“It’s all just arbitrary”: tariff threat continues to impact U.S. wine industry

“If people want to just arbitrarily put taxes on our digital companies,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin earlier this week in Davos, Switzerland, “we will consider arbitrarily putting taxes on car companies.”

The quote comes via a Washington Post opinion piece published today, “Trump’s Treasury secretary just admitted the tariff rationale is hogwash.”

Even though there seems to have been a deescalation in the European Union-U.S. trade war (at least temporarily according to tweet, below, by French president Macro; see this Bloomberg report “Macron, Trump May Have Tariff Truce in 2020 Digital Tax Spat”), the threat of 100 percent “arbitrary” tariffs on EU wines and food products still looms broadly over the U.S. wine industry. Despite the semblance of a rapprochement between the two countries, there is no guarantee that the frequently unpredictable Trump administration won’t impose such severe and debilitating duties.


The acute pungency of Mnuchin’s words sting this morning as I recall my conversation with a wine bar owner in Tulsa, Oklahoma yesterday via telephone. As for so many of my colleagues and peers in the wine trade, the uncertainty caused by the “arbitrary” nature of the trade dispute continues to send ripples of disruption through our industry.

Working in an emerging market like theirs, where progressive wine tastes and trends are just beginning to take shape, they depend on small-scale importers and distributors for the by-the-glass allocations that keep their business model humming. And suppliers like those are on hold: fearful that excessive duties could still be imposed, they are not placing their normal January orders and they are less inclined to share their highly allocated wines in markets like Tulsa, opting instead to focus on top markets where the wines will be more lucrative both in terms of volume and wholesale prices.

His troubles were echoed in an email from a New York-based freelance marketing consultant (whose business parallels mine).

“This tariff things is a real [expletive] pain in the ass,” they wrote. “I can barely get anyone to respond relative to my consulting projects. ugh.”

There may be light at the end of the tunnel in the tariff wars. But the Trump administration’s “arbitrary” strategy continues to sow confusion. And the lack of certainty continues to impact a large swath of the U.S. wine trade at a delicate time of the year when deals are made and wines are allocated. The long-term implications could be disastrous, especially for trade members like my colleagues above — and people like me.

Barolo and seafood pair well at Il Grecale in Novello (Barolo)

Above: Chef Alessandro Neri of Il Grecale in Novello (Barolo) called this dish of fried Panko-dusted shrimp, served with salsa rosa (mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcestershire, mustard, and brandy), a throw back to the 1980s.

“The following rules should be observed for the proper accordance of wines with meats; with fish white wines; with meat the fuller red wines; at the end of the repast the oldest red wines; and the end of dessert the liqueurs and sparkling white wines.” The Inner Man: Good Things to Eat and Drink and where to Get Them by Daniel O’Connell, 1891.

“The Red Dinner [meat based]… is best served without fish, since the Red Wines seldom accord with fish to most palates… [For] the White Dinner [fish based]… all Red Wines should be excluded.” The Gentleman’s Table Guide: Being Practical Recipes for Wine Cups, American Drinks, Punches, Cordials, Summer & Winter Beverages, by E. Ricket, C. Thomas, 1871.

Above: breaded and fried uncured anchovy “tacos” filled with Jerusalem artichoke paste.

Last week in Barolo, my host and dinner companion Alberto Cordero broke the “cardinal rule” of wine pairing when he treated me and another colleague to dinner at the wonderful Il Grecale in Novello, a hamlet of Barolo village in Piedmont.

The seemingly age-old white wine with fish, red wine with meat chestnut can pose a challenge in places like Piedmont (and Tuscany, for that matter) where the old folks still pair red wine with everything they eat.

But Alberto, whose winery I’m profiling for his U.S. importer, proved the otherwise timeless truism dead wrong by pairing his family’s wonderful Nebbiolos with Chef Alessandro Neri’s superb seafood-focused cooking.

Above: pinch, peel, and suck shrimp served over Ligurian-style corzetti pasta medallions tossed with the crustaceans’ stock and wilted spinach. This dish was extraordinary.

Of course, Alberto’s elegant wines are lithe and nimble in the glass, even in their youth (something that he ascribes in part to the extra bottle aging they undergo before release).

Just a few weeks into 2020, the evening will surely be remembered as one of the best meals of the year.

I loved Chef Neri’s cooking. And in a region where beef is the pièce de résistance around which nearly all meals are centered and composed, it’s great to know that there are piscivore options.

Chef Neri (who, btw, lists all of his suppliers on his website) has white wine on his list as well. But it was wonderful to explore the gastronomic possibilities of rich red wine with lighter-style, playful dishes like his.

Above: too few Americans know the gorgeous, classic-styled wines of Cordero, one of Langa’s oldest winemaking families and owners of one of Barolo’s top growing sites. I love the wines and was thrilled to get to connect with Alberto professionally. Even in its youth, this 2016 made for an excellent dance partner with the food. It was such a great “accordance,” as wine pairing used to be called.

I can’t recommend the restaurant and the pairing highly enough.

The term Grecale denotes the northeastern “spoke” of the wind rose, what we call the Bora in English (Bora can also be used in Italian). In antiquity, sailors believed it originated in Greece (Grecia in Italian), hence the name.

Thank you again, Alberto, for an unforgettable dinner and for sharing your family’s wonderful wines!

When silence is betrayal: join our protest of the newly erected Confederate memorial today, Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 20, 2020)

Today and for the next four weeks, our MLK billboard looks down on the newly erected Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up. It was designed by another Orange native, Ashley Evans. We were able to raise the billboard thanks to the support of concerned citizens who donated to our GoFundMe campaign. Thank you to everyone who helped make this possible. Happy Martin Luther King Day!

“The girls [our daughters, ages 6 and 8] and I had a long talk at dinner about what it meant when MLK Jr said that ‘silence is betrayal,'” wrote my wife Tracie on her Facebook last week.

“I hope they understand and I’ll do my best to show them how not to be silent. I know I will fail but they will see us trying. We can always do better, let’s do better. We HAVE to do better!”

And she shared the following the passages (below) from an op-ed published by The Root entitled “How to Be a Better White Person in 2020.”

Please join us today, MLK Day, for our protest of the newly erected Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up. Details follow.

Protest of the Confederate Memorial of the Wind
Orange, Texas

Martin Luther King Day
Monday, January 20, 2020

location: Confederate Memorial of the Wind (Google map)
time: 2-4 p.m.

    Think about the men who owned no slaves but built slave ships to bring black people to America. Channel the ethics of the people who lived next door to people who enslaved human beings. Conjure up the thoughts of the people standing in the town square who silently watched lynchings. Pretend you were one of the people who stood quietly while segregationist mobs spit on little black children who were integrating schools. Imagine you were mute on that Montgomery bus when Rosa Parks refused to move.
    For a brief second, assume you were one of the billions of idle, ambivalent or apathetic white people who objected to slavery, Jim Crow, inequality and injustice but didn’t do a goddamn thing. In your moment of deliberation, think long and hard about what those white people would do.
    Then, just do the opposite.

Click here to read the piece in its entirety. And please join us today. We have plenty of signs for everyone.


In the studio with Aleš Kristančič at Movia

I’ve been on the road for the last week in Italy traveling for a new client. I’ve barely had time to catch my breath on this first whirlwind trip of the year. But I’ve already tasted some extraordinary wines.

Time is tight but I couldn’t resist sharing the above photo of the epic Slovenian producer Aleš Kristančič owner and winemaker at Movia in Ceglio (Brda).

Some of my friends may remember that my French band, Nous Non Plus, once played a gig at his family’s farm. We had a hit song in Slovenia at the time (no shit). And Aleš flew us over to do a show at a club in Ljubljana and play at a couple of sets at the winery.

It was an amazing experience that we all remembered fondly when we reconnected — 12 years later! — early this week.

He was geeked to show me his new recording studio and his new guitar (above). And we had a blast catching up and tasting his extraordinary wines.

It sucks to be away from home and I’m bummed that I’m going to have to be spending so much time away this year.

But I’m not complaining: work is good and I’m lucky to get to spend time with lovely people like Aleš and his family. It was so awesome to see them and reconnect.

More stories to come. In the meantime, thanks for being here and wish me luck and speed…

Must-read Politico report on wine tariff hearings. Decision by end January? Do we stand a chance?

One of the earliest reports from yesterday’s U.S. Trade Representative wine tariff hearing (the first of two), including notes on the “two dozen wine wholesalers and retailers” who spoke.

Couple of big takeaways:

    French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters in Paris that he and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had agreed to double their “efforts in the coming days to try and reach a compromise on digital taxation at the OECD.”

    “We gave ourselves 15 days, until our next meeting in Davos in end-January. We want to try all options to reach an agreement at the OECD in the next 15 days,” Le Maire said.

Could we have a decision on this by the end of the month?

    Amazon, Google and Facebook endorsed the administration’s plan to slap tariffs on $2.4 billion worth of French cheese, Champagne, handbags and other goods if a negotiated solution can’t be reached over the tax, which applies to such things as targeted advertising and providing platforms to connect buyers and sellers.

We are up against the mighty three. Do we stand a chance?

Click here to read the Politico article in its entirety. A must-read.

When liquidation is not an option: oppose Trump’s 100 percent wine tariffs by making your voice heard!

Above: progressive, independent, and “niche” wine bars like Ordinaire, which specializes in natural wines in Oakland, California, would be forced to shutter if the Trump administration’s 100 percent tariffs on wine are put into effect.

“Consider liquidating and closing that chapter of your life,” writes Dallas Morning News wine columnist Alfonso Cevola on his blog this week.

That’s his advice to “small distributors” who specialize “in wines of France, or bio dynamic wines [sic] of Europe or any number of niches that will potentially be affected” by the Trump administration’s 100 percent tariffs on European Union wines if implemented.

“It isn’t dishonorable to fail,” he opines like a Mafia Don, “but it is disheartening.”

He should know: as a lifer sales rep for the “big wine” industry and a staunch advocate for America’s competition-stifling “three-tier system,” he spent the better part of his career trying to parry the expansion of small importers and distributors that took shape over the last two decades in the U.S. He’s well aware that big wine will be the only winner in the trade war because it alone has the capital needed to survive a 100 percent increase in product cost. The big distributors will simply shed off their sales reps to cut operating expenses as they wait out the crisis. The small distributors will be decimated.

Yesterday, I traded messages with one of the brave small distributors whose voice will be heard today in Washington, D.C.: he’s just one of wine trade “witnesses” who will be speaking at the U.S. Trade Representative’s Public Hearing on Proposed Action to France’s Digital Services Tax (the hearing will take place from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. EST and although it will not be broadcast live, a full transcript will be made available according to the USTR site).

As he and I chatted online, I remembered fondly how we started our businesses around the same time when we were both living in New York. It was back in 2007-2008 when the new wave of independent importers and distributors was rising and progressive attitudes about wine in the U.S. were beginning to take form.

“I’ll just move to [Europe] with my cats,” he wrote me, “and start over” if the tariffs take effect — 13 years down the drain, “liquidated.”

I’m in the same boat, I reminded him. And his congedo to me was positive in its outlook.

“We will win!” he wrote.

His sentiment echoed an op-ed published on Sunday in the New York Times by Jenny Lefcourt, a “small distributor” and importer based on the east coast.

“I have spent 20 years building a wine-import company,” she wrote in her piece (“The Insanity of Trump’s Wine Tariffs”). “On Jan. 14, the Trump administration could destroy it all by imposing a 100 percent tariff on European wine.”

She’s also one of the witnesses who will be speaking today in Washington.

If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to share your concerns about said tariffs with the USTR and your representatives in congress (links at the end of this post).

And I also encourage you to sign this Change.org petition launched by Italian winemakers who will also be decimated by the tariffs. Without their products, the entire system will be disrupted — from small distributor to retailer, restaurateur, and consumer.

We must make our voices heard. Otherwise, people like me — with a stay-at-home wife and two small children — would have to pack it up and throw in the towel.

Liquidation is not an option!


Write to your senators (via the National Association of Wine Retailers):

To your congressperson (via the National Association of Wine Retailers):

To the United States Trade Representative (USTR):

The deadline to register your concern with the USTR is Monday, January 13.

Help us raise an MLK billboard overlooking the newly erected Confederate memorial in Orange, Texas where Tracie grew up.

Join our next protest of the newly erected Confederate Memorial of the Wind on MLK Dr. and Interstate 10 in Orange, Texas on MLK Day 2020 (Monday, January 20). Click here for details.

Click here to donate to our billboard campaign. With $400 surplus from our previous campaign and $100 already donated, we need just $500 to make this happen. Please donate now!

Tracie and I are raising money to buy one (1) month of advertising on a billboard that stands across the road from the newly erected Confederate Memorial of the Wind (above), a monument built by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. in Orange, Texas along Interstate 10.

In observance of Martin Luther King Day (January 20, 2020) and African American History Month (February) , the billboard will look down on the memorial, which (as of this posting) includes the Robert E. Lee battle flag, otherwise known as “the Confederate Flag.”

Artwork for the billboard is being created pro bono by an anonymous designer.

It’s the second year of our billboard campaign. You can see last year’s billboard here.

The City of Orange, the local business community, and even a group of local pastors have asked the Sons member who organized the monument’s construction, Granvel Block, to consider repurposing the site. But he refuses to engage in dialog.

Given the demographics of Orange and the legacy of Jim Crow there, it’s clear that the conspicuous display of the Confederate Flag doesn’t reflect or align with community values. The monument’s prominent location (along a major road that leads into town, just a few freeway stops west of the Louisiana border), makes it highly visible to drivers as they arrive in the state heading west. See the photo below, taken this week by an Orange resident.

(Read a February 2018 Houstonia magazine article on the monument here.)

The content of the billboard will include an appeal to local residents and drivers to ask the Sons to repurpose the site. It will also include a link to a blog I’ve created to document our efforts, RepurposeMemorial.com .

My hope is to have the ad up by the end of next week. And I have already contacted the outdoor advertising company that owns the billboard to get the artwork and ad approved.

Tracie and I have been protesting the memorial since December 2017 and we have no intention of giving up on our cause: to remind the residents of Orange (where Tracie grew up and where her family lives) that it’s socially unacceptable to display images like the Confederate Flag in such a conspicuous location and fashion, with no regard for the values and feelings of the greater community.

We cannot thank you enough for your support. We’ve had so many residents thank us publicly and privately for our protests. We are wholly convinced that we need to speak out on this issue.

Between surplus funds from last year’s campaign and the $100 already donated, we just need $500 to make this happen. Thank you for your support. Please click here to donate.

Please visit and share RepurposeMemorial.com

Vittorio Fusari, humanist gastronome and beloved Franciacorta chef, has died at 66

Vittorio Fusari in 2015 at Dispensa Pani e Vini (Bread and Wine Dispensary), his Franciacorta casual and fine dining restaurant and gourmet food and wine shop.

One of Italy’s most beloved chefs, Vittorio Fusari, pioneering gastronome and champion of traditional Italian foodways, has died in Chiari in Brescia Province (Lombardy) not far from Iseo where he was born. According to mainstream media reports, the cause was complications from a heart attack. He was 66 years old.

Fusari began his career in Iseo in 1981 when he opened Il Volto, his first restaurant in Franciacorta, an area known for its sparkling wine production, fresh water fish dishes, and prized beef. Renowned for his deft hand in the kitchen and his imaginative interpretations of classic Lombard recipes, he cooked in some of Lombardy’s most noted restaurants before opening his celebrated Dispensa Pani e Vini (Bread and Wine Dispensary) in 2007, a sort of culinary “campus” where he ran a gourmet food and wine shop, a casual dining bistro, and a fine dining restaurant in Torbiato (Brescia province, also not far from Iseo).

Following the success of his critically acclaimed and wildly popular Dispensa, he shifted his focus to Milan where he became the executive chef at the Michelin-starred Pont de Ferr in the city’s fashionable Navigli (canals) district in 2015.

In one online obituary published yesterday, he is quoted as saying (translation mine): “My work extends beyond the kitchen. My life is devoted to sharing Italy’s ancient gastronomic traditions [with future generations]. Eating well brings people together. It helps them find their shared values. It helps them to be happy.”

In a social media post, composed before his passing, he told his followers: “I haven’t left you. I leave you my recipes and they tell the stories behind my ideas. Copy them and bring them to life as you build a better world through food.”

He is survived by his wife and son.

I had the great fortune to meet Vittorio and dine in his restaurants on numerous occasions. I enjoyed his cooking immensely, as did my wife Tracie and our oldest daughter Georgia who ate at the Dispensa when she was just a toddler. He always insisted that the secret to his cooking was the materia prima, the raw ingredients he selected for his work. And whether it was dried pasta from Puglia, mozzarella from Campania, Prosciutto di Parma from Emilia, or Franciacorta’s famous air-dried “sardines” (actually a fresh water fish, Alosa agone), the foods you found in his shop and restaurants where as wholesome, pure, and authentic as they were delicious.

Vittorio was a humanist gastronome, always bubbling with culinary joy (like his cherished Franciacorta wines), meticulously informed, and contagiously energetic in his work and passion for great cooking. He was tickled by the fact that I brought my pregnant wife to eat in his restaurants and shop at the food counter (she was carrying our youngest). He saw wholesome cooking and eating (as evidenced in the quote above) as a key element in a healthy, happy, and productive life.

Sit tibi terra levis Victor. The sun may come up without you, but the world will never be the same.

“It’s doomsday for everyone.” American wine professionals react to prospect of 100 percent tariffs on EU wines

Above: leading American wine professional Ceri Smith has mounted a campaign urging Americans to write their representatives in Congress and the U.S. Trade Representative asking them not to implement 100 percent tariffs on European wines. See links below.

“Imagine, you are a small importer of French/Italian wines,” writes wine retailer Ceri Smith, owner of the taste-making Biondivino wine shops in the Bay Area.

“You scour the regions to find the wine you want to work with. You develop the relationships with the winemakers. You place the order, pay up front, coordinate the shipment, the back labels, the FDA and all the other government rigmarole, pay all the taxes and duties, load the wine on the container and wait. 30 days while it is in transit. While you wait — the first round of 25% tariffs goes into affect — after your ship left. After you’ve pre-paid close to $200,000 for your container of wine. It lands and gets transferred to warehouse and then, you are told, you have to pay $50k on top of what you already have paid before your wine will be released. How [messed] up is that. Now imagine, if it were 100% tariffs.”

The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) is currently considering whether or not to impose 100 percent tariffs on European wines — including French, Italian, Spanish, etc.

The deadline for citizens to share their concerns regarding the proposed duties with the USTR is Monday, January 13, 2020.

In its request for comment, it asks U.S. citizens to weigh in as to “whether maintaining or imposing additional duties on specific products of one or more specific EU member states would cause disproportionate economic harm to U.S. interests, including small or medium-size businesses and consumers.”

You can read the USTR “annex II” here, including the request for comment.

Before the New Year’s holiday, I asked a number of U.S. wine professionals to share their (well-founded) fears about the fallout from said tariffs should they be put into place. Here are just some of their responses, including passages culled from their comments submitted to the USTR.

Please join me, Ceri, and all our colleagues below in writing to your representatives in congress and to the USTR (links at the end of this post).

Thank you.


This is so disastrous that the consequences are hard to wrap my head around, but it looks life-threatening. David Lillie and I have spent 18 years building our business, and it could get wiped out in one blow; for better or worse we’ve tied our love of European wine to the life of our shop. We have 25 employees, many with families; we pay their health insurance; we pay a boatload of taxes. Chambers Street Wines is a micro business, but there are many thousands of employees and owners around the country who will be similarly affected — to say nothing of how this will impact our wine loving customers.

Jamie Wolff
Chambers Street Wines (New York)

The proposed tariffs on all European wines will adversely impact not only our little enterprise here in the San Francisco Bay Area, but that of the hundred-plus importers and distributors with whom we work. The various local, American-owned importer companies will be decimated by doubling the price of the wines they offer. Now consider the impact on the people who work for those companies… if sales diminish to near ZERO, sales reps will have to find another means of employment. Now let’s consider the ramifications on the little independent, “Mom & Pop” (Daughter & Son) wineries who rely on a significant percentage of their sales to the U.S. market and you’ll have put thousands (perhaps millions) of people in dire economic straits. Now factor in the myriad of other goods apart from wine on which such tariffs are being considered. Can the world economy sustain such a financial disaster?

Gerald Weisel
Weimax Wine & Spirits (Burlingame)

My 73-year-old business is not being helped by these tariffs, but [they] will cause the slow-down of business which is entwined with imported products. That may cause me to lay off employees due to business decline. It seems that Mr. Trump wants to hand out with one hand and snatch away with the other.

A senior wine trade member (California)

Field Blend Selections employs five people (two partners, one full-time salesperson, and two part-time salespeople). We lease office space in New York City and warehouse space in New Jersey. We utilize various American logistics companies to transport wine across the country and overseas. We contract warehouse services, truck drivers, and delivery people through our warehouse to deliver our products. Those products are then sold in over 275 restaurants and retail shops in New York and New Jersey, which rely upon our company and these items to sell to their guests and customers. Our industry is built on hundreds of other similar companies that support jobs across the economic spectrum — warehouse worker to wine salesperson, retail associate to delivery driver. And together, these companies provide a choice to consumers that ensures quality and value.

Jake Halper
Field Blend Selections (New York)

I’ve been talking to my controller about [the possibility that] these tariffs will be doubled. It’s doomsday for everyone! If this [mess] takes effect, I will be out of business [as will] every company like mine.

Dino Tantawi
Vignaioli Selections (New York)

Please join me and each of the wine professionals quoted here in writing to your representatives in the U.S. government, including the U.S. Trade Representative. Thank you.

To your senators (via the National Association of Wine Retailers):

To your congressperson (via the National Association of Wine Retailers):

To the United States Trade Representative: