Wine, Tariffs, & Globalization

The wine trade has always been as global as transportation technology and political economy have allowed. So it is no surprise that the economist David Ricardo sought to make his theory of international trade based on comparative advantage clear and obvious by choosing an example that all his readers would appreciate — Portuguese wine exchanged for British wool.

A World of Wine

If you want to get a sense of wine’s global reach today I suggest you visit your local upscale supermarket or wine shop and survey the landscape there. I had my university students do this back in 2011 and reported the results in a Wine Economist column.  The local Safeway store carried about 750 wines from a dozen different countries back them, which caught the students by surprise. The store has expanded its wine wall since then, with even more offerings, and the supermarket across the street has an even larger set of wine choices. Globalization delivers a world of wine to your doorstep!

Global trade in wine, both bottled and shipped in bulk, is incredibly important to wine producing countries. The largest producers — France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa — could not possibly sell all the wine they produce in their domestic markets. The collapse of global wine trade would be a global wine catastrophe.

And the trade in wine isn’t the whole story. Global markets exist for corks, capsules, winemaking services (think “flying winemakers”), and bottles, too. We’ve visited wineries in South Africa, for example, that import glass bottles from Europe and then export the finished wine to the UK, China, and the US. That’s globalization! Chinese glass has an even broader global reach.

Peak Wine Globalization?

By some measures globalization generally — taking into account goods, services, and people — reached a peak about the time of the global financial crisis and has since shrunk as a percentage of global GDP. Global wine resisted the de-globalization trend, however, but perhaps now is catching up.

Some of the macroeconomic drivers of wine imports and exports such as rising disposable incomes and stable exchange rates have been impacted by the Covid recession. And of course Covid restrictions and behavioral changes have negatively affected both on-premise wine sales and travel and tourism vectors, too.

There are attractive pockets and niche markets for wine sales all around the world and smart producers have sought them out. But the three big wine targets in recent years have been the UK, US, and China and each of these has become more challenging.

The UK issue is Brexit and it is shocking that there is so much uncertainty about the nature of future trade arrangements with just a few weeks to go before the exit from the EU is final. Britain’s unsuccessful attempt to navigate the twists and turns of Covid have pushed the country into a recession that is likely to grow worse before it gets better — a bad thing for income- and price-sensitive wine demand. Add to this the possibility of a botched Brexit and you might see Britain’s status in world wine trade diminish substantially.

Tit for Tat

The US market is suffering from Covid and recession problems as well and its own set of trade issues. The Trump trade wars have increased tariffs on wine imports from the EU, for example, but also generated retaliatory tariffs on US exports to China.

Wine has been caught in the crossfire in the Boeing-Airbus trade dispute, as The Wine Curmudgeon recently reported. The WTO has ruled that the US can impose tariffs on EU products in response to Airbus subsidies and that the EU can put tariffs on US products because of subsidies to Boeing. Wine figured prominently on the US tariff list, but the EU plans to focus on US spirits instead of wine, with new duties on vodka, rum, etc. on top of previous tariffs on U.S. bourbon.

How did the US wine industry dodge the tariff bullet in this case? Trade policy is sometimes very personal when you think about it. EU tariffs on US wine would fall heaviest on California producers — think for a moment important politicians from California. (Does the name Nancy come to mind?) Not necessarily someone the EU wants to upset.

Tariffs on US spirits fall heavily on Kentucky bourbon producers. Can you think of an important political leader from Kentucky that EU officials might enjoy roughing up a bit? Maybe some guy named Mitch? Just thinking out loud …

China vs Oz

And then there’s China. Down in Australia there is more than a bit of concern about wine trade with China. China has grown to be Australia’s largest wine export market, so rumors that the Chinese government might impose tariffs on or even ban imports of Aussie wine entirely are serious concerns. It is not clear that the US and UK, the other big export markets, could easily absorb the resulting flood of  unsold wine.

Since tariffs are as political as they are economic, there is hope that, with a changing US administration, the troops in the wine trade wars might stand down and a truce be agreed. This could start with both sides backing down over the Boeing-Airbus duties. That would certainly be a good outcome and I don’t think it is impossible.

No Easy Fixes

But tariffs aren’t the only factor preventing a return to the previous era of wine globalization as noted above, so don’t expect a quick fix. International producers seeking to penetrate the US market in particular need to be aware of how much the on-trade to off-trade shift has changed which wines American consumers buy, where they buy them, and how much they are willing to pay.

The process of restoring wine’s global reach seems likely to be a process and probably a slow one, with some firms and regions more successful than others. The faster the global economy returns to health, the faster the clouds will clear for global wine.

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