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Stealth bill could crush US wine imports

Stealth bill could crush US wine imports

If you live in the United States (or even if you don't) and love quality wines from around the world, please take special care to read today's article all the way through. It's a little complicated, but worth reading: This may be one of the most important wine-consumer issues of the year.

While many political observers are contemplating the broad policy implications of yesterday's midterm U.S. Congressional elections, experts in the wine-import business are much more worried about the progress of a narrowly focused piece of legislation that is moving through Congress with little public attention.

Designated HR5385 and sponsored by Illinois Republican Rep. Phil Crane, this legislation is dryly titled "The Miscellaneous Trade and Technical Corrections Act of 2002." It appears to be one of the many "housekeeping" bills that sail through Congress without much notice.

But I am reliably informed that a little-noticed provision in this bill has the potential to seriously jeopardize the access of U.S. consumers to quality artisanal wines from small producers in Europe and the rest of the world. By dramatically increasing the regulatory red tape that U.S. wine importers would need to untangle in order to bring the wines of small producers to market, HR5385 could keep many artisanal wines off the market - and in the process damage or even destroy some of the nation's top small-business wine importers.

According to an E-mail alert circulated by The Rare Wine Co., a respected wine shop in Sonoma, Calif., "HR5385's intended purpose is to get the European Community to remove import restrictions on American wines. However, it would potentially do much more than that. ... it would require American importers to get special wine quality certifications from foreign governments, including a chemical analysis. The repercussions of these requirements would be devastating to the fine wine market."

The problem, Rare Wine says, is this: "Not only would they create a mountain of new red tape which many small importers are not equipped to deal with, it would create nationwide monopolies for imported wines ... because the only importers who would have access to the required certifications would be those who buy directly from the producer. Importers who buy on the open market in Europe - who represent a huge part of the supply of sought-after, scarce wines - would find it impossible to get their wines into the U.S."

My friend David Schildknecht, who works with a fine Cincinnati-based importer that brings in quite a few of the quality wines of value that I review in these pages, told me that he considers this "a very nasty bit of legislation sneaking in under our radar, quite likely to become Federal law, and seriously jeopardizing the livelihood of small importers ... "

"I cannot at this point tell you to precisely what standards imported wines will be held," Schildknecht said. "It is enough to know that foreign governments will be asked to certify for each wine that is imported that it has met certain American standards. The cost and cumbersome mechanics alone would threaten the importation of small lots of wine from family growers."

Rare Wine Co. agrees, adding, "Overnight, an important segment of the wine trade would die. Many small importers would be put out of business. Availability of scarce wines would be vaporized. Due to a drying up of supply and a lack of competition, there would be enormous upward pressure on prices. Consumers and small importers and merchants would all lose, while a few big importers would benefit.

"We share the desire of American wine producers who want to open world markets for their wines. But we're sure there are other ways of achieving this goal without sacrificing the interests of American wine consumers and businesses."

Behind the scenes, all this sound and fury appears to stem from power politics being played between the European Union and the U.S. In fact, the proposed "special wine quality certifications from foreign governments, including a chemical analysis" simply reflect the EU's already existing quality standards for wines imported to Europe.

But heretofore, those standards have not been enforced against American wines, under a specific "derogation" that has exempted U.S. wines from the requirements as a way to encourage the U.S. to negotiate toward an agreement on wine labeling and other wine-regulatory issues. Some knowledgeable observers suggest that this bill may be intended as a positioning tool or bargaining chip in these negotiations.

But international power politics offer little comfort to consumers, or small importers, who see a real possibility of being crushed by larger forces.

Rare Wine Co. puts it bluntly: "The bill has already passed the House and is expected to sail through the Senate this month, since there has been no opposition to date. Take advantage of any contacts you may have in Washington, particularly in the Senate, and urgently get the word out that this is a bad bill. Please contact your Senators."

I agree. A flood of E-mails, letters and phone calls to Senators - particularly from the taxpaying, voting citizens who they represent - can't hurt and might help. Your note doesn't have to be long or fancy. Feel free to borrow the following:

"I am strongly opposed to the Wine Import Provisions in the trade bill HR 5385 (the Miscellaneous Trade and Technical Corrections Act of 2002), which is currently in the Senate Finance Committee, because its Section 2003 is anti-consumer and anti-trade and will hurt small U.S. importers. Please stand against this provision, and please let me know that you will do so."

To get the name, E-mail address and telephone number of your Senators, check

If you live outside the U.S., as some one-fourth of our readers do, your "vote" may not carry much weight with hard-nosed American politicians; but I hope you will still feel free to contact one or two of our Senators and comment about how this legislation looks to our neighbors around the world.


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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.

Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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