In 2010, a remarkable discovery took place on the bed of the Baltic Sea. Deep-sea divers stumbled upon a shipwreck, unveiling a treasure of 168 champagne bottles, aged for a staggering 170 years. Scientists marveled at the impeccable aging conditions these bottles experienced, nestled at the sea’s bottom.
Emanuele Azzaretto’s quest to taste the sea’s creation led him on a journey. Unable to locate one of those bottles, he devised a plan to mimic the ocean’s embrace. He submerged wine bottles into the Pacific’s depths for a year, then pulled them up for a sip. Alongside Todd Hahn, this experiment birthed a venture – the “underwater aging” of wines.
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However, their innovation crossed legal boundaries in California. Santa Barbara County prosecutors unveiled their transgressions. A plea agreement was reached with Azzaretto and Hahn, co-founders of Ocean Fathoms, for their “illegal underwater wine aging and sales operation.” Guilty pleas were entered for three misdemeanors: improper material discharge, unlicensed alcohol sales, and involvement in investor fraud.
Not only did Azzaretto and Hahn surrender 2,000 bottles of wine, but authorities also confiscated their entire collection, disposing of it at a wastewater treatment plant before recycling the bottles.
“Complete disregard for laws meant to safeguard our coastline” is how Santa Barbara County District Attorney John Savrnoch described their actions. The foundations of their business, nearly every aspect, violated state and federal laws.
Despite these legal hurdles, the allure of underwater aging persisted. In 2017, Azzaretto and Hahn submerged wine-filled cages into the ocean near Santa Barbara’s sensitive coast. These cages matured for a year, fostering a reef ecosystem upon the bottles. After this gestation, the wine was harvested and sold for as much as $500 a bottle.
What’s intriguing is how the underwater environment affected the wine. The metals of the submerged cages interacted with salt water, creating an “underwater battery” that infused the wine with a unique character. The chemistry of the ocean, a “beatifically symbiotic relationship,” as Ocean Fathoms described it, imparted a distinct flavor profile.
A blend of science and art, underwater aging evokes curiosity. Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist, acknowledged its benefits: stable conditions, diminished sunlight, and consistent temperatures. Yet, traditional cellars can offer the same advantages without the complexities of underwater storage.
Waterhouse’s insight into the chemistry of the wine unveiled a revelation. While chemistry influences the taste, the essence of terroir – the environment’s imprint on the wine – remains paramount. Underwater aging adds a novel dimension to terroir, capturing the sea’s essence in each bottle. Customers are drawn not just by taste but also by the narrative the wine carries.
The concept of underwater aging isn’t entirely new. Italian winemakers experimented with it as far back as 2009, seeking to innovate within the confines of limited storage space. Although it might not be the mainstream preference due to its associated costs, the allure of this unconventional method continues to captivate winemakers and enthusiasts alike.
As the tale of submerged wines unfolds, it remains a testament to human creativity and the intersection of science and nature. Whether it’s the thrill of defying convention or the allure of the sea’s embrace, underwater aging etches a unique story into each bottle, reminding us that the world of wine holds depths yet to be explored.