TTB status of aging wine in the ocean
On May 27, our Napa Valley winery will pull eight cases of Cabernet Sauvignon out of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. We placed them there six months ago, protected from the elements, following similar experiments in the past two years. The cold water and the tides seem to expedite the aging process, and we believe that our ocean-aged fine wine—which we’ve trademarked as Aquaoir—could revolutionize how vintners around the world think about winemaking. The only obstacle: the federal government.
For more than a year, our winery has been targeted by the Treasury Department, specifically, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The agency believes our product is unfit for human consumption, despite an utter lack of evidence, and it has threatened to revoke our winemaking license. Washington doesn’t recognize this wine for what it is: the product of entrepreneurship and experimentation.
As a small business in a highly competitive industry, we out of necessity want to stand out through innovation. The aging process was the logical place to start. The traditional technique, developed in France hundreds of years ago and hardly changed, is to age wine at a cool 55 degrees Fahrenheit, often for years or decades. Such factors as light and pressure are also important.
Aware of the renown that has historically been attached to wine pulled up from shipwrecks after years on the ocean floor, we decided to see if intentionally submerging wine bottles for months at a time could speed the aging process and enhance flavor along the way. Our search for an ideal location eventually took us to Charleston Harbor. Sixty feet under the waves, there exists a promising blend of temperature, pressure and darkness, with the additional variable of constant motion.
In February 2013, we submerged four steel mesh cages, each containing a case with 12 bottles of our winery’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. To protect the wine, the top of each bottle was coated with high-grade wax sealant. The bottles were left underwater for three months.
After retrieving the wine, we blind-tasted it with a sommelier, comparing it with the original land-aged vintage. It became immediately clear that the ocean had somehow sped the aging process. Intrigued, we took the wine to several experts and chemists, who confirmed that the experiment had created a vintage that, for its age, had uncharacteristically round tannins—the sign of a mature wine.
We promptly took the new product on a road trip, hosting tastings with sommeliers and food-and-beverage experts in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The experimentation also continued, with eight cases sitting in Charleston Harbor for six months rather than three.
The tour prompted a certain amount of publicity last year. That’s when we heard from the feds. In March 2014 the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau sent us an email saying that it had identified several potential safety concerns regarding the ocean-aged wine. The letter was informal and contained no indication that we should cease and desist. We retrieved the eight cases, conducted additional tests and dropped a third batch into Charleston Harbor in November.
Then the federal government tried to end our experiment. Late last year the Tax and Trade Bureau sent a 10-page letter informing us that ocean-aged wine could not legally be sold, shipped or consumed—even by us. Under the Food and Drug Administration’s interpretation of federal law, wine sealed from exposure to saltwater and placed in the ocean is still defined as “adulterated” because it has ostensibly been “held under unsanitary conditions.” In a parting shot, the agency threatened to revoke our Federal Alcohol Administration Act permit, even though the couple dozen cases involved are a minuscule fraction of our total annual production of fine wine.
We immediately complied with the demands, halting sales and tastings. Yet to the best of our knowledge, the bureau has neither acquired nor tested a single bottle of our product. Nor have our own tests and observations—not to mention the experience of our families, friends and customers—turned up any indication of the dangers listed in the bureau’s letters.
When we have requested explanation and clarification, the bureau has only referred us to the Food and Drug Administration, which has been less than forthcoming. The agency also, without warning, issued a formal public advisory in March on the dangers of ocean-aged wine.
But the scientific basis is still missing. That is why, in the coming weeks, and with the help of the government watchdog Cause of Action, we will begin a Freedom of Information Act inquiry with the bureau and FDA. Throughout this process, we will continue to test ocean-aged wine, even if we can’t sell it or even taste it ourselves.
We don’t envision expanding into vast underwater wine-storage development. We simply want to try to understand the ocean-aging effects so that we can try to simulate them on dry land. It would be lamentable if brazen federal overreach blocked the potential for innovation in an industry that could be on the cusp of a true sea change. Only in Washington could you raise a glass to that.
Mr. Dyke is the president of Mira Winery in Napa Valley, Calif.