SANTA BARBARA— It started with a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea that left 168 bottles of French champagne at the bottom of the ocean for 170 years. The sunken trade schooner was discovered off the coast of Finland in 2010 and scattered amongst the wreckage 160-feet below the surface, were the bottles of bubbly. The tops were popped and experts who tasted the contents said the champagne preserved its taste even after decades thanks to near-perfect wine aging conditions found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea – a stable temperature of 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit, relatively low salinity, low levels of light, and high pressure.
The discovery inspired and gave rise to a unique and uncommon wine aging method that uses the seafloor as cellar. After the shipwreck was discovered, several wineries, including Veuve Clicquot, began small experiments with aging wine in the ocean to see how the wine compares to the same wines aged in cellars.
After trying and failing to get his hands on an ocean-aged wine, Emanuele Azzeretto, who grew up in Italy making wine with his family, decided to make his own, marking the beginning of Ocean Fathoms.
“I’ve been a diver since I was a little kid so I wanted to drink some. Tried to buy it, tried to look for it, nobody could get it, they couldn’t give it to me,” said Azzeretto. “…So that’s how it started, because no one wanted to sell it to me.”
Santa Barbara-based Ocean Fathoms is a producer of ocean-aged wine, producing several proprietary blends of their own as well as collaborating with wineries around the world to age other wines with their unique process. All the wines are lowered to the ocean floor just about a mile from Santa Barbara Harbor for 12 months before being brought up and enjoyed.
“Perfect temperature, no light, no oxygen down there, there’s no sound and in a normal cellar you have to have someone who walks around and turns the bottles or turns the barrels and it’s not consistent, well the ocean current is constantly, slowly moving the juice inside the bottles, so you take all those factors together and it’s the absolute perfect environment to age wine,” said Ocean Fathoms Co-Founder Todd Hahn.
Hahn said they are one of about eight producers doing this sort of thing worldwide. Ocean Fathoms is finalizing a permit with the Federal Drug Administration and once that is complete, they plan to start selling their wine directly to consumers through their website as well as in upscale seafood restaurants and resorts.
Azzeretto began experimenting with the concept in 2016, spending the first years perfecting the technique and technology, which included developing a patent for the cages that drop and hold the wine while they’re underwater.
Hahn joined the operation about a year later after one of the barnacle-covered bottles caught the eye of a mutual friend at a charity event who shared the find.
“The following weekend I drove up to Santa Barbara, met Emanuel and tasted the wine, saw the bottles and was just blown away,” said Hahn.
While Hahn and Azzeretto both had an affinity for drinking wine, neither were experts in the field and they wanted to bring on someone who could give the brand clout in the wine space and prove it wasn’t a gimmick.
Hahn was able to get a meeting with Jordane Andrieu, who owns Heritage Fine Wines in Beverly Hills and a biodynamic wine estate in Burgundy, France.
“It was very clear he thought our idea was a gimmick,” said Hahn.
But after tasting the wines, Hahn said Andrieu was on board.
“He ends up tasting after about an hour, he looks down, he looks back up, he’s like I didn’t want to like this, I did not want to like this, and his demeanor went a 180,” said Hahn. “…He gave us a lot of credibility in the wine space.”
Ocean Fathoms also brought on another well-respected figure in the wine space, sommelier and wine maker Rajat Parr.
“I let the experts do the judging or how many years, what’s better or not, for me, it definitely takes the wine on a different path,” said Azzeretto.
That path even differs year to year and can be seen on the outsides of the bottles where barnacle, coral and seashell growth vary based on the year.
“Every single time we pulled up the cages, that almost becomes a vintage, like this is an El Niño year, this is the year of the fires, and oh this next year it was really wet, so it’s pretty interesting whatever happens on the environment on the outside has a different effect on what those bottles look like,” said Hahn.
Hahn said giving back to the ocean is something they also wanted to do. He said they give 1 percent of everything they sell to Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute and give away bottles for charity events for organizations related to protecting the ocean.
“I get to dive, I get to drink good wines, I get to do what I love doing, so what better work than to do what you love doing,” said Azzeretto.