Shipping: the trials of getting our wine on the high seas

One of the unexpected joys of starting our own business is how much closer we feel to the ‘real world’. In the year we’ve just had, it hasn’t always been easy but it has been interesting.

We’ve waded through government press releases to understand whether we are eligible for any grants (we weren’t…), visited stockists to see how our wines have been selling, and interacted directly with customers through tastings or appearances at markets.

The ‘real world’ has also thrown up some hidden gems and unexplored industries. Shipping is one of them.

It is a fascinating industry without which the modern world would be wholly unable to function. This is fairly obvious but the true extent of this is surprising. 90% of the world’s commodities are carried by the international shipping industry.

Recently, this reliance was thrown into the spotlight rather comically as the Ever Given lay stranded on the banks of the Suez Canal, with a small digger doing its best to free the behemoth. The Suez blockage made it obvious how finely tuned the global shipping industry is, but also how incredibly vulnerable it is. This is a phenomenon that we have been all too aware of since starting The Copper Crew a year ago.

One of the operational decisions we made right at the beginning of the business was to can all of our wine in South Africa. Cans mean that the shipping process from a packing perspective is relatively straightforward: we can get twice the volume in the same space as bottles and never need to worry about breakages. Plus, Cape Town to London is a well-sailed shipping route. What we didn’t consider was the disruption that would be wrecked on the global shipping industry as a result of Covid and the impact on our lead-times.

This kicked off with a bang in March 2020. All alcohol exports were banned from South Africa for the duration of the first lockdown. This was part of a wider ban on all alcohol sales designed to limit harmful behaviours that increase the workload on an already strained healthcare service. The disruption in shipping exports leaving South Africa was immediate and took several months to return to normal. However, the return to usual operations was further delayed by an outbreak of COVID amongst dockworkers and bad weather around the Cape.

On a more global scale, the relaxation of lockdown measures relatively early in China meant that shipping lines were able to return to somewhat normal service quickly – most ships were parked up with crew onboard and ready to be loaded from China. However, it was the ports and warehouses in the rest of the world that were faced with new Covid restrictions and staff shortages that slowed down operations. As China and shipping lines were sending containers to the rest of the world faster than they could be handled, shipping liners decided not to wait to load any empty containers to take back to Asia. For every 100 containers shipped to North America, as many as 60 were staying there. This resulted in a slow-burning container supply imbalance which came to a head at the beginning of this year – bidding wars for containers in China led shipping rates to quadruple in January.

The behaviours that lockdown induced, such as an increase in online shopping, also ensured that demand for shipping was at an all-time high and the system had no chance to stabilise. That is not a reason to buy less online – in fact, I hear canned wine is particularly good when bought directly from the producer. But, combined with the Suez disruption a couple of months ago, it is the reason why logistics experts expect disruption to continue for the remainder of the year.

This may sound like a negative or whiney post, and to some degree, it is (we did run out of Rosé partly as a result of shipping delays…), but it is also a recognition of interesting industries that Oli and I would have been unlikely to come into contact had we not started The Copper Crew. (As an aside, we have also developed a fascination with industrial estates as the backbone of the country’s economy, and the little variations and quirks that exist between them).

Shipping: the trials of getting our wine on the high seas