Feds say wine aged underwater may be illegal

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The federal government is taking a murky view of wine bottles that are aged under ocean waters.

The Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau warned this week that it may be illegal to sell wine in the United States that has been aged underwater, a relatively rare approach to winemaking that gained widespread publicity in 2013 when a Napa winery began testing the process.

Mira Winery placed 48 bottles of its 2009 cabernet sauvignon in cages and submerged them for three months under the waters of the harbor of Charleston, S.C. It dubbed the process “aquaoir” — a play on the French winemaking term terroir — and wanted to test the effects that it had on the chemistry of the wine.

The bureau, which oversees wine labeling, has the power to prohibit wineries from selling or shipping bottles that have been “adulterated,” on the grounds that they are mislabeled. The agency asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its opinion on the process, and the FDA said wine bottles that have had contact with ocean water “may” be deemed adulterated under federal law because they were stored under unsanitary conditions.

The bureau announced Tuesday that it will refer any label application for ocean-aged wine to the FDA for a determination on whether it would be compliant under federal law.

Outside the bureaucratic language, the agency paints a pretty disgusting picture of what wine bottles would be subjected to in the ocean, especially as overpressure on their seals would increase the likelihood of water seeping inside.

“Examples of chemical contaminants found in sea or ocean waters include gasoline, oil, heavy metals, plastics, drug residues, pesticides, as well as various types of filth, including waste materials from biological sources, sludge, decaying organic matter, runoff from farms, effluents from sewage treatment plants, and bilge waters from vessels,” the guidance reads.

It adds that even a wax coating may not make a bottle impermeable. In fact, biological growth on a bottle could degrade the cork and wax seal, contaminating the bottle when it is opened.

Mira President Jim Dyke said he was disappointed by the bureau’s warning and wondered what triggered such a public pronouncement by the agency on the process, which he contended was more of an experiment rather than a new business line to pursue.

He argued that his own testing and inspection of the bottles showed there was no seepage, and that the agencies never inspected the submerged bottles.

“It is in no one’s interest, especially a small producer of premier Napa Valley wines, to produce a product for the consumer that is adulterated,” Dyke wrote in an email.

Mira conducted the February 2013 test to determine how the temperature, pressure and motion of the ocean would impact the chemistry of wine as it aged. A blind taste test between land-aged and ocean-aged bottles showed the latter had more of an aged taste, Dyke said.

It expanded the test later that year and again in 2014, submerging a total of 15 cases of wine. It sold some of the wines to members of its wine club.

Several European wineries have experimented with aging and storing wine in the ocean, though Mira claimed it is the first U.S. winery to test the process.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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