Culture Tariffs

Matt Straus

Jan 14 · 4 min read

Trying to engage with the possibility that tariffs of 100% could soon be applied to European wine has felt something like sleepwalking. Might it really happen? While we know, in this political moment, not to count chickens before they hatch, judging by the growing seriousness of the protestations of people who work in the wine trade, the answer seems right now to be yes, it might happen. The possibility brought to us by our current administration, ever on the look-out for a sweet deal for corporate America, is joined by the grocery list of confusing questions to which we have become accustomed. Why is this happening and on whose behalf? Does the will of the people matter? Would it really be so devastating to be shut off from European wine?

My Facebook feed has been full for about two weeks of posts written by people experiencing different stages of grief, depending somewhat at least on the degree to which their lives are tied to the business of buying and selling French and Italian wine. Some are clearly terrified by the threat of losing their livelihoods, and the value of skills and relationships often built over decades, and they are scared for good reason. As was mentioned by an industry insider a few days ago, you can’t simply suggest to lovers of country music that they consider switching to jazz. You can’t suggest to a middle-aged radiologist that she consider a new career in dentistry. Many who work for American wine importers and distributors, or who operate restaurants or retail shops focused heavily on European wines, have built careers around the study of these countries and their terroirs, cuisines and viticulture.

Some commenters have posed questions about the real and likely effects of the cheese and wine tariffs, should they be installed and persist for more than a couple of weeks. There should not be any confusion about this. Some companies without very much existing inventory will quickly go out of business, knowing that most consumers will not pay $50 for a bottle of wine that was $25 a few weeks ago. With the modest margins of the wine trade and the knowledge that their shipping containers will become twice as expensive when they arrive in port, many merchants will understand the impossibility of continuing and will fold. Fine European wine is already the subject of anti-elite bias and skepticism about fair pricing among broad swaths of the American public, in some cases for good reason. There can’t be any doubt that significantly higher prices on these items would push them further out to rarefied corners of society; that wine would suffer still further from the canard that it’s just for rich people.

I lived in a world once with $50 Cotes-du-Rhône, and I don’t recommend it. I went to cooking school in Vancouver, British Columbia, where “sin” taxes on various items meant that imported bottles of wine were significantly more expensive than they were in the U.S. The effects were quite a bit more wide-ranging than a simple hankering for good sangiovese with a bowl of pasta. In spite of Vancouver’s astonishing natural beauty, wonderful vegetables and world-class seafood, in spite of the presence of esteemed art institutions and universities, the city was sorely lacking for fine restaurants. I worked in two while I was there, and of course was studying food and generally paying attention, and I couldn’t help but feel that the inaccessibility of Barolo and Gevrey-Chambertin wasn’t doing them any favors. In place of great imported wines was a bizarre chauvinism for wines like Burrowing Owl pinot noir, a local favorite from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, that people talked about like it was Richebourg. Even most gourmets didn’t know any better, and the restaurants reflected that provincialism. After spending a few days eating and on vacation in Vancouver, you would not mistake it for Paris or Rome, or, for that matter, San Francisco.

One thing you can say about the willingness of Trump and his henchmen to swing their wrecking balls in every direction and to target ways of life they deem expendable: there’s nothing like threats and destruction to cause a person to think hard about what they value and love. Not once in the twenty years I have devoted to the study of European wine and cuisine did I imagine that appreciation for those things could dry up in this country. Maybe I was naïve. It’s clear to me now that I took it for granted. In these foggy days of uncertainty and what ifs, as I look in the mirror at myself and my career, I am asking some hard questions. How is the difference between the terroir in Chablis and Meursault really so important, and how would we miss these wines? What is it like to trade certain specialized industries, to watch them wither, in exchange for a rising stock market and the global supremacy of Boeing, Facebook, Google and Amazon? The days of hoping we don’t find out may be drawing to a close.

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