections, a Baltimore wholesaler.

"What we're talking about is eliminating thousands and thousands of jobs in this country," said Geoffrey Connor, owner of Calvert Discount Liquors in Cockeysville.

Finally, it came down to the level of wine consumers, few of whom could understand why their favorite tipple should be taxed out of the market for the sake of soybeans.

"This is crazy," said James Gabler, a Baltimore lawyer and wine enthusiast who is especially fond of moderately priced Macon white wines from Burgundy. They would rise in price from less than $10 to almost $30 under the proposed tariffs.

Like many who sell and buy wines, Mr. Gabler was puzzled by the choice of a product the United States decided to make its prime target for retaliation. "Why white wine?" he asked.

"You look to minimize the effects on your own domestic interests while still getting your point across," said Kathy Lydon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative, noting that red wines had also been on a list of candidates for retaliation released in June.

"In our estimation, white would at this point have greater persuasiveness and a less negative impact on U.S. interests," she said.

However, many people in the wine trade expressed the fear that the trade sanction would not stop with white wines.

"If they get into whites, how long will it be before they get into the reds?" asked Bob Schindler, co-owner of Pinehurst Gourmet Shoppe, a fine-wine specialist in Baltimore.

Maybe not long, Ms. Lydon said. She said that if the $300 million in sanctions don't bring a satisfactory response, the United States could slap a tariff on any of the items from the June list, including red wines.

But some wine producers fear that when wine is involved, so is the honor of France -- possibly inciting a full-fledged trade war.

"Wine is relatively important in the mind of the French people," said Mr. Trimbach. "It's the heritage which is taken hostage."

Wine merchants expect that if the tariffs go into effect, most consumers will turn to alternative sources for white wines -- primarily California.

Mr. Connor expects California producers to react to the increased demand by increasing their prices -- an option that has been closed to them for several years because of a worldwide wine glut.

"It's their only chance to go for higher prices," Mr. Connor said.

But Tom Peterson, winemaker at Chateau Souverain in Geyserville, Calif., has his doubts.

"That's really trickle-down theory. There's so many alternatives out there," he said in a telephone interview. "I don't take any pleasure in someone else's problem, and I don't think it's going to have any benefit from this winery's standpoint."

For some, California white wine, with its generally higher alcohol levels, is no alternative at any price.

"I just won't drink white wine -- it's as simple as that. Because I don't find California white wines as satisfying," said Dr. Chuck Rohde, chairman of biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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