This time of year always has been a bit frantic for wine wholesalers and importers. The year’s final three months — referred to as “OND” in the trade — also are the top three months in U.S. wine sales annually.
During the past four weeks, though, the usual chaos has teetered closer to anarchy, as the folks who bring us wines from overseas scrambled to figure out how to deal with 2019’s most fraught word:
On Oct. 3, the United States slapped 25% tariffs on, among other goods, most wines from France, Spain, Germany and Great Britain, effective Oct. 18.
The levy is actually higher than that for consumers because the 25% is tacked onto the front end, and the margins that distributors (if they’re not also the importer), and then restaurants and retailers, traditionally take will come on top of that higher figure. So a $10 wine might inch closer to $15 than just $12.50.
But — isn’t there always a “but,” and isn’t it great when it’s a good one? — there are exceptions, or more precisely “exemptions.” The tariff doesn’t apply to sparkling wines or any table wines with more than 14% alcohol.
That’s great news for many red wines from Spain and southern French regions such as Languedoc-Roussillon and the Rhône Valley. However, even in an era of climate change, Germany and northern French regions such as the Loire Valley and Alsace have cooler seasons that preclude pushing the sugar (and thus alcohol) levels anywhere near 14%. Still, don’t be surprised if some imported wines start showing up with “14.1% alcohol” on the labels.
Also unaffected by the tariff are wines coming in containers larger than 2 liters. We’re likely to see more than a few brands launch boxed wines as a way to work around the levies. One of the strategies local importers have discussed while burning up Skype in negotiations with their overseas suppliers is having wine shipped over in bulk (usually very large pouches) and then bottled on these shores.
More good news, at least temporarily: The tariff applies only to wines that cleared U.S. Customs after Oct. 18. Most distributors’ inventory is residing in their warehouses, and what’s already in restaurants and retail outlets almost certainly did not yet have the tariff slapped on their offerings.
Now for the less-good news: Wine enthusiasts who delve into spendier wines might need to act fast. Burgundy and Bordeaux aficionados should beat feet to their favorite winemonger to grab what they can afford. The timing is actually fortuitous because the last few vintages have been almost uniformly excellent. (The 2017 Burgundies and chablis are the best combination of “drinkable now” and “worth cellaring” that I can remember.)
The same goes for riesling lovers. They should be pouncing, although Surdyk’s, which has a retail exclusive with the outstanding Terry Theise portfolio, would seem to have several vintages in stock based on some of the less youthful (but eminently worthy) wines on its shelves. Most German and Alsatian rieslings also fall squarely in the drink-or-hold bailiwick. For other Alsatian wines and those from the Loire region on the other side of France, fans would do well to grab some bottles for the future.
Consumers who like to play in the under-$20 realm — and that would be most of us — need to stock up on our favorites. Sadly, so many of the truly stellar under-$15 white wines from southern France — Tariquet, Puoy, Le Hameau, Labbe Vin de Savoie Abymes, Ménard Cuvée Marine and Domaine De Pellehaut Harmonie — are not built for aging, but I have bought all of them by the case on other occasions and relished opening them over the ensuing 12 months.
One of my favorite inexpensive reds, La Vieille Ferme from the Rhône, is readily available in boxes, which will be the way to go if the tariff lingers.
Red-wine lovers also would be well served glomming onto another Rhône stalwart, Paul Jaboulet Aîné Parallèle 45 and, out of Spain, tempranillos from Volver and Mano a Mano and garnachas from Atteca, Evodia and Niel Santofimia.
But for me, the best Spanish bulk buy, thanks to its combination of approachability and ageability, is the LAN Crianza Rioja, with the CVNE Crianza close behind.
All told, this is a classic “when life (or politics) gives you lemons …” scenario. Time to get shopping. At least for me.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.