Column: They aged the wine in the ocean. We did a taste test

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We sit around a table. The wine has been poured. The stakes were high.

Let’s call it the Great Santa Barbara Wine Tasting.

You may remember the case of the underwater wine rack, in which a company called Ocean Fathoms clashed with the California Coastal Commission for storing wine on the ocean floor a mile from Santa Barbara.

Put a cork on it, said commission staff, who ordered Ocean Fathoms to pull hundreds of caged wine bottles out of the waves.

But the wine is sublime, argued Ocean Fathoms, which disputes the commission’s finding that a pinot dip is strictly prohibited under the Coastal Act.

“But you can drill for oil,” said Todd Hahn, one of the owners of Ocean Fathoms, noting the recent catastrophic oil spill that plagued the Orange County coast.

If you had a wine spill, said Ocean Fathoms president Emanuele Azzaretto, people would flock to the beach, cups in hand.

A fair point, but no new oil drilling off the California coast has been authorized in decades, and there are calls to put existing pumping operations on the back burner.

But no matter how the regulatory proceedings go for Ocean Fathoms, I wanted to test the central claim. The owners insist that a bottle of wine kept on the ocean floor for about a year tastes better than a bottle of the same wine traditionally kept in a cool, dark place on land.

Peter Stolpman, left, Erin Kempe and Paolo Barbieri sample ocean-aged wine at Ocean Fathoms headquarters in downtown Santa Barbara.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

How? ‘Or’ What?

Ocean Fathoms claims it’s all about the temperature of the seabed, the darkness, the pressure, and the gently swaying currents. And each bottle, they say, is a work of art, thanks to the mosaic of barnacles and other marine animals attached to the glass.

As noted in my first column on this program, Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network was appalled that sea creatures, including an octopus or two, were clinging to bottles of wine in marketing photos.

And skeptics of the benefits of underwater storage weren’t hard to find, nor were they inclined to pay up to $ 350 for a bottle that would normally sell for around $ 70.

A UC Davis viticulture professor called it voodoo marketing aimed at the wealthy who want to brag about something in their collection.

Boat boats and other forms of marine life cling to bottles of Ocean Fathoms wine that have been aged in the sea off Santa Barbara.

Barnacles and other forms of marine life cling to bottles of Ocean Fathoms wine that have been aged in the sea off Santa Barbara.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A highly regarded online wine writer called it BS Flat.

And yet the storage of wine in seawater occurs in several countries, inspired in part by claims that it is not a gimmick, because the wine recovered from shipwrecks was liquid gold.

For the tasting at Ocean Fathoms headquarters in downtown Santa Barbara, I assembled a team of Central Coast wine stars: Kathy Jacob from Fiddlehead Winery, Peter Stolpman from Stolpman Vineyards and Laura Booras from Riverbench Vineyard & Winery. I also brought in Matt Kettmann, who writes for the Santa Barbara Independent and covers California wine for Wine Enthusiast.

Ocean Fathoms invited sommelier Paolo Barbieri from Barbieri Wine Co.

The first wine to be tested was a Domaine de la Côte Memorius 2016, a Pinot Noir from winemaker Rajat Parr, one of the four partners of Ocean Fathoms. Parr had told me he was skeptical of the wonders of ocean storage, but converted after dipping his own wine.

Two glasses were placed in front of each of us. On the left, a traditionally aged Memorius. On the right, Memorius of the deep blue sea.

Bottom up.

I liked the wine on my left, but I also liked the wine on my right, which has happened to me before. For me, wine aged in the ocean tasted a bit sweeter, but I didn’t want to express myself and risk embarrassing myself in the presence of experts, so I waited for their judgment.

They sniffed, whirled, tasted and whispered things about the nose, the fruit, the tannins. The word “angular” has been used more than once.

A photo of co-owner Emanuele Azzaretto, left, in his deep wetsuit hangs in the Ocean Fathoms wine tasting room.

A photo of co-owner Emanuele Azzaretto, left, in his deep wetsuit hangs in the Ocean Fathoms wine tasting room.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

And the verdict?

Unanimous, and in accordance with my amateur judgment.

“I think I like wine underwater a little better,” Kettman said.

It tasted fuller, with a “wider palate,” Jacob said.

“There is an elegance” in wine from the ocean, said Booras, “but I don’t think a regular consumer would notice an excessively huge difference.”

Stolpman and Barbieri were in the same boat.

So maybe it’s not just a marketing thing, I said. Oh, that’s a little whimsical, said Jacob, who wondered if traditionally aged wine had been properly stored and handled.

Good point. Had the Santa Barbara Great Wine Tasting been rigged?

The wine emerges after 12 months under the sea by Ocean Fathoms.

The wine emerges after 12 months under the sea by Ocean Fathoms.

(Fab Fernández)

Not a chance, our hosts said.

Jacob, like the others, seemed impressed, intrigued, and a little surprised by the results. She, Booras and Stolpman all said they’d be curious to see how their own wines performed underwater.

I raised my hand and asked why we had been told in advance which wine was which. I thought we were supposed to do a blind tasting.

OK, said the guys from Ocean Fathoms. For the second round, using a 2016 Ocean Fathoms Super Tuscan that would sell for around $ 50 (or several times more if soaked), two more glasses were placed in front of each of us, but we weren’t told which wine had spent a year living with fish.

Once again, the result was unanimous. And when the wines were identified, it was oceanic wine that won again.

Okay, I said, but if traditionally stored wine had been stored a little longer, would it eventually soften and mellow like silkier wine from the ocean?

Not necessarily, said experts, who suspected that sea wine evolved along a different molecular path. Both would be good, they were okay, but they would be different.

Is this difference worth a few hundred dollars?

To some big guys, probably. But Stolpman – who makes excellent reds in the $ 20 range – pointed out that we are tasting wines that the vast majority of wine drinkers will never buy. And Ocean Fathoms or its clients probably wouldn’t drop a $ 10 bottle of wine in the ocean for a year and then try to charge $ 100 for it.

An octopus covers a bottle of Ocean Fathoms wine after being held at a depth of 70 feet for several months.

An octopus covers a bottle of Ocean Fathoms wine after being held at a depth of 70 feet for several months.

(Michael Habor)

So we’re talking about a quest to use the ocean as a wine cellar for the benefit of an elite, with the owners arguing that there would be minimal environmental impact and that wine storage is a form of aquaculture, which may be authorized under the Coastal Law.

That’s not even a problem, a Coast Commission staff member told me, because it’s not like Ocean Fathoms asking permission to grow kelp or shellfish. In their report, the staff stated that “wine is not an aquatic plant or animal and therefore the proposed project does not meet the definition of aquaculture”. Also, the staff member told me, “our job is not to creatively search for loopholes to allow further industrialization of the ocean.”

If Ocean Fathoms were given the green light, how many more wineries would want to establish their own wine racks off the California coast? And is the ocean really necessary, or would a lake suffice, or perhaps a container of pressurized salt water perched on one of those vibrating training platforms?

Azzaretto is not ready to give up and he is considering a new permit application. We have world-class grapes growing beside a spectacular ocean, he says, two great natural assets that should be married. In his dream, people will flock from all over the world to taste bottles of salt-crusted wine.

But grapes can travel, and there’s a lot of open seas and opportunity beyond California, especially now that a room full of judges has weighed in on ocean aging.

If the team set out for distant waters, I would gladly baptize the trip with a smashed bottle against the bow.

But not a $ 350 bottle.

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