Wine cellar in the sea
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About a mile off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, an unusual search is underway – a search for a wine treasure.
“We have to go find it,” said Emanuele Azzaretto. “So, you always have a little knot until you find [it] and we know we can bring it back home.”
Azzaretto is both an experienced diver and, as a native of Italy, also an experienced wine drinker. “I married all the things I like and tried to turn it into a job!” he said.
Azzaretto then disappeared into the water, and about 20 minutes later, a massive metal cage broke the surface. Inside the cage: a bounty of nearly 1,500 bottles of red wine.
This find was not dumb luck; Azzaretto knew what he was looking for, because he sank it in the ocean a year ago. He is the co-founder of Ocean Fathoms, a company experimenting with using the ocean floor as a wine cellar.
The bottles come out dripping with sea water, and shellacked with sea shells. “Each bottle, I mean, it’s an art piece,” he said.
“It does look like something you’d find on a pirate ship,” said correspondent Ben Tracy.
After just one year in the murky depths, the bottles have bonded with the ocean bottom, attracting plenty of curious (and perhaps thirsty) sea creatures. But Ocean Fathoms is more interested in the ocean’s influence on the inside of the bottle. It calls this section of the Santa Barbara Channel “nature’s perfect cellar,” because there is little oxygen and light; the temperature remains a constant 54 degrees; and ocean currents gently rock the bottles.
Tracy asked, “So, the motion of the ocean really is just kind of cradling these things?”
“Absolutely,” Azzaretto said. “And then, we are in the Santa Barbara Channel, there’s all the whales here. So, imagine what the bottles hear from here: the whales are singing to them!”
“So, they get cradled by the ocean and lullabies from the whales? That’s a good life as a bottle of wine,’ Tracy said.
“Yeah, it is. For us, too, when we drink it!”
“Better than you’re gonna get in somebody’s closet.”
Azzaretto was inspired by stories he read a few years ago about a treasure trove of champagne from a shipwreck found on the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The 168 bottles, including some very vintage Veuve Clicquot, were still highly drinkable after 170 years underwater.
The famed champagne house has since created its own “cellar in the sea” program, storing various bottles of bubbles 130 feet down in a Baltic Sea wine vault.
Rajat Parr was a sommelier for 18 years, and now makes his own wine near California’s Central Coast, where the cool ocean breeze provides ideal conditions for making world class wine – the perfect temperature to grow grapes.
But when Ocean Fathoms approached Parr about dropping some of his best vintages into the Pacific, he was, “intrigued and super-curious,” but not convinced.
Tracy asked, “At first you thought this might be kind of a gimmick?”
“Oh, 100%,” Parr replied. “In the beginning I was like, could be interesting, but I just don’t know. I wasn’t sure.”
He ultimately decided to sacrifice a few bottles, to see what happens. The result? “Mind was blown!” he said. “I realized it was definitely not a gimmick!”
Tracy asked, “What does the ocean do to the wine?”
“The wine evolves in texture,” Parr said. “Wine tannin becomes softer tannins. Wines which are kind of rustic become more round, but the nose is identical. It does not age in aromas. It only ages in texture.”
Tracy asked, “And how long would it typically take you to get that kind of texture in a cellar?”
“I don’t know – five-plus years?”
The bottles sell for a premium, starting around $350. But not everyone is a true believer. The California Coastal Commission is reviewing Ocean Fathoms’ permit application and has expressed concerns about the wine cages’ impact on marine life and fishing grounds.
Meanwhile, Azzaretto popped open a bottle from his sea cellar, from which Tracy got to sample: “Nice! Yeah, it’s silky. Well, you found your treasure.”
“I did, finally,” Azzaretto said. “And now, we get to enjoy it!”
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Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Ben McCormick.