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Shipwreck Off U.K. Coast Hurts South African Wineries

Stranding of the MSC Napoli will delay delivery of oak barrels and winemaking equipment--though much of it may be gone for good

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: January 24, 2007

The wreck of a cargo ship off England's coast this past weekend has turned into a headache for some South African vintners, as scavengers may have made off with winery supplies that washed ashore.

The MSC Napoli was deliberately run aground along the coastline of Devon after it suffered storm damage. Members of the crew evacuated safely, but soon after, several containers--some containing oak barrels and winemaking equipment destined for South Africa--fell overboard and washed up on a nearby beach. Members of the public then helped themselves to a wide array of goods, from new BMW motorcycles to diapers to bags of dog food and anything else they could carry away.

"This affects a lot of people in the South African wine industry," said Eben Sadie, owner and winemaker at Sadie Family Wines in Swartland. Sadie had a new basket press, worth $18,000, on board the Napoli. The fate of that piece of equipment is unknown. He also had barrels on the ship, specially ordered for his small-production Columella Swartland bottlings.

A container filled with 150 to 160 oak barrels, worth $850 each, from French cooper Tonnellerie Boutes made it ashore and was looted, according to the company's U.S. sales manager, Manny Martinez. Oak barrels are a popular fixture in English gardens. "I imagine they'll be getting some nice containers for their plantings," Martinez said of the barrels' new owners.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has since closed the beach to the public. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1995 allows for people to store washed-up bounty at their homes, but they must report it to authorities so that the goods can be returned to the rightful owners if a request is made. Unreported goods will be classified as stolen.

Sophia Exelby, the MCA receiver of wrecks, who is on site in Devon, said that she hadn't heard of a wine press being looted and said only a "small fraction" of the ship's 2,400 containers had broken free. However, she said "a lot of barrels" are confirmed missing. Exelby said the MCA is going through the ship's manifest and will begin to recover goods soon. Accounting for everything, she said, is likely to take "a few days to a couple of weeks."

But for Sadie and his fellow producers, that may be too late. While he borrowed a press to replace his "beautiful ornament at the bottom of the sea," he said that many small producers may not be able to produce their early Chardonnays in the new barrels that were en route to South Africa. He added that he normally uses new barrels, made from trees he personally selects from French forests, for each vintage of his Columella red blend, and those barrels are not immediately replaceable.

Damage to the environment is a greater concern than the wineries' losses, Sadie noted, as the Napoli is leaking oil. And the MCA, which estimates a clean-up period of one year, said the damage the salvagers have done to the beach and surrounding areas is "800 percent more significant than the damage caused by the incident itself."

MCA spokeswoman Sophie Turner said that CCTV footage of the beach is being reviewed, and she urged people to report any suspicious goods. "If someone calls and says his neighbor suddenly has a few crates of wine," which appear to have come from the Napoli, she said, "we will have a warrant served and they can be prosecuted."

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