By Virginie Van Zandt
Winemakers usually have expensive underground cellars to age their wine, but one Italian innovator decided to be different and age his wine at the bottom of the ocean, producing exceptional wine and excellent yields.
The global wine market is one of the most competitive, but innovative products can still set themselves apart from the most reputable brands in the world. Marco Bacci’s story is a masterclass in product development, marketing and business acumen.
Bacci Wines sells 100,000 cases in the United States and sells another 40,000 cases per year in Europe. Global economic downturns have not slowed Bacci’s turnover. Bacci wine sales seem to be on the rise.
Bacci started working in the family’s Florence-based jeans production business in the 1980s. He quickly learned to manage the results, growing production from 300 pairs of jeans a day to 25,000 a day in two years. .
Bacci sold the jeans business in 1998 and bought his first vineyard, called Brunello di Montalcino, soon after. Today Bacci production spans six vineyards in Tuscany.
Sales have grown from $3,000 in the first full year to over $15 million today. Bacci wines won first place award for Wine of the Year at Total Wine, America’s largest wine retailer, in 2020.
The inspiration came when Bacci noticed that the wine stored on his sailboat aged better than the wine in his cellar. Why not age wine under the ocean rather than the ground? It will take six long years of negotiations with Italian regulators before Bacci can start putting its bottles in locked cages on the sandy bottoms of the Mediterranean.
Bacci was not the only one to age his alcohol submarine. A distillery on the French island of Ouessant, about 400 miles west of Paris, ages its whiskey about 20 meters under the sea for 11 months. When whiskey bottles are hoisted, they are often covered in barnacles. A gin company in the Azores, a chain of Portuguese islands in the Atlantic, leaves its gin bottles on the seabed for up to 2 years, then divers who bought the bottles swim out to retrieve them.
Bacci’s underwater wine is aged off his seaside vineyard in the Marema, within sight of the island of Argentario, about 100 miles northwest of Rome.
One of the few places Americans can taste Bacci’s underwater wine is Noe Landini’s Landini Brothers restaurant in Alexandra, Virginia. Landini first met Bacci through one of his cousins (Landini’s family is from the island of Argentario), and their business partnership was born out of an international transportation accident.
Landini was hosting a wine tasting dinner for another wine producer, the Baracchi family, at his restaurant in Virginia. During the preparation, the general manager noticed that Baracchi’s wines had not yet been delivered to the restaurant from Italy. Bacci, who happened to be in town and was just a guest, offered some of his bottles for tasting. Bacchi’s wine ended up being the hit of the dinner and Landini decided to add Bacchi’s wines to his wine list.
“The wine is so fine, which makes for such a delicate process when it comes to all the different stages of planting and viniculture,” Landini said. “Everything Marco does, he has to do his best or he doesn’t.”
“Some of the elements at sea that can’t be replicated on land. Well, at 30 meters (90 feet) you have a constant temperature that almost never changes, you have currents that can move the wine ever so slightly. And as we all know, in wine and spirits, whiskey and rum, you have good examples of that, where, you know, that slight movement helps the maturation process, the aging process of that spirit,” said said Landini.
The pressure 35 meters (114 feet) below the sea is the ideal environment for wines to mature, Bacci said. “Storms move wine bottles underwater, which helps ripen the wine.”
Once he got permission from the government, Bacci still had to figure out how to make the underwater aging process work. It was not easy. It took four years to get out of it. Now, Bacci’s underwater section of his vineyard spans 100 yards by 100 yards and can store up to 50,000 bottles of wine. Bacci dives to check the bottles himself about once a month.
Bottles of Bacci accumulate barnacles throughout the six months to a year they are stored under water – vineyard staff scrape them off after they have been resurfaced.
It’s debatable whether these sea creatures are disrupting the process, but the bottles are sealed and no sea life can get inside. But the bottles themselves form a kind of artificial reef, which seems beneficial. Bacci says he is proud that his underwater winemaking plot has created a haven for fish and lobsters.
“It’s very moving to see. It’s an ecosystem now. There was nothing there before, only sand. We created life where there was nothing,” Bacci said.
Selling wine is always a challenge given that restaurants don’t want to add to their wine list and American customers aren’t eager to experience wines they’ve never tasted before.
Bacci Wines is a family business; Bacci’s son, Jacobo, runs sales and distribution for Bacci Wines, visiting restaurant owners to tell his unusual story. The unique underwater aging process makes them curious, Jacobo said, and the wine inside usually seals the deal.
“The wine industry is really, really competitive. It’s not an easy job. But we have added markets in North America, Europe and Asia, and we are selling all of our production,” he said.
It’s actually harder to sell wine to Americans than to Europeans, Jacobo said, because Americans change jobs every few years while Europeans typically stay in the same family establishments for decades. So Jacobo often spends a lot of time trying to locate the manager he successfully sold wine to a year or two before, but when he does, the man inevitably says “oh, the wine guy under water “. Thus, Bacci’s underwater innovation has become a lasting business advantage.
The most beloved winemaker is not a diver or a winemaker, but a wire-haired dachshund named Baba. Baba usually accompanies Bacci out to sea for Bacci’s scuba dives. Bacci affectionately calls Baba his “marketing director”, but his most memorable calling card is his innovative way of aging wine, under the Tuscan waves.