By Paul Vigna
If there was ever a year for WineAmerica to pitch its value to an audience at the Wine and Beverage Expo (BevX) in Washington D.C., next week, it’s this one.
Coming off the announcement a few days before Christmas that federal excise taxes on wine, beer, and spirits were being reduced as part of President Donald Trump’s tax reform bill, WineAmerica president Jim Trezise has something substantive that he can build his hour-long workshop around. Scheduled for 4 to 5 p.m. Feb. 21, the program entitled “Washington D.C.: Politics, Policy and Your Bottom Line” will wrap up the first day of the third annual conference.
“This is going to be a good opportunity to let people know there is a big wide world out there,” Trezise said in a recent phone interview. He joined WineAmerica, a national organization of American wineries representing members from 42 states with grassroots public policy advocacy, in January 2017 after serving 31 years as president of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.
“It’s one we can have an influence on and that they, through us, can have an influence on.”
This tax reduction, per a WineAmerica press release, will save all wineries, regardless of size “significant money through an excise tax credit mechanism which reduces the effective rate.” In addition, it “increases the allowable alcohol level for table wine from 14% to 16%, reflecting the tangible impact of climate change on grape ripening in some states.”
Trezise compared this success to one WineAmerica accomplished in 1991, when it pushed a compromise after President George H.W. Bush increased the federal tax on table wines by getting legislators to agree to a plan to enact a special exemption for smaller wineries. “When you consider that 90 percent of the wineries in the United States are smaller wineries, that had a big impact nationwide,” he said. “That was a big deal.”
So was the one in December, accomplished after three years of lobbying and the aid of five other beverage associations. More than 300 representatives and 55 senators signed on as sponsors of what was officially called the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, a bill that drew its biggest support three senators: Roy Blunt (R-Missouri), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
It went into effect in January and will remain in effect for two years. That’s one of the points that Trezise, who will be joined in the session by WineAmerica VPs Tara Good and Michael Kaiser and super lobbyist Larry Meyers, will make – that one step forward requires continued work and a louder and more unified voice to keep from taking two steps back.
And there’s no better time than now to make that push, with the industry expanding nationally to all 50 states and totaling more than 9,000 producers, a vast majority of which receive Trezise’s weekly newsletter via email. Only 500 of them are WineAmerica members.
“I do think there is an awareness WineAmerica exists,” he said. “I’m not sure how many people understand yet what our role is or how important it is.” Certainly, he noted, those who own wineries operate in a labor-intensive and capital-intensive industry, where there’s staff to pay and equipment to purchase and other associated expenses. Still, there are state and national associations such as WineAmerica that need the same support. “It’s very easy for people to forget that the trade associations have their back,” he said.
Perhaps stealing a bit from the session’s script. Trezise noted that there are two climates that those in the wine industry need to consider: nature and business. Certainly, weather is a major factor every year and often holds the key to the quality of the vintage and the success of the year.
As for the importance of the business climate, Trezise said that’s often underestimated. “If you don’t have a good business climate you don’t have the basics for growing an industry,” he said. “If you create a good business climate you’re going to help grow an industry that’s going to create more jobs, more investment, more tourism, and more taxes and so forth, and that’s basically what WineAmerica does.”
He’s hopeful, with this session, that his organization can promote that awareness. “We’re trying to let them know we’re here, that we’re working for you, [and that] we need you to help us work for you.” he said. The presentation will go beyond the excise tax, touching on other issues affecting wineries such as the music licensing issue, in which WineAmerica is aiming to be part of bipartisan legislation that establishes a searchable, digital database of historical and current copyright ownership and licensing information. According to the association’s 2016 industry survey, 32 percent of U.S. wineries had either canceled or were considering canceling their live music programs to avoid any liability risks.
“We’re just trying to give the wineries a flavor of why Washington D.C. and what happens in Washington D.C. really affects their bottom line,” he said, taking the conversation full circle to the recent reduction in the excise tax. “Basically it was three years of lobbying by WineAmerica and others that got it passed. So we have to educate our colleagues in the wine business [about us]. This is why we are there, and really appreciate George Christie and the Wine Industry Network for giving us this opportunity. I’m hoping we can convey that message, that this doesn’t happen by chance and it could all go away if we don’t work together.”
For more information and conference registration, go to www.usbevexpo.com.