Restaurants nationwide are asking the Biden administration to end the 25% tariffs on some European wine, food and spirits. Earlier this month, 69 South Carolina restaurants signed a letter to Congress penned by the Coalition to Stop Restaurant Tariffs, a group seeking “immediate executive action to provide tariff relief for restaurant owners already struggling to survive the debilitating COVID-19 pandemic.”
The tariffs were put in place by the Trump administration to punish the European Union over subsidies given to Airbus, a European aircraft manufacturer. Initially, the U.S. placed a 25% tariff on wines under 14% ABV from France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, but before leaving office, Trump added tariffs on wines above 14% from France and Germany, measures that took effect on Jan. 12. Imported aircraft parts are taxed at a lower rate of 10-15%.
Decisions regarding the tariffs are usually left up to the U.S. Trade Representative leader, but President Joe Biden can stop the tariffs at any time with an executive order. Biden’s U.S. Trade Representative nominee, Katherine Tai, is set to be sworn in as the 19th leader of the USTR any day now, a transition coming at a bad time for those advocating for an end to the tariffs.
According to Grassroots Wine owner Harry Root, the deadline to review the tariffs is Feb. 15, and discussions leading up to the review came in the month between the time Tai was announced as the next leader of the federal organization and when she will be actually appointed.
“We’re in the middle of a few days of a lot of changes happening,” Root told the City Paper Friday. “Unfortunately, the deadline to review this is happening during this lame duck session.”
“The only way to stop (the tariffs) in the short term is by intervention from the (Biden) administration,” said Root, noting that this was unlikely to occur before Tai was confirmed. “Our goal is to have the U.S. Trade Rep. review this policy within four weeks of her confirmation.”
Mike Lata, chef/owner of FIG and the Ordinary, is a member of CSRT’s leadership team — he says the tariffs are adding salt to the industry’s wounds following a second round of stimulus that only helped some restaurants, mainly ones in cities with fewer dining restrictions.
“The increase in prices as a result of the tariffs really cuts into one of the most profitable centers of our model,” he said. “They’re also the most popular wines that we pour, so with programs like FIG, it really affects our purchasing philosophies. This is just one more nail in the coffin to where the tariffs have made it more expensive at a time when we need more help than ever.”
The CSRT hopes Congress can be an ally for the food and beverage industry in the coming weeks. According to Root, “Congress can be the voice for their constituents and let their administration know that this is affecting wherever their folks are from.” Once Tai is confirmed, members of Congress can meet with her to discuss the tariffs.
Park Circle wine bar Stems & Skins was one of the 69 establishments that signed the letter to Congress. According to co-owner Matt Tunstall, “The tariffs need to end now.”
“These tariffs have absolutely nothing to do with wine, and it feels as if our entire livelihood has been used as a petty bargaining chip by the former Trump administration,” he said. “We can only hope that the Biden team will have time to make changes sooner than later.”