West Coast
Ocean Fathoms

CA - Chardonnay-Under-the-Sea Goes a Bit Too Far Even in Wine Country

This is a story about a shipwreck, an ocean, bottles of century-old champagne, a registered U.S. Patent, Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe, and California’s storied wine history.

It begins with a diver, a surfer, a winemaker, and a Frenchman who sunk wine storage cages off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, in attempt to create the world’s first members-only underwater wine cellar and club. Only they did it without state permits, near the site of an enormous offshore oil spill five decades ago. That raised the ire of the California Coastal Commission, which accused the venture of deliberately violating the law and ordered the cages removed.

Then, after winning more time to comply by citing the pandemic, the venture threw a pricey bottle retrieval party and recorded it for social media.

“I think it takes a certain amount of hubris to just do what you want, however you want, wherever you want,” said Jennifer Savage, California policy manager for Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit environmental group. “There’s reasons why people can’t just go out and dump anything they want on the ocean floor.”

The commission is set to vote next month on a request to approve the cages after-the-fact and allow more of the contraptions to be sunk. Its staff has recommended the commission deny the application, saying it doesn’t meet key use criteria to be approved under the Coastal Act, a landmark state law passed in 1976 to protect coastal resources, foster public access, and balance conservation with development.

Ocean Fathoms Co-Founder Emanuele Azzaretto—the diver—said his plan promotes wine, the blue economy, doesn’t harm the environment, and matures wine faster than typical storage.

“Santa Barbara is ocean and wine,” said Azzaretto, who spent years in East Africa developing marine and game parks. “Well, we just married the two things and we’re doing it in a really clean way.”

Sunken Champagne

In 2010 explorers found a shipwreck at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Divers managed to salvage 168 bottles of champagne that dated back to 1840-1841. The bubbly tasted good, setting off a fledgling industry.

Spain and Italy now have a handful of underwater storage facilities. An underwater vineyard in Croatia boasts wine stored in clay jugs, though attempts to replicate those efforts in the Chesapeake Bay and off the coast of North Carolina have been unsuccessful. An Underwater Wine Congress convened in 2019, and another session is set for Bilboa, Spain, in 2022. The Congress didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In 2015, Azzaretto said, he came up with a special cage with recycled metals that acts like a battery, charging the structure using waves, and stirring the wine all while the bottles are kept in dark, cool conditions needed for storage and preservation. He began experimenting in 2016, first with 12 bottles, then 50. One cage was dropped in 2019 and two in 2020, the state says. He won patent approval in 2020.

To Azzaretto, his venture is like crab fishing—"You drop a cage, you pull it back up"— and aquaculture’s fish breeding—"I’ve got young wine. I make it into older wine.”

Attempts to pull permits for the deployment got lost in a maze of jurisdictions and Covid-19 delays, Azzaretto said. “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. I went to every office in the harbor. I told everybody what I was doing.”

Ocean Fathoms says on its website that the venture is a “permitted wine cellar,” which the commission staff says isn’t true. Last week, Azzaretto called the website language a bit ambiguous. “I think we should correct that,” he said.

Ocean Fathoms applied for permits only after it had dropped the cages, and the commission learned about the cages from the Army Corps of Engineers, said Kate Huckelbridge, deputy director of the coastal commission.

“Wine storage does not fit any of those seven defined uses” in the Coastal Act, Huckelbridge said.

“It takes up habitat and space when there are existing creatures there,” she said. “It crushes whatever is underneath it.”

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