India Blocks U.S. Booze Tariffs Complaint

Bottle of Napa Ridge 2003 Merlot wine, February 2005 Napa Valley wine
India blocked a World Trade Organization investigation of its import duties on American wine and spirits Monday, temporarily delaying a U.S. government complaint over allegations that Indian rules discriminate against products such as Napa Valley wine and Jack Daniel's whiskey.

The Geneva-based trade referee is already reviewing a European legal challenge of wine and liquor restrictions in a number of Indian states. A second investigative panel examining Washington's arguments will almost certainly be established at a meeting later this month of the WTO's dispute settlement body.

"The layers of customs duties India applies to U.S. products, in particular to wine and distilled spirits, are not in line with its WTO commitments," U.S. trade representative Susan Schwab said last month in announcing plans to seek litigation. "We must ensure a level playing field for U.S. products around the world."

India's basic import duties on wine are 100 percent, while the tariff on spirits is 150 percent, both within WTO limits. However, various government surcharges take the tariffs up to levels reaching as high as 550 percent, depending on the Indian state.

The state of Tamil Nadu goes further still, shutting out foreign alcohol and allowing shops to sell only Indian-made spirits and wines.

The United States, the European Union and Japan, by contrast, allow nearly all spirits to enter their markets duty-free. China tacks on only a 10 percent charge on foreign liquor.

India criticized Washington's decision Monday to bring the case to the WTO as "very unfortunate and disappointing." India said it is considering changing its rules to resolve the dispute, a claim it also made in criticizing Brussels' move to bring the case to the WTO.

Under WTO rules, a second request for a formal investigation is automatically approved. A case can result in punitive sanctions being authorized, but panels take many months, and sometimes years, to reach a decision.

India is one of the largest markets for alcohol in the world and has huge potential for growth.

The U.S. said wine sales in India through special duty-free rules, such as at airports and luxury hotels, grew by 350 percent between 2000 and 2005. The growth was 200 percent for American liquors.

But high import duties imposed on the vast majority of American wines and spirits means total exports remain low, the U.S. says. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States estimates that all foreign liquors together account for less than 1 percent of the Indian market.

The 27-nation EU, in making its complaint, said India bought $31.3 million worth of European spirits in 2004 — from French cognac to Finnish vodka — and $5.4 million worth of Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja and other European wines.

That compares with global European spirits exports amounting to $6.7 billion and wine exports of $6.1 billion each year.

It is unclear if the U.S. and the EU will seek to become co-complainants by combining their separate WTO cases.