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Wine Club Newsletter - September 2023

Updated: May 11

Two Winemakers Aged Their Wine in the Sea

But ‘underwater aging’ business was a crime, California authorities said

Deep-sea divers happened upon a shipwreck on the Baltic Sea floor in 2010 and, from the wreckage, recovered 168 bottles of 170-year-old champagne. According to scientists, they had “aged in close-to-perfect conditions at the bottom of the sea.”


Emanuele Azzaretto spent years hunting for one of those bottles to taste what the sea had created, Santa Barbara Magazine reported in 2020. When he failed, Azzaretto decided to replicate those conditions as best he could by plunging bottles of wine into the Pacific Ocean, letting them sit there for a year and pulling them back up to drink.


That led him and Todd Hahn to create a business out of the “underwater aging” of wines.

But their business was a crime, according to California authorities.


Prosecutors in Santa Barbara County this month announced they had reached a plea agreement with Azzaretto and Hahn, co-founders of Ocean Fathoms, regarding their “illegal underwater wine aging and sales operation.” As part of the agreement, the pair pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors: illegally discharging material into U.S. waters, selling alcohol without a license, and aiding and abetting investor fraud.


Azzaretto and Hahn also forfeited some 2,000 bottles of wine and other alcohol. Authorities disposed of the booze at a wastewater treatment plant before recycling the bottles.

“The defendants operated with complete disregard for laws designed to protect our coastline from harm,” said Santa Barbara County District Attorney John Savrnoch. “In fact, nearly every aspect of their business was conducted in violation of state or federal law.”

Ocean Fathoms, Azzaretto and Hahn did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.


As early as 2017, Azzaretto and Hahn started depositing metal cages of wine on the ocean floor about a mile off the “environmentally sensitive” Santa Barbara coast, prosecutors said in a news release. They left them on the seafloor for a year, long enough for the reef’s ecosystem to grow on the bottles, prosecutors said. After a year, they allegedly pulled up the crates and sold the wine for as much as $500 a bottle. According to Santa Barbara Magazine article, they put the bottles at depths of more than 70 feet to keep the corks in place and maintain pressurization.


Azzaretto and Hahn did so without obtaining the required permits from the California Coastal Commission or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, prosecutors said.


When combined with salt water, the metals Azzaretto and Hahn used to build the cages created an “underwater battery” that discharged electricity through the water and the bottles of wine, according to the Ocean Fathoms website. They claimed that the ionization broke down tannins, a sediment of mostly grape skins, creating a smoother wine much faster than if the bottles had been aged in a cellar. On its website, Ocean Fathoms describes the process as “a beatifically symbiotic relationship with the ocean.”


In 2021, the state coastal commission found out about Ocean Fathoms’s underwater aging project and sent Azzaretto a letter ordering him to remove all of his wine from the ocean. 

The commission eventually forwarded the case to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, which charged Azzaretto and Hahn in December 2022.


Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist and professor emeritus in the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis, does not see a need for underwater aging. 


He said while there are benefits to the technique — calm conditions, limited sunlight and consistent, low temperatures — winemakers can get those things with traditional wine cellars without incurring the cost of packing, transporting and depositing thousands of wine bottles on the ocean floor and then doing it all in reverse a year or so later.


In the end, the chemistry of the resultant wine is “not very different or not at all different,” Waterhouse said. But chemical composition isn’t everything, he added. In theory, someone could create a wine that’s chemically identical to one from a famous high-end vineyard, but it still wouldn’t have the same terroir — the entire natural environment that goes into making a wine, including soil, climate and topography.

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Rombauer Sells to E & J Gallo

When we first opened The WineSellar & Brasserie, we were visited by Koerner Rombauer and his son. They would fly down in Koerner’s private aircraft and camp at the wine bar for a long lunch. We did Rombauer Winemaker Dinners back in 1990-1991. Also, we were invited to stary in their guest house at the winery, and BBQ’d with them a few times.Lovely people, and happy for the family . . . GP


Rombauer Vineyards, one of the most recognizable producers in Napa Valley, has been sold to the massive wine company E. & J. Gallo Winery, the company behind brands including Barefoot Wine, Andre, and Dark Horse. The North Bay Business Journal reported news of the sale on Wednesday, noting that the purchase price was undisclosed.


Rombauer has been a family-owned winery since its founding in 1980 and operates a cozy tasting room perched above the Silverado Trail, as well as a second, newer tasting room in the Sierra Foothills. Both were included in the sale along with the Rombauer brand, “three winery and production facilities ... and more than 700 acres of vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Amador counties,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports.


Rombauer is best known for its heavily oaked and buttery chardonnay, a style that the winery is widely credited with popularizing and has since become synonymous with “California chardonnay” — for better or worse. Founder Koerner Rombauer, who was the great-nephew of Joy of Cooking author Irma Rombauer, died in 2018, after which his son, K.R. Rombauer, took over running the family business. K.R. tells the Chronicle the family decided “the best path forward for the winery was to transition it to another family-owned business with greater resources.”

...

Cheers!

Gary Parker, Owner

The WineSellar & Brasserie


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