Why is the Federal Government Concerned About Cases of Wine Aging Underwater in Charleston Harbor?


If a bottle of wine has spent time underwater, is it still something you’d want to drink? This might not strike you as the kind of question the federal government would need to get involved in, or even care about. But three weeks ago, we came across a strange new policy posted by the TTB, the federal agency responsible for labeling alcoholic beverages.


Titled “Advisory on the Underwater Aging of Wine,” the document intriguingly mentioned “recent interest in the aging of wine under ocean waters,” and then dropped some pretty strong language about the practice: “adulterated, unsanitary conditions,” “contaminated with filth,” “effluent,” “decaying organic matter.”

If you took this a scary verdict on underwater aging, however, you’d be wrong. In fact the TTB actually has no idea whether any of these things get into a bottle of submerged wine—the document is also generously studded with “mays” and “mights.”

But why, and how, it exists at all is a window into strange world of how alcohol is regulated in the United States—a food tested by the FDA, but policed by the same Treasury department that tracks cigarettes and collects the tax on guns.

And sometimes, what looks like regulation is really one agency punting to another.


As far as anyone knows, the story starts with California winemaker Jim Dyke and his team at Mira Winery in Napa Valley, who began dropping cases of wine into Charleston Harbor two years ago.

This was kind of an experiment, and kind of a publicity stunt. The winery, which was founded in 2009, looks to “challenge conventional wisdom” of winemaking, Dyke said, adding that the aging process seemed ripe for change. “Everyone just puts wine in a warehouse at 55 degrees because that’s what the Europeans did,” Dyke said in an interview.

But a few underwater-aging experiments coming out of Europe and the 2011 auction of champagne from a shipwreck that went for between $15,000 and $50,000 a bottle—made Dyke interested in challenging that conventional wisdom.

So in February 2013, Dyke dropped 48 bottles, or four cases, of Mira’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon wrapped in four steel mesh cages 60 feet into South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor, which stays at a familiar 55 degrees for most of the winter. When the bottles were fished out three months later, and the protective wax seal removed from the top of each, the wine tasted as if it had aged two years, Dyke said.

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