wine importers 2021 challenges

Last year brought change to every level of the wine business. Some sectors benefited while others suffered. Many challenges remain in 2021, but the industry has opportunities. Let’s take a look at wine importers.

wine importers challenges Airbus Tariffs

1. Airbus Tariffs

In October 2019, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) levied a 25% tariff on still wines at or under 14% alcohol. The tariff covered wines from France, Germany, and Spain. There was no exemption for wines in transit. If the wine hadn’t arrived, importers paid the tariff.

Tariffs are taxes on goods that reduce consumer choice and raise prices. Importers pay the tax, then pass the increase to distributors, retailers, and consumers.

According to Decanter magazine, French wine imports alone fell 35% through August 2020, though it’s impossible to separate the pandemic’s impact.
The USTR levied a new tariff on French and German still wines over 14 percent on January 12, 2021. This extra tariff includes wines in transit and European wines bottled in the U.S.

Restaurants, small importers, and small distributors may not survive the impact of the tariffs and the pandemic. European wines are vital for these businesses.
Any changes to the tariffs will likely not come until August, leaving businesses to suffer for months to come.

wine importers challenges Government Resources

2. Government Resources

Many importers had problems accessing the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding. Few received any payments in the first go-round as large companies benefited by getting in early. First-round funds were spent in two weeks.


 Round Legislation Funding Expiration
1 H.R. 748 - CARES Act $349 billion April 16, 2020
2 H.R. 266 - PPP and Health Care Enhancement Act $310 billion August 8, 2020
3 H.R. 133 - Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 $284 billion March 31, 2021


Round-three money provides a lifeline for small businesses, restaurants, and hotels with under 500 employees. Other qualifying entities include independent franchises and sole proprietors.

How many importers will access this new funding is hard to know.

wine importers challenges Premiumization

3. Premiumization

As the pandemic slogs on, will consumers keep buying expensive wine? Over the past year, premium and ultra-premium wine sales grew more than the low end.
Consumers couldn’t enjoy wine at restaurants, so they decided to enjoy better wine at home with dinner. These diners tended to choose known brands, though, instead of trying something new. Experimentation was easier at on-premise locations.
Will consumers splurge on high-end wine when conditions improve? Yes, for those with the financial resources. But unemployment remains high, so other consumers may trade down. How this plays out remains to be seen.

wine importers challenges Distributor Consolidation

4. Distributor Consolidation

Continued distributor consolidation puts pressure on suppliers, including importers.

As of 2018, 75% of the national alcoholic beverage market was controlled by 10 companies. Due to the massive changes over the past year, some small distributors have shut down or were bought out.

Large distributors have little incentive to carry smaller brands, which restricts access to customers. Importers need to take more control over their business. (see DTC below.)

wine importers challenges On-Premise Sales

5. On-Premise Sales

The ongoing COVID pandemic basically destroyed the restaurant industry. Importers sold a significant amount of business into restaurants and bars.

According to the Silicon Valley State of the Wine Industry 2021 report, last year may have surpassed the Great Depression as the industry’s worst year. Restaurants stopped ordering, sold off existing inventory, and will probably not carry large inventories in the future.

Through November last year, 2.1 million people lost restaurant jobs. Restaurant wine sales dropped almost 80% versus the prior year. Stop-gap measures such as to-go meals, walk-up service, and delivery are likely permanent.

Specialty importers are finding it increasingly difficult to move their wines through retailers. Importers have been squeezed by too much wine chasing too few outlets.

wine importers challenges In-person Sales

6. In-person Sales

The entire country learned more about online connectivity in 2020 than ever before. Reliance on technology is now entrenched. Many person-to-person interactions moved online.

For wine importers, in-person selling may no longer dominate their schedules. It’s inefficient and expensive. Many importers, including large ones, are laying off salespeople.

Digital sales are the future. E-commerce systems allow restaurants, bars, and wine retailers to find what they need online and order directly.

Salespeople will leverage technology to provide education and information. Virtual visits and tastings will become a greater part of an importer’s toolkit.

wine importers Direct to consumer Opportunities

7. DTC Opportunities

Growing direct to consumer sales provides the best opportunities for importers. According to Drizly, 72% of customers intend to buy alcohol online in 2021.
Connecting directly with customers can make the difference between bankruptcy and survival.

Importers can connect with consumers virtually to build brands. With online wine tastings, wine dinners, and educational webinars, they can enter customers’ homes and create relationships.

Importers can build online relationships with trade buyers as well.

wine importers challenges Industry Cohesion

8. Industry Cohesion

The need for the industry to come together for the benefit of all has never been greater. But the three-tier system seems secure as the various sectors compete against each other for dwindling clients.

Opposition to the tariffs was the one bright spot in this otherwise dismal situation. But, addressing such issues as future demand given demographic changes requires everyone’s focus and cooperation.

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Comments (1 Response)

07 September, 2021

Jeffrey M. Davies

Congratulations, Greg.

I think yours is a brilliant and concise, albeit pessimistic, analysis of the current state of the tariff-laden and pandemic-burdened wine market in the U.S.

Let’s hope that the tariff issue will be addressed and resolved well before August. I do note that in their first and recent phone conversation, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed to resolve the dispute immediately! Apparently, President Biden was caught off guard and deferred any such resolution.

We can also hope that enough Americans are vaccinated between now and the end of this summer such that the fourth quarter sees a veritable boom in economic activity across the board, fine wine business included!

Keep up both your spirits and your good work.

All the best, jmd

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