2,000 bottles of wine owned by California-based brand Ocean Fathoms were recently seized and destroyed according to an August 9 press release from the office of the Santa Barbara District Attorney (DA). The company, known for selling luxury wines they’ve aged underwater, was found to be operating without a license to sell alcohol or permission to discharge products into U.S. waters. Founders Emanuele Azzaretto and Todd Hahn plead guilty to misdemeanor charges for these actions as well as investor fraud on July 17.
The plea agreement called for the destruction of the bottles, which were valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the founders are required to pay $50,000 in restitution to the investor they defrauded.
Ocean Fathoms was one of several brands that dove into the underwater aging trend, and claimed that its “sea cellar” in the Santa Barbara Channel provided the perfect environment for aging and producing a superior product. But according to the DA’s office, Azzaretto and Hahn started to submerge crates of wine in 2017 without the necessary permits from the California Coastal Commission or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, making the aging process illegal.
In addition to its lack of permission to put wine in the ocean in the first place, Ocean Fathoms failed to get proper approval to sell those wines. The company did not have an Alcoholic Beverage Control sales permit or business license, and charged customers tax while not paying the state of California sales tax. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also initially warned customers that they considered Ocean Fathoms’ wine “adulterated, and not fit for human consumption, because it was submerged in the ocean and potentially contaminated.” Until this recent legal action, the brand’s wines were being sold for around $500 a bottle.
“The product itself is illegal,” said Morgan Lucas, a deputy DA in the environmental and consumer affairs division of the Santa Barbara DA’s office, in the release. Although Ocean Fathoms worked with the FDA to eventually receive approval in July 2022, Lucas insists that FDA approval alone wasn’t enough to legitimize the operation.
“That’s not the only thing required for alcohol to be considered legal…This alcohol didn’t have approval from any of the required agencies, so there’s nothing to prove that it’s actually safe for human consumption,” she says.
Wines featured on the Ocean Fathoms site included 2014 Sandhi Chardonnay, 2016 Domaine de la Côte Pinot Noir, and 2014 Taittinger Brut La Francaise, all covered in ocean flora and fauna from a year of aging in the sea. The DA’s office mentioned that these wines were illegally possessed, suggesting that the original producers were unaware that their wines were being aged and re-sold by Ocean Fathoms.
“This case involved individuals who operated with complete disregard for our consumer and environmental laws,” said District Attorney John Savrnoch in the statement. This is clear, as Hahn says he plans to relaunch the business when their probation is dropped.
“The demand has never been higher,” Hahn told the Santa Barbara Independent, adding that he’s eager to re-submit the Coastal Commission application to try to keep aging wines underwater in Santa Barbara.