Cemetery vineyards in Hayward, San Pablo, Antioch provide sacramental wine
Even if you’re giving altar wine to churches, it needs to pass the taste test.
That’s what Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland learned when it began offering free sacramental wine to about half its 85 churches three years ago. The fact that the wine was made from grapes grown at diocese cemeteries didn’t get much reaction, but the taste did.
“We produced what we thought was a good wine,” said Robert Seelig, executive director of funeral and cemetery services for the diocese. “We offered two wines: a zinfandel and a chardonnay. Neither are what you consider to be sweet.”
But sweet seemed to be what parishioners preferred. The diocese responded and changed the wine’s makeup. “People were concerned about the taste, so we visited parishes and ran some taste tests. The consensus was to move to a rosé with a high sugar level,” said Tom Richardson, director of development for the diocese. The rosé sacramental wine is bottled at Rock Wall Wine Company of Alameda under the Bishop’s Vineyard label, made 100% from grapes grown at diocesan cemetery vineyards.
The diocese planted vineyards at its Hayward cemetery, Holy Sepulchre, six years ago. Since then, it has added vineyards at Holy Cross Cemetery in Antioch, and then St. Joseph’s Cemetery in San Pablo, for a total of 16 acres. Three years ago, it began turning grapes from those vineyards into altar wine for its churches throughout Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
When the diocese planted its first vineyard at Holy Sepulchure, the purpose was beautification, not vinification. The church had acres of unused land bordering the back of the cemetery that needed sprucing up. “Nobody wants to be buried next to scrub brush,” Seelig said.
He, Richardson and some others kicked around ideas on how to improve the cemetery’s appearance.
“We wanted something that was reflective of the area. Hayward used to have orchard and farms. We looked at the land and said, ‘Geez, we have the right setting for vineyards.'”
Vineyards turned out to be less expensive than other alternatives. To landscape with grass would have cost $50,000 an acre, plus the expense of mowing and watering, versus $25,000 an acre to plant the vines, Seelig said. And the vineyards are fairly drought-tolerant.
After the altar wine was sweetened, it has proved to be much popular than the first release.
“At first, the people were saying, ‘The wine is too dry.’ It was not a good taste,” said Sister Celine Pathiaparambil of St. Joseph Church in Pinole. “Now we are getting the rose. It’s better than the other one, for sure.”
Steve Mullin, parish life director at All Saints Church in Hayward, agreed. “The first batch had an unpleasant aftertaste. Last month, we got a new vintage, and a number of people have commented that it tastes better.”
The rose has another benefit: It does not stain the purificator — the linen used to wipe the wine chalice — as badly as red wine. The Rev. Ray Sacca of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland said that while he thought the earlier zinfandel tasted good, “the rose works out quite nicely. It’s not just low maintenance on the laundry; people tend to like the taste.”
The diocese also bottles wine for church events and fundraisers. The grapes used for those do not come from the cemeteries, at least until now, but rather from Brutocao Cellars of Hopeland under the label of Cathedral of Christ the Light.
But some of the cemetery grapes are showing promise, Richardson said. The diocese will produce 50 cases of the 2009 Hayward primitivo grapes under a second label. “We’re about to introduce the Bishop’s Vineyard, since the bishop in Oakland oversees the vineyards,” Seelig said. The Bishop’s Vineyard wine will be used at special church events.
Richardson is also optimistic about this year’s Hayward primitivo grapes, which were harvested Thursday. The diocese also grows chardonnay, zinfandel, merlot, sangiovese, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon; those varieties were harvested earlier this year.
The diocese hopes to have more wines suitable for separate bottlings in the future, but does not plan to sell them. “We didn’t do this for commercial purposes,” Seelig said. “At the end of the day, the program is designed to enhance the cemetery’s aesthetics.”
Seelig said as far as he knows, the diocese’s vineyards are the only ones in the nation planted at cemeteries. But he’s helping the Sacramento diocese explore the idea of vineyards at two cemeteries there.
Cemetery vineyards were news to Wine Institute communication manager Gladys Horiuchi. “But we haven’t really tracked it,” she said. She added that the church has a long history with winemaking.
“Father Junipero Serra set up the missions, and a lot of them grew grapes to make wine for Mass. That’s how the wine industry in California got started,” she said. “Even during Prohibition, a handful of wineries made sacramental wines for Mass.”