Where does Communion wine come from? Part 1 of 4

Part I: Wine and Christianity

“He took the cup of wine, blessed it, gave it to his disciples and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which has been shed for many, for the remission of sins.” Millions of Christians around the world hear this each Sunday during the Eucharist, as bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Christ. 

Wine has been central to Christianity since the faith’s beginnings. Wine’s bacteria killing properties made it an essential part of life in the Mediterranean world of the early centuries of the Common Era. It was part of fellowship and worship in the first centuries of Christianity; consecrated Wine was worshipped as the being of the divine during the Middle ages. Debates on its form and meaning began at the Reformation and continue until today. 

The Cistercians, an 11th century Benedictine religious order, were essential to the development of modern wines. Through their meticulous farming practices in vineyards in rural Burgundy and on the steep cliffs overlooking the Mosel and Rhine rivers in Germany, they discovered the affinity of certain sites for certain grapes, developing what wine drinkers across the world today know as terroir. 

Wine grapes were first brought to the Americas by Franciscan missionaries, and the so called “Mission” grape could be found in vineyards from Argentina and Chile to Mexico and California. During America’s Prohibition in the early 20th century, sacramental wine production was one of the few things keeping California vineyards from being ripped out and planted with more profitable crops. 

Despite this long relationship between the church and wine, most Christians spend very little time thinking about where their communion wine comes from. In contrast to bread — where people have very strong opinions on wafer, pita, or loaves, gluten free options, and the like — most people seem happy to take whatever wine is on offer from the Church Supply Warehouse or Trader Joes. 

Given the tens of thousands of congregations across the country that use wine on at least a weekly basis, communion wine — whether it comes from official sources or the local supermarket, is a massive industry. However, one hears virtually nothing about where it comes from or how it is made. What is the story behind the communion wine, and does this story reflect what the church claims to value? Find out over the coming weeks.