Wine aged under Adriatic
Long journey to Waupaca
By James Card
Waupaca is the new United States headquarters for distributing a rare European wine that recently gained approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) for sale in the U.S.
The first shipment of 500 bottles of Wine of the Sea arrived in Waupaca on Sept. 30.
The wine is aged 100 feet under the Adriatic Sea. During that period, the bottles become encrusted with coral and the underwater pressure intensifies aging.
The constant cool temperature, complete darkness and the gentle rocking of the ocean current forms its final taste.
Bottles are submerged for one or two years depending on the variety. It is considered by some as nature’s greatest wine cellar.
Aging wine under the ocean isn’t a new idea. Napa Valley-based Mira Winery submerged bottled wine in cages 60 feet under Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. They unveiled their ocean-aged wine in 2013 and it garnered much publicity; however, it caught the attention of the FDA.
Their concerns were of consumer safety such as broken seals and seawater contamination. They advised the TTB they could not approve the labels because the wine inside may be adulterated.
With that ban, experimentation in sea-aging wine was shut down in the United States but it continued in other parts of the world.
In 1997 in Montenegro, Zarko Bogojevic was eating in a hotel restaurant that had too few tables for too many guests. The chef asked him if two ladies could sit at his table: a mother and her daughter, Biljana.
As they talked, he asked where they were from. They answered, Wisconsin.
One year later, he was in Wisconsin. Bogojevic – who resembles Sylvester Stallone – says his relationship with Biljana is a love story fit for a Hollywood movie.
They spent the next 20 years dividing their time between Wisconsin and Serbia, always spending Christmas in Waupaca. They said that when they settled down permanently in Wisconsin they would have a wedding.
On July 21, 2018 they were married in Waupaca. His best man in the wedding was an old friend who owned the Perun Distillery in Serbia.
That same year he founded BZ Consortium, importing Perun spirits: vodka, gin, honey liqueur, brandies made from quince, pears, plum and apricot and Nocino, a walnut liqueur.
He also imported sparkling wines from the Radgonske Gorice vineyard in Slovenia and Untouched By Light, their wine made of grapes harvested and processed using night-vision goggles, bottled in black glass, aged in dark cellars and sealed in black foil.
In 2019, they visited a wine expo in New York where Radgonske Gorice was an exhibitor.
They were looking to see if anyone had a better dry rosé wine than their own.
Biljana pointed out a strange bottle of wine covered with coral. They asked about it. The exhibitor said it was wine that was aged under the sea. They asked for a taste.
“It was like drinking the best silk,” said Bogojevic.
H noticed the producers were based in Serbia. To their surprise, he spoke to them in Serbian. It was an instant connection and he learned more about the wine.
By the end of the chance encounter, he became their representative in the United States but there was one huge obstacle: wine that is aged underwater is not approved for sale in the U.S.
“I was interested in that: nobody can do it. For me it was like a hook. I always want to do something that nobody else can. I always like a challenge,” he said.
Mounting a campaign
That was the beginning of a two-year letter-writing campaign to the FDA.
Through a mutual acquaintance, Bogojevic was introduced to Nick Wood of Green Bay who took on the role of a consultant, partner and friend. They also enlisted the help of Waupaca attorney Steve Hansen for legal advice.
Meanwhile in Croatia, Marko Dusevic of Adriatic Shell used the company’s mussel and oyster farm to experiment with undersea aging of wine. Based in the north Adriatic Sea on the island of Pag, he has tested more than 120,000 bottles in the past 10 years to determine what works best.
“He’s not a winery. He has the underwater facilities. He built special cages and has friends in wineries in Serbia and Italy. He started submerging their wines and trying different closures and came up with a pretty unique process that works. But trying to convince the FDA that was our challenge,” said Nick Wood.
They sent their first letter to the FDA in July 2020. They received a polite reply back requesting much more evidence. They sent another letter attached with information about the process published in Croatia.
The FDA replied that they needed harder scientific evidence that seawater could not contaminate the bottles.
That launched a two-year letter writing campaign back and forth with the FDA. Finding out what their objections were and gathering information from Adriatic Shell on the process and one-by-one, answering and satisfying each of their concerns.
The FDA wanted information about the closure method, the inspection method of the corks and the types of corks used. They were concerned about the coral on the bottle and the possibility of someone ingesting it.
They had the bottles analyzed by a lab in Croatia to prove there was no biological hazard. They also leveraged Adriatic Shell’s marine monitoring data: the shellfish farm is regularly tested for seawater purity and the mussels are tested in a laboratory for human consumption.
“In some ways it’s comforting to know that the FDA is out there making sure there’s not a bunch of quacks doing stuff that might harm people. In that sense it was satisfying to work with the system to insure it’s safe and effective,” said Wood.
On Dec. 23, 2021, they had a Zoom meeting with the FDA official who told them: Merry Christmas. Their undersea wine would be approved. They were told they provided more evidence and proof than was required.
“That was a Christmas miracle for us,” said Bogojevic.
There was one catch: take the two years of correspondence and condense it all into a single document to be presented to the TTB.
From sea to shelf
On April 28, 2022 they received a Letter of No Objection from the FDA. It was such a milestone that the team of family, friends and partners gathered for a group photo with the letter.
With the ban on domestic sea-aged wine still in effect, BZ Consortium became the only importer and seller of sea-aged wine in the U.S.
Next was working with the TTB. Not only one kind of wine is aged underwater. There are many varieties and each one needs its own label to be approved by the TTB. They rejected all of the labels. TTB did not get the memo that BZ Consortium received a Letter of No Objection from the FDA.
Once that was smoothed out, they received approval for Deux Mers, a 2016 vintage Bordeaux blend which means “two seas” as the grapes are grown on an ancient Pannonian seabed and later aged in the Adriatic Sea.
“Since then we’ve been working with the TTB to get more varieties approved so now we have over 20 different labels approved,” said Max Hansen, the BZ Consortium’s sales manager.
With their distribution contacts for Perun and their other wines, they moved Wind of the Sea quickly onto the shelves of central Wisconsin stores. The Wagner Market in Oshkosh sold 10 bottles in two hours. The rest are on a waiting list.
Woodman’s Market and Festival Foods will also carry the wine, along with other independent wine sellers and liquor stores.
Wine of the Sea is currently only sold in Wisconsin and is not sold online.
Locally, the Wine of the Sea can be found at the Waupaca BP in their Beer Barrel liquor section. It sells for $125 per bottle and the Perun brand liquors are also stocked there.
Hansen noted that pricing may be different at other locations but the best prices will always be found in Waupaca.
For every bottle sold, BZ Consortium donates $1 to local Waupaca charities.