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Winemaker's 'Perfect' Site to Age Wine Wasn't So Perfect

Feds destroy 2K bottles of Ocean Fathoms' illegally made wine, though founders vow they'll be back
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 17, 2023 10:10 AM CDT
Feds Destroy 2K Bottles of Illegal, Ocean-Aged Wine
Bottles of wine aged in the ocean.   (Ocean Fathoms)

Ocean Fathoms claims the ocean floor about a mile off Santa Barbara is the "perfect" place to age wine. And perhaps it would be, if the winemaker had any authority to ferment its wines in the Santa Barbara Channel for a year. In 2021, the California Coastal Commission ordered the company to pull up its wine bottles from the ocean floor, where they'd been fermenting illegally. Now, some 2,000 bottles decorated with marine creatures and priced at up to $500 each have been destroyed as part of a plea agreement between prosecutors and Ocean Fathoms co-founders Emanuele Azzaretto and Todd Hahn. As Food & Wine reports, the problem wasn't just that the company was putting wine in the ocean without the approval of the commission or the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Ocean Fathoms was selling wine without a business license, without an alcohol sales permit from Alcoholic Beverage Control, and without federally approved labeling. It was also collecting sales tax without remitting it to the state and claimed to donate a portion of profits to charity, though there was no evidence of that occurring, USA Today reports. These were "individuals who operated with complete disregard for our consumer and environmental laws," Santa Barbara County District Attorney John T. Savrnoch said in a statement last week, announcing the disposal of the wine at a wastewater treatment plant. He added the FDA considered the booze "adulterated, and not fit for human consumption."

That's no longer the case. Ocean Fathoms received FDA approval of its underwater aging process in July 2022, per the Santa Barbara Independent, though that was only revealed with the resolution of the legal case last month. Hahn and Azzaretto pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of illegally discharging material into US waters, selling alcohol without a license, and aiding and abetting investor fraud, allowing them to avoid multiple felony charges. Azzaretto would've been deported back to Italy with a felony conviction, as the Independent points out. Now on probation and forced to repay $50,000 to an investor, he and Hahn hope to resume their operation with the proper permits. They are also "pursuing patents for their closure and sealant technologies," per the Independent.

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If you're intrigued by the idea of ocean-aged wine, know that Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez joined experts for a taste test back in 2021, explaining that "ocean-water wine storage is happening in several countries, inspired in part by claims that it's no gimmick, because wine recovered from shipwrecks was liquid gold." Given a traditionally aged wine and the same wine aged in the ocean, the experts agreed the ocean-aged wine was best. However, one stressed that "a regular consumer" was unlikely to "notice an excessively huge difference." (More wine stories.)

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