A version of this article ran in the Protea Financial Blog in March 2020.
R&D is often associated with technology and life science companies from Silicon Valley and San Francisco, but head less than 100 miles north into wine country, or any other appellation across the United States, and you’ll find the same trend toward innovation being applied to the ancient practices of grape growing and winemaking.
However, many in the wine industry fail to utilize R&D tax incentives offered by federal and state governments. For wineries and grape growers, the potential tax savings could be significant. This article outlines key information to help wineries and grape growers benefit from this savings opportunity.
But first, what is the R&D tax credit?
The R&D tax credit is available to companies developing new or improved products or processes, including software, that result in increased performance, functionality, efficiency, reliability, or quality.
It’s a dollar-for-dollar tax savings that directly reduces a company’s tax liability. There’s no limitation on the amount of expenses and credit that can be claimed each year. If the R&D credit can’t be used immediately or completely, any unused credit can be carried forward for up to 20 years (or indefinitely for California tax returns). In addition, previously filed tax returns can typically be amended for up to three years to claim the R&D credit retrospectively, providing an avenue to recoup previously paid taxes.
New or small business may be eligible to apply the R&D tax credit against their payroll tax for up to five years starting in 2016. The R&D credit is available both at the federal and state level, with many offering an R&D credit to offset state tax liability.
To help break down this complex topic, here’s a list of common questions vineyards and wineries have about the R&D credit.
1. How much can a company save with R&D tax credits?
Companies can receive a credit refund of up to 11% of their qualified expenses, depending on a number of factors. Generally, the more a company spends on qualified R&D, the higher the credit they’ll receive, with taxpayers receiving a larger credit if they increase R&D spending year over year.
2. What is qualified R&D?
Qualified R&D ultimately depends on whether the activity meets each element of the four-part test established in the tax code. These criteria include:
- Elimination of uncertainty. The activity is undertaken to discover information intended to eliminate uncertainty about the capability, method, or design of a new or improved product or process.
- Process of experimentation. The activity involves one or more alternatives intended to eliminate that uncertainty, and the conduct of a process of evaluating the alternatives (through modeling, simulation, or a systematic trial and error methodology).
- Technological in nature. The process of experimentation must rely on hard sciences, such as engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, or computer science.
- Qualified purpose. The activity relates to a new or improved function, performance, reliability, or quality of a product or process.
3. What vineyard and winery activities qualify for the R&D credit?
Vineyards and wineries often aren’t aware that many of the activities they perform—potentially at each stage of the winemaking and grape growing process—could meet this qualification.
Following are some specific examples of R&D activities that have qualified for the credit.
Testing or Evaluation
- Geological plot characteristics, including soil, water, and climate conditions
- Rootstocks, varietals, and clones for optimal cultivation in vineyard
- Fermentation methods to improve wine quality, flavor profiles, or economic efficiencies
- Filtration methods to improve wine quality
New and Improved
- Formulations for vine and soil nutrient management
- Pruning and training techniques for optimal production
- Techniques or formulations for pest and disease management
- Methods to treat harvested grapes prior to sorting and destemming
Design or Development
- Irrigation systems and water management techniques
- Trellising systems for desired canopy
- Systems, structures, or techniques to improve harvesting processes
- Automated sorting and crushing processes or equipment
- Methods or systems to manage wastewater
- Fermentation methods, processes, or techniques
- Clarification methods or techniques, including improvements to fining and filtration processes
- Product formulations for desired flavor or aroma profiles
- Subterranean wine cave improvements
- Bottling and packaging processes
4. What types of expenses can be included?
If a company determines the work it’s conducting likely qualifies, identifying related expenses is the next consideration.
Most expenses fall into three categories: wages, supplies, and contractor expenses.
Qualifying employee wages can include Form W-2, Box 1 or pass-through income subject to self-employment tax. This would include individuals performing qualified research, as well as those that directly support or supervise the research. The rules specify that if an employee is 80% qualified, 100% of their wage can be included to calculate the credit.
Qualifying equipment and materials related to the research process can include the following:
- Some large-scale prototypes and pilot models
- Tangible property (other than land or depreciable property) that’s used in qualified research, including grapes, fining agents, corks, bottles, barrels, barrel staves, testing supplies, and batches of wine used in experimental blends
Payments to contractors can be eligible, contingent on rules, including:
- Expenses paid would be eligible if the same services were performed in-house
- Contractors must be performing an activity that would have qualified if performed by employees
- Taxpayer must be at risk in the sense that their payment isn’t contingent on the contractors’ results
- Taxpayer must retain substantial rights—shared rights or greater—in the results
5. What’s the next step to apply for the R&D credit?
Each company’s goals, values, and resources are unique, which makes it important to develop a customized project plan to identify, calculate, and support your company’s R&D credits and activities.
If you think your company may qualify for the R&D credit, the first step is to collect preliminary information about your company’s potential qualified activities. That information is used to develop an estimate of the credit benefit your company could receive as well as identify other R&D-related tax planning opportunities so you can make an informed decision about whether an R&D credit analysis is worthwhile for your company.
With recent increased IRS scrutiny around R&D credits, it’s also crucial to understand what’s necessary to substantiate a credit claim. To learn more about R&D tax credits, see Five Misconceptions about R&D Tax Credits—and if You Qualify , or request a credit benefit estimate to see how much your company could save.