Columbus restaurants bracing for impact of proposed tariffs on wine, cheese, olives

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — On Friday, Bob Bernardo showed off an an entire wall of his Columbus wine shop where the European wines are stocked.

Once those sell, they could be the last on the shelves at Carnardo Wine and Cheese.

Bernardo fears the Trump administration's proposed 100 percent tariffs on certain European goods, including wine, cheese and olives, could put a squeeze on his business.

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"I’m sure it will affect sales," he said. "There’ll be wines that I’ve always sold in the 36 years of being in business that I won’t even want to buy because they will be double the price or there just won’t be any availability to them going forward."

Bernardo points specifically to the popular French champagne Veuve Clicquot, which currently sells for around $60 a bottle.

"I mean, how could I buy a wine today for $60 and then sell it tomorrow for $120," he said. "I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t sleep at night."

And so Bernardo is looking to other markets, including Argentina, South Africa and Australia, for potential new imports.

"There’ll just be less selection," he said. "In America, I’ve always been proud that we represent wines from around the world, where, in my travels, it’s not always that way, and, you know, the consumer will just be missing European wines until they can get this figured out."

Whether those tariffs will go into effect is still undecided, and many in the industry are pushing back against them. Wine companies are asking customers to send letters of opposition to the U.S. Trade Representative. Wine Enthusiast magazine put out a statement opposing the plan. And the National Restaurant Association is lobbying against it.

"Who could look at a 100 percent increase in their cost and say that’s fair? Nobody," said John Barker, president and CEO of the Ohio Restaurant Association.

Barker says the association has reached out to members for testimonials to forward to the national association, where they will be compiled and sent to the government.

"We’ve got to be very careful as a country what we impose tariffs on," Barker said. "I understand that there’s a struggle going on with some industries, and this one, we understand, started with the airline industry, where there seems to be some potentially unfair impact on our U.S. manufacturers, but, to take it out on another industry, and to kind of make the impact on the restaurant industry, doesn’t feel quite right to us."

Barker says the impact on Ohio's restaurant industry could be huge, impacting the wine that is served, along with many dishes that might be made with cheese or olive oil.

"People love their restaurants today," he said. "We don’t want to have to change the ingredients or, worse yet, raise the prices significantly, and so then those consumers can’t go out as often, so we’re going to push pretty hard on this."

On Friday, Chris Dillman, advanced sommelier at the Refectory Restaurant and Wine Shop, was taking inventory in the award-winning wine cellar. He said there will be some wines he just can't replace. And he said the restaurant already has seen the impact of the 25 percent tariffs imposed back in October.

"It’s not a plus for anyone – consumers, people in the industry, restaurateurs, wine retailers," said the Refectory's owner, Kamal Boulos. "It really puts things that I think would be very cost-effective to enjoy a bit out of reach."

The restaurant carries a large amount of European wines in its award-winning cellar. It is the only Ohio restaurant to win the Grand Award from Wine Spectator.

"You think you’re just hurting larger companies or you think you’re hurting a particular country, but you’re really hurting very small producers that feed into that big picture, and so it really hurts everyone involved," Boulos said.

So he is hopeful that the tariffs do not happen. He plans to send an email to his customers, encouraging them to offer their feedback in opposition to the proposal.

"It’s not like you’re casting any sort of torpedoes at any one person or any administration, it’s just simply saying, let’s think about this a little bit and maybe go about this in a more reasonable way and make sense out of this because this is not a plus for anybody," he said. "It’s not the best way to negotiate trade agreements."

Those wishing to leave a comment for the U.S. Trade Representative can do so here. Public comment closes Jan. 13. The tariffs could potentially go into effect the following day.