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Zac DavisDecember 14, 2022

I cannot prove it, but I swear that the wine used at my first Communion was poured from an oversized jug of that Carlo Rossi sweet red wine they sell at the grocery store, but not in the section with the other alcohol because of its lower-than-average alcohol content and, perhaps, its curious self-description as “grape wine with natural flavors.”

I will not try to prove it, because I’m not trying to get my hometown parish in trouble. Using that wine as matter for transubstantiation would be verboten under Catholic teaching, which is quite specific in its instructions and forbids “wine of unknown provenance,” among other things. But I am certain enough, both as a Catholic and a budding wine hobbyist, that it was an inadequate introduction to the rich relationship between the church and viticulture.

Because here’s the thing: The Catholic Church, over and over and over again throughout history, has made critical contributions to winemaking and wine drinking. For reasons that are historical, theological and at times coincidental, the church has been in the mix at nearly every major turning point in the history of wine. And while there has been a resurgence of interest in Catholic beer brewing (the legend of the monk brewmaster forgoing solid food and consuming only beer during his Lenten fast still looms large), the church’s contribution to wine culture throughout history often remains a lamp hidden under a bushel basket, a legacy unclaimed.

monk drinking on a 13th century manuscript
This detail from a 13th-century manuscript shows that one could do worse than being the cellar master in a monastic community. (British Library via Wikimedia Commons)

From Cana to Napa

The Catholic connection to winemaking has its foundations in Scripture. Testaments Old and New are filled with references to vineyards, grapes and wines. One of the first things that Noah does after the flood is get drunk on wine he had made from his vineyard, leading to an awkward and embarrassing encounter with his children. But the references are not all negative. On the contrary. The Psalmist writes that God made wine to gladden the hearts of man. In Zechariah, the Lord says he will “bring them back, because I have mercy on them,” and that “their hearts will be cheered as by wine.” In fact, in the Old Testament, only the Book of Ruth is bereft of any reference to wine or vineyards.

While some of Jesus’ followers have opted for grape juice, the Catholic Church has never allowed a substitution for wine, even when it has proved difficult while evangelizing in places where there were no vineyards.

In the New Testament, we meet a Jesus Christ whose public ministry is kicked off with the transformation of roughly 180 gallons of water into wine (about 950 bottles). Jesus evidently feasted so much, especially in comparison with John the Baptist’s asceticism, that he was accused of being a “glutton and a drunkard” (Lk 7:34). When Jesus told his followers that he was the vine and they were the branches, it was likely a metaphor that was easy for them to grasp. It relied upon a drink that was common to the culture of first-century Palestine, which recent archeological discoveries have helped confirm. This is all to say: Catholics worship a God who both made (albeit miraculously) and drank wine.

Yet the event that most obviously cements wine’s relationship to Christianity took place the night before Jesus was crucified. At the Last Supper he took the chalice and, giving thanks, gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it.” Since the time of the first Christians, wine has been used in the liturgy of the Eucharist in fidelity to this command. And while some of Jesus’ followers have opted for grape juice, the Catholic Church has never allowed a substitution for wine, even when it has proved difficult while evangelizing in places where there were no vineyards. In fact, we see missionaries planting vineyards wherever they are sent, including California, Argentina, Chile and Japan.

A Spiritual Discipline

The Christian interest in wine remained robust in the early church. The desert fathers, in their asceticism, were extremely unlikely to have imbibed much. But the birth of monasticism brought spiritual seekers out from their solitude in the wilderness and together under one roof, and in these early monastic communities tending vineyards and drinking wine (which was safer than water) was often part of daily life.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, the foundational document for structuring Western monastic life, abstaining from drinking wine is written about with the same long view as abstaining from sex. In short: It’s good for the kingdom of God, but probably too difficult for most people. “We believe that a hermina of wine a day [that is, 2.5 bottles a week] is sufficient for each,” Benedict instructs. “But those upon whom God bestows the gift of abstinence should know they shall have a special reward.” And while Benedict is quite specific in his quantitative directives, he gives superiors a good amount of flexibility, noting that “if the necessities of the place, or the work, or the heat of the summer should call for more, let it stand within the discretion of the superior to grant more.”

Ask any vigneron today who first figured out which plots of land produce the best wine, they will not hesitate: It was the monks.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the many vineyards throughout Europe could have fallen into disrepair. Yet according to Hugh Johnson, the dean of wine history and the author of From Noah to Now: The Story of Wine, the church preserved European winemaking: “Saintly bishops are credited with many miracles, but perhaps their greatest was the maintenance of organized agriculture (of which wine growing was an important part) through the three centuries when it must have seemed hell’s legions were massing in the east.”

Hell’s legions did not prevail against the church after the fall of Rome, but the church’s own corruption and spiritual laxity infiltrated monastic life. In A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Thomas Bokenkotter writes that “monasteries fell prey to the same evils and disorders that afflicted secular society during the breakdown of the Carolingian order. Many of them fell into complete decadence and in some cases were hardly more than strongholds of brigands.” Clearly, change was needed, and a reform movement took hold in what would become one of the world’s most famous wine-growing regions: Burgundy, France.

Today, Burgundy’s wines are classified and ranked not according to the producer of the wine, but by the geographical plot of land on which the grapes were grown. There is something very Catholic about this: that a winemaker ought to put aside any sense of personal gain or recognition in favor of becoming a vessel for the fruit of the earth. Every vineyard is ranked by the French government’s appellation control system. But ask any vigneron today who first figured out which plots of land produce the best wine, they will not hesitate: It was the monks.

Unhappy with the mediocrity and decadence of medieval monastic life, a new group of monks, led by St. Robert of Molesmes, arrived at Citeaux, a place Bokenkotter calls “a desolate spot in the diocese of Chalons in France.” Yet thanks to the Cistercian fathers, who grew to great influence and power during the 12th century, it slowly became a global wine capital. The Cistercians had the spirit of revolutionaries along with an intense piety. According to Mr. Johnson, they “saw the vineyards of the Côte as their God-given challenge.”

Here is how Mr. Johnson describes the work of the Cistercians: “By their readiness to experiment, their reinvestment in the land, and their ability to see things on a long time-scale, they slowly but surely moved the ratchet of quality up notch by notch.” People today venture that the Cistercians went so far as to literally taste the soil where they planted their vines. And thanks to their efforts, anyone who has driven through Burgundy in our time will have difficulty describing its vineyard-laden roads and quaint towns as “desolate.”

The legend goes that Dom Perignon invented champagne, calling out to his confreres, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”

France is overflowing with other spots where the history of Catholicism and wine blend together. After the Cistercians, another monk made himself a household name across the world, even to this day, for his contributions to viticulture. The legend goes that Dom Perignon invented champagne, calling out to his confreres, “Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!” And while it remains unclear if Dom Perignon actually was the inventor (his abbey’s archives “disappeared” during the French Revolution), we do know that he was a meticulous vineyard manager and winemaker. The treasurer of Dom Perignon’s Hautviller Abbey, Mr. Johnson says, “studied the best vineyards, the best timing, the best techniques, and the best way of preserving the wine to make it as aromatic as possible, silky in texture and long in flavour.”

The reasons for the Avignon papacy, when the pope’s primary residence moved from Rome to France for 70 years, are multiple and complex. But at least a minor pull on the pope, Mr. Johnson suggests, might have been that Burgundy’s wine was a bit closer and easier to consume. In 1364, Urban V (the only Avignon pope to be beatified) published a papal bull forbidding the abbot of Cîteaux to send any wine to Rome under pain of excommunication. Today, you can still drink wine that is named for the vineyards that were planted just outside the new papal residence: Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Wine Around the World

France is certainly among the more dramatic sites of both church and wine history. But throughout the world, the fruit of the vine and the church continued to grow and mature alongside one another.

Closer to home, Jesuits brought their “mission” grapes from Mexico in the 18th century, planting vineyards up the coast of California. And when a wave of religious (and anti-Catholic) zealotry threatened the future of winemaking in the United States, the Catholic Church was there to preserve it for future generations.

While Prohibition restricted the “the manufacture, sale, or transportation” of alcohol in the country, a provision tailored to the church prevented America’s burgeoning wine industry from totally collapsing: Wine for religious ceremonies would be exempt from the prohibition against manufacturing alcohol. In Los Angeles, when nearly all 100 wineries in the area had to close, the archdiocese granted Santo Cambianica, a devout Catholic who had named his winery “San Antonio” after his patron saint, permission to make sacramental wine. Today, San Antonio Winery remains the largest supplier of sacramental wine in the country and was named winery of the year by Wine Enthusiast in 2016.

ad for wine from novitiate winery
An advertisement from the historic Novitiate Winery, which the Jesuits operated for 98 years until ceasing operations in 1986. (Courtesy of the Jesuit Archives & Research Center)

A similar story is told about the Napa Valley. George de Latour, who founded Beaulieu Vineyards in 1900, used his connections with the archbishop of San Francisco to secure exclusive rights to sell sacramental wine after the passage of the Volstead Act. After Prohibition, with the now-famed Napa vineyards still intact, Mr. Latour was looking to increase the commercial quality of his wine. He brought in André Tchelistcheff, a Russian winemaker living in France. Mr. Tchelistcheff would go on to train and work with now-legendary names throughout the wine world, including Mike Grgich, Joseph Heitz and Robert Mondavi.

The numbers speak for themselves. In 1922, the first year that sacramental wine was excluded from Prohibition, 2,139,000 gallons were sold. By 1924, the volume had risen to 2,944,700. Was the United States undergoing a religious revival? A report from the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in 1925 was not sure: “There is no way of knowing what the legitimate consumption of fermented sacramental wine is but it is clear that the legitimate demand does not increase 800,000 gallons in two years.” Were it not for the jesuitical ingenuity of a few Catholics, it is doubtful we would have the vibrant California wine scene we have today.

Future Growth

The story of Catholicism and wine is not one of consistent progress. Back in France, the great vineyards that generations of monks had toiled to cultivate were, like many of France’s great cathedrals, victims of fanatics of the French Revolution. “Among the officers whose task it was to tell the abbot of Citeaux that all the abbey’s lands…were being appropriated by the state,” Mr. Johnson writes, “was Napoleon Bonaparte.” Within 100 years they encountered something worse: a plague of phylloxera, a microscopic insect that wiped out almost the entire country’s grape vines.

Where vineyards were not seized by revolutions or insects, religious communities began to surrender their vines and land voluntarily. “There are fewer laborers in the vineyard,” is often a euphemism to describe the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. But it is also a quite literal explanation for why there are fewer Catholic wineries today. The low numbers of religious vocations has led to a shortage of labor. And with limited resources, religious communities tend to focus on ministries they consider more obviously pastoral or mission-critical.

advertisement for wine from novitiate winery
Another advertisement from the historic Novitiate Winery. (Courtesy of the Jesuit Archives & Research Center)

When the Heublein division of Grand Metropolitan PLC bought Christian Brothers Winery in 1989, it was the largest winery sale in U.S. history. David Brennan, F.S.C., then-president of the Lasallian Christian Brothers, explained the rationale behind the deal at the time: “The decision to sell...was a difficult one, but this action allows the Brothers to give the highest priority to their educational works.”

Even still, there are signs of hope for Catholic winemaking today. In Traverse City, Mich., parishioners at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church began what they called The Sacramental Wine and Vineyard Ministry, through which 2.3 acres of grapes are grown on the parish’s own grounds for sacramental and consumer wine. Religious orders are tending to vines around the world again, from California to Italy. In an example that is inspired by the Catholic imagination, the Diocese of Oakland planted grapevines next to its Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

And in France? In recent decades, five French monasteries have reconnected with winemaking. The French Catholic author Marc Patier profiled them in his book, Les Vignerons Du Ciel: Les Moines et Le Vin (The Winemakers of Heaven: Monks and Wine). “The relationship between monks and wine, in France, seemed to belong to a definitively gone past,” Mr. Patier writes. “It is to forget that with the monks everything is an eternal beginning.” And it isn’t just the men (nor has it ever been, Mr. Patier is quick to remind): Nuns are well-represented, and in some regions are even in the majority at some monastic winemakers. French consumers can find monastic wines (and other products) in sleekly designed e-commerce sites like Divine Box. While it is difficult to argue that Catholic religious dominate the world’s leading winemakers today, priests, brothers, sisters and laypeople continue to practice what their forerunners in faith have done for thousands of years.

New Clairvaux Vineyard in Northern California is a good example of successful Catholic winemaking today. In 1955, the Abbey of Gethsemani purchased a plot of land to begin a new monastery. The land was purchased from a former governor of California, Leland Stanford, who had established 4,000 acres of grapes and a winery that produced over two million gallons a year prior to Prohibition. Stanford sold off the land in 1919, and the vines were ripped out.

There is a sacramentality to the winemaking process, from growing to fermenting to drinking, that is likely to always find a home in a Catholic imagination.

But in 2000, at the prodding of a neighbor, the Cistercian monks pivoted from dairy and orchard farming to plant their first six acres of grape vines on the land. “You know, we—the Cistercians—set the standard for ‘modern’ wine production at Citeaux,” Abbot Paul Mark Schwan reminded me in a conversation by phone of the order’s connection to medieval winemaking. “We’re very much aware of that connection.”

Today, the monks’ primary labor is working in the vineyard, but as in many Catholic apostolates, they partner with lay people, including Aimée Sunseri, a fifth-generation California winemaker.

And while it is heartening to see the church return to building up global wine culture, Abbot Paul Mark sees their efforts as a contribution to the larger mission of the church. He estimates 38,000 people visit the monastery each year. “Now, most people come because they are looking for wine,” he told me, “but it also becomes our way of evangelization. When people come, they know it’s more than just a bottle of wine. It’s as if they’re buying a kind of spirituality in a bottle.”

A Complex Blend

“The links between wine and worship,” Hugh Johnson writes, “recur so often in [the story of wine] that the storyteller must keep challenging himself: Was it really religion that called the tune again?” In other words, does it matter whether all these winemaking Catholics were motivated by faith or finances? After all, vineyards were extremely economically viable for the Cistercians in Gaul during the Middle Ages, and producing sacramental wine during Prohibition was a convenient loophole. Yet, there is a sacramentality to the winemaking process, from growing to fermenting to drinking, that is likely to always find a home in a Catholic imagination.

Wines, at their best, are beautiful and complex works of art that are “the fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” the comingling of manual labor and God’s providence in the vineyard. A bottle of wine itself invites relationship: It is too much for one person, but it provides the perfect amount for two or three gathered together. Its vintage is a memorial of a moment of time, its appellation transports the imbiber to a specific region and vineyard. The winemaker and wine drinker are intrinsically connected to the earth, our common home, in a unique way.

In one view, the sniffing, swirling, savoring, the descriptions of primary and secondary tastes, the naming of obscure aromas in a glass, all comes across as uptight and snobbish. Yet in another light, the careful attention paid to the symphony of tastes and smells, the indulgence in “oh, sure, one more glass,” are the recognition of those small joys that lift us up to participate in the life of the divine. “Wine,” Pope Benedict said in a homily in 2005, “expresses the excellence of creation and gives us the feast in which we go beyond the limits of our daily routine.” The church has long understood that asceticism and fasting are paths to religious enlightenment—but we also worship a savior who came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

“On the one hand…we live an austere, simple life,” Abbot Paul Mark mused during our conversation. “On the other hand, we celebrate the fine things of life as well. The best beers, the best liqueurs, the best wines in the world, are usually associated with the Catholic or Christian monastic world. That’s not an accident. It’s a statement of how we live our lives.”

At least in spirit, wine and Catholic life are inextricably linked. And just as we Catholics rightly feel some sense of pride for our contributions to architecture, music and art, our hearts should be gladdened when we walk through a vineyard or into a wine bar, thinking, our ancestors helped build this. And we should discern how we can keep building it. Catholics will continue to tend the vines, drink it at our dinner tables and transform it at our altar tables. Wine has been, is now and will continue to become our “spiritual drink.”

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