We sat down at the table. They poured wine. The stakes were high.
Let’s call this the Great Santa Barbara Wine Tasting.
You may recall the case of an underwater wine cabinet in which Ocean Fathoms clashed with the California Coastal Commission for storing wine on the ocean floor a mile outside Santa Barbara.
Plug it in, said commission officials who ordered Ocean Fathoms to pull hundreds of caged wine bottles out of the surf.
But the wine is great, says Ocean Fathoms, which disputes the commission’s conclusion that dipping in pino is strictly prohibited by the Coastal Waters Act.
“But you can drill for oil looking for oil,” said Todd Khan, one of the owners of Ocean Fathoms, noting the recent catastrophic oil spill that polluted the Orange County coastline.
According to Ocean Fathoms President Emanuele Azzaretto, if you spilled wine, people would flock to the beach with cups in hand.
Fair argument, but new oil drilling off the California coast has not been allowed for decades, and there are calls to mothball existing pumpings.
But regardless of how the regulatory procedures play out for Ocean Fathoms, I wanted to test the central statement. The owners insist that a bottle of wine stored on the ocean floor for a year or so tastes better than a bottle of the same wine traditionally kept in a cool, dark place on land.
Ocean Fathoms claims that it is all about the temperature of the seabed, darkness, pressure and smoothly fluctuating currents. And each bottle, they say, is a work of art, thanks to a mosaic of shells and other marine life attached to the glass.
As noted in my first column on this diagram, Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Defense Network was shocked to see sea creatures, including one or two octopuses, clinging to wine bottles in advertising photos.
And it wasn’t hard to find skeptics about the benefits of underwater storage, and they were reluctant to pay up to $ 350 for a bottle that usually retailed for around $ 70.
A viticulture professor at the University of California, Davis called it voodoo marketing aimed at wealthy people who want something to brag about in their collection.
A well-known online wine writer called it outright bullshit.
And yet, storing wine in ocean water occurs in several countries, due in part to claims that it was not a gimmick because the wine recovered from shipwrecks was liquid gold.
For a tasting session at Ocean Fathoms headquarters in downtown Santa Barbara, I brought together a stellar team of Central Coast wine titans: Katie Jacob of Fiddlehead Winery, Peter Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards, and Laura Boras of Riverbench Vineyard & Winery. I also contacted Matt Kettmann, who writes for the Santa Barbara Independent and covers California wines for Wine Enthusiast.
Ocean Fathoms invited sommelier Paolo Barbieri from Barbieri Wine Co.
The first wine to be tested was the 2016 Domaine de la Cote Memorius, a Pinot Noir by winemaker Rajat Parr, one of Ocean Fathoms’ four partners. Parr told me he was skeptical of the wonders of ocean storage, but became a convert after dipping into his own wine.
There were two glasses in front of each of us. Left – Memorius at the traditional age. On the right is the Memorius from the deep blue sea.
I liked the wine on the left, but I also liked the wine on the right, which has happened before. In my opinion, the wine aged in the ocean seemed a little smoother to me, but I didn’t want to talk about it and risk embarrassing myself in the presence of experts, so I was waiting for their opinion.
They smelled, twisted, tasted and muttered something about nose, fruit, tannins. The word “corner” was used more than once.
And what about the verdict?
Unanimously and in line with my amateur opinion.
“I think I like underwater wine a little more,” Kettman said.
According to Jacob, it was fuller, with a “wider flavor.”
“There is elegance in ocean wine,” Boras said, “but I don’t think the average consumer would notice too much of a difference.”
Stolpman and Barbieri were in the same boat.
“So maybe this isn’t just a marketing gimmick,” I said. “Oh, this is a little useless,” Jacob said, wondering if the traditionally aged wine is properly stored and handled.
Good point of view. Was the Great Santa Barbara Wine Tasting rigged?
“No chance,” said the owners.
Jacob, like the others, looked impressed, intrigued, and a little surprised at the results. She, Boras and Stolpman said they would be curious to see how their wines would live underwater.
I raised my hand and asked why we had been told in advance which wine was which. I thought we should have a blind tasting.
Okay, said the guys at Ocean Fathoms. In the second round, using the 2016 Ocean Fathoms Super Tuscan, which would have sold for about $ 50 (or several times the price if it had been bathed), two more glasses were placed in front of each of us, but we were not told which wine was lived with fish for a year.
Again, the result was unanimous. And when the wines were identified, the ocean-aged wine won again.
Okay, I said, but if traditionally stored wine was kept a little longer, would it end up being softer and softer, like a silkier ocean-aged wine?
Not necessarily, experts said, who suspected that sea wine evolved along a different molecular path. Both would be fine, they agreed, but they would be different.
Is this difference worth a few hundred dollars?
Probably for some high rollers. But Stolpman, who makes great $ 20 red wines, stressed that we have tasted wines that the vast majority of wine lovers will never buy. And it would probably be unwise for Ocean Fathoms or its clients to throw a $ 10 bottle of wine into the ocean for a year and then try to charge $ 100 for it.
So we’re talking about trying to use the ocean as a wine cooler for the benefit of a privileged few, with the owners claiming that it will have minimal environmental impact and that wine storage is a form of aquaculture that can be allowed. in accordance with the Coastal Areas Act.
A Coastal Commissioner told me that this is not even a close call because that does not mean Ocean Fathoms is asking permission to grow algae or shellfish. In their report, the staff said that “wine is not an aquatic plant or animal and therefore the proposed project does not fit the definition of aquaculture.” In addition, an employee told me that “our job is not to creatively seek loopholes that will further industrialize the ocean.”
If Ocean Fathoms were greenlit, how many more winemakers would want to install their own wine cabinets off the California coast? And is the ocean really needed, or enough lake, or perhaps a sealed container of salt water installed on one of these vibration training platforms?
Azzaretto is not ready to give up and is considering a new application for a permit. He says that we have world-class grapes next to a stunning ocean, and these are two beautiful natural treasures that should be combined. In a dream, people will flock from all over the world to taste bottles of wine stained with a salty crust.
But grapes can travel, and outside of California there are plenty of open seas and opportunities, especially now that a whole room of judges has spoken out about ocean aging.
If the team goes to distant waters, I will gladly close the swim with a bottle smashed on my nose.
Not a $ 350 bottle.