There are three toy models of shipping containers stacked on Michelle DeFeo’s desk. Each day, DeFeo gestures toward the containers and offers a prayer to the shipping gods.
“I call it my shipping shrine,” says DeFeo, the president of Champagne Laurent-Perrier U.S., adding that worrying about shipping and the supply chain has become “75 to 80% of my job, if not more, and it used to be a minor part of it. So I made the shrine, and I even got containers for the rest of our team. It gives us something to make us smile — because if we didn’t smile, the shipping problems would make us all cry.”
Ah yes, the shipping problems. Blame it on the pandemic. Blame it on a shortage of containers, the huge metal boxes filled with goods that are carried on ships and then off-loaded onto semi-trucks or flat rail cars. Blame it on changes in the way manufacturers run their businesses, which have cut inventories and left less margin for error if there are problems.
Regardless of blame, though, the world’s wine supply chain is a mess. And that means your favorite wines may be missing in action this holiday season.
A year ago, it would take two to three weeks for DeFeo’s Champagne to arrive in the U.S. Today, it takes six weeks — if she’s lucky. Weimax, a northern California wine retailer, meanwhile, has been trying to order certain wines for months, only to be told they still aren’t available — and the wines come from California producers. And one small Arizona importer, Circo Vino, has had her wine twice unloaded from ships headed to the U.S., to make way for someone else’s product.
It couldn’t have happened at a worse time for wine drinkers. The holidays are approaching, but there’s no guarantee what will be on store shelves, or how much. And there’s no logic as to which wines are affected. Maybe it’s the brand names shoppers are familiar with. Maybe it’s something they’ve been looking forward to trying.
Or maybe not. It will be up to the shipping gods.
“There will be bare spots, but not empty spots, and retailers will keep rotating products to occupy shelf space,” says Robert M. Tobiassen, the president of the National Association of Beverage Importers trade group. “That means they’ll use what they can find to cover up the bare spots, and not necessarily what you want to buy. So domestic sparkling wine instead of Champagne. Or a Cabernet Sauvignon you’ve never heard of instead of the one you wanted to buy. And there almost certainly won’t be any sales or promotional deals.”
In other words, there may be shortages of some products — Champagne, for example, which has been hard hit by shipping delays and is especially seasonal. But the shortages may not extend across the country, and some markets may have almost all of what they expected to have and some may have very little.
So it’s time to try something new. Because the shortages might last a while, and waiting until the last minute might bring some unpleasant surprises.
“It’s like whack-a-mole. When you fix one thing, then something else breaks. So if there are enough truck drivers at a port, the ships are backed up and can’t unload. Or if there are enough containers, there aren’t enough employees to load them onto the ships.”
Wine’s supply chain problems are not unique. The delays, holdups, and snafus have affected almost everything that is shipped, whether internationally or even within the U.S. The situation is so messed up that one freight company broke into a warehouse at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to steal its own goods.
The blame, as noted, can go almost anywhere, and some of it even pre-dates the pandemic, says Tobiassen. California’s wildfires have closed highways, delaying wine shipments to wholesalers and then to retailers. Truck drivers have been in short supply for a couple of years.
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” he says. “When you fix one thing, then something else breaks. So if there are enough truck drivers at a port, the ships are backed up and can’t unload. Or if there are enough containers, there aren’t enough employees to load them onto the ships.”
Wine has its own special needs, further complicating things. Wine requires reefers — refrigerated containers — so it won’t bake at dockside, and reefers are in even shorter supply than regular containers. Second, wine shipping is seasonal, so demand for containers and trucks peaks when new vintages are released. Widgets can be shipped anytime; wine can only be shipped when it’s ready. That increases demand for reefers and truck drivers when each is already in short supply. So more delays.
Wine shippers are scrambling. A spokesman for J.F. Hillebrand, the world’s most important international wine shipper, said no one was available to be interviewed for this story because everyone was too busy.
“It’s just a very logical mess caused by illogical circumstances,” says Sariya Jarasviroj Brown, whose family-owned Arizona importer Circo Vino brings in wine from central Europe. The time it takes to deliver wine from her New Jersey warehouse to a wholesaler has gone from one week to four, thanks to the trucker shortage.
“It’s the kind of thing that can make you brain-addled,” she says. “I’d just ask consumers to have compassion if they can’t find what they want in stores or restaurants. We’re working really hard to try to make them happy.”
None of which is news to retailers.
“Yes, we have been plagued by the pandemic,” says Gerald Weisl, who owns Weimax Wines near San Francisco. “We have noticed spotty inventory with a number of distribution companies, and I’m guessing that some items are simply not available.”
Will the problems be under control by Valentine’s Day next year? Or will it take even longer? The answer depends on who is talking. The consensus, says Tobiassen, is maybe next spring. Or maybe the beginning of 2023.
The answer for consumers is that if you see something you know you want to serve over the holiday season, grab it. If it runs out, there might not be any more. Or decide that now is a good time to try something new.
Or you can do as DeFeo is doing — buy some toy containers and pray to the shipping gods. Assuming the toy containers arrive on time.