Ocean floor wine company withdraws permit application amid Coastal Act violations

Ocean Fathoms, a Santa Barbara County-based company that wants to store wine on the ocean floor, withdrew its permit application from the Coastal Commission, which was set to discuss the matter at its Aug. 12 meeting. 

The company was seeking after-the-fact authorization because it implemented its underwater wine storage system without a permit. The Coastal Commission instructed Ocean Fathoms to remove its unpermitted wine crates off the coast of Montecito earlier this year, and staff recommended denying the permit in a July 23 staff report, before the application was withdrawn.

Emanuele Azzaretto believes his underwater system is the perfect environment to age wine: It’s cold and dark, and the wine is churned by natural ocean currents. The company first started testing the technique in 2015, and then put a metal wine cage down on the ocean floor in 2019, according to the staff report. 

The commission didn’t learn of the activities until August 2020. It sent Ocean Fathoms a notice of violation letter in February 2021, which stated that the cages must be removed by Feb. 14. Ocean Fathoms then requested an extension to March 15 to remove the bottles. The company told the Coastal Commission that it needed the extension because of “the complexities associated with scheduling the recovery work including vessel, dive crew, equipment availability, and associated COVID-19 clearance requirements.”

But recently, the staff report says, the commission learned that the removal happened alongside a Wine Adventure event, which “involved transportation to the offshore removal site by yacht and a staged release of rehabilitated sea lions that were also brought to the site as part of the entertainment.”

Azzaretto maintained that the extension was requested due to logistical challenges, not because his company wanted to put on the event, which the commission says charged $1,000 per attendee.

“It’s nothing to do with that,” he told the Sun. “It’s a little rough out there in the winter. In order to [bring the wine crates up], I need a certified dive team, I need a boat operator, we need to make notice to mariners. … It takes a little organization.”

An April 25 article by Korinne Munson, published in the Robb Report, describes an Ocean Fathoms wine bottle removal event without mentioning the Coastal Commission mandate.

“On a recent Saturday morning, two very different boats set out from Santa Barbara Harbor, both headed for the same destination over a mile offshore,” Munson writes. “On board an 85-foot custom catamaran with etched crystal windows and a polished, double-wide wood bar, the guests were a mixture of preppy-chic locals and well-heeled LA types dressed in limited-edition athleisure collaborations. The other boat, a working commercial fishing vessel, was loaded with gear and a team of divers in thick wetsuits.”

Kate Huckelbridge, the Coastal Commission’s deputy director of energy ocean resource and federal consistency, said the enforcement team hasn’t taken any actions against Ocean Fathoms yet. She said staff are still looking into the wine bottle removal’s co-occurence with the Wine Adventure event. 

“I can’t speak to what their intention was, but it does appear that they specifically needed that extension to get to this event,” Huckelbridge said. 

Azzaretto said he plans to submit another permit application once the current violations are resolved with the Coastal Commission.

“I don’t want to go to the commission with a violation,” he said. “I’m just trying to work with the Coastal Commission to resolve any pending issues, so that we can have a proper moving forward.”

If the company does apply for another permit and the Coastal Commission votes on it, Huckelbridge said it could be a precedent-setting case.

“The footprint of development here is very small, but it’s meant to be test cases for much larger deployment,” she said. “So thinking about the Coastal Act and how it authorizes development, it’s really strict on this matter for a reason, so that we’re careful and protective of these resources. … I think that’s why we’ve maintained this level of attention on this case—because it’s new.” 

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