Where does Communion wine come from? Part 2 of 4

Part II: Does supermarket wine = sacramental wine?

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco is very particular about their communion bread used at Sunday services. It is baked by volunteers at home, and starting in fall of 2016 the wheat for some of the flour used through the year will be sustainably grown at The Bishop’s Ranch, a retreat center in Healdsburg, CA. This wheat growing initiave was is spearheaded by Elizabeth deRuff.*

But are they as particular when it comes to wine? According to Grace Cathedral verger Charles Shipley, for communion wine, Grace Cathedral uses Mont La Salle’s Angelica, a sweet fortified white wine for most services except those during Holy Week, when red is used. This red, according to Shipley is “usually whatever is on sale at Trader Joe’s. For the small quantity we use, it doesn’t make sense to pay the high prices for ‘authorized’ wine.”

However, not all wine is created equal. Despite romantic notions many have of farmers in tune with the earth, almost all the wines on sale at supermarkets are industrial products. Grapes are mass produced in what sometimes looks like the agricultural equivalent of factory farming, and in the cellar a host of additives and chemical process are employed to make every bottle of Menage a Trois Merlot smell, look, and taste identical.

These processes include the use of cultured yeasts; addition of sugar, tannins, acid, and even natural dyes; adjustments of alcohol through reverse osmosis and the ‘spinning cone’ technique; use of oak chips and dust for added flavor; and sometimes the use of animal products (chitosan, gelatine, isinglass) or carcinogens (kieselguhr) as fining and filtering agents. One doesn’t have to worry about the latter ending up in products ending up in one’s wine, but they can prove to be an added hazard for those who work in the winery.

It’s the viticultural equivalent of white bread and American cheese. However, unlike white bread and American cheese, the various additions aren’t required to be on the label. As Eric Asimov of the New York Times puts it, the wine found in supermarkets “represent the junk-food aisles of wine, filled with vacuous bottles that will leave any wine lover malnourished.” 

The Episcopal Church has no specific regulations when it comes to the production of communion wine — unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which states that sacramental wine must be made from grapes, with no additional additives beyond grape based spirit (for fortification) and sulfur as a preservative at bottling. Under these guidelines the majority of supermarket wines, as much additive as fruit of the vine, would not be approved for sacramental use.

So is authorized wine any better than what one would find in the supermarket? Mont La Salle is the largest producer of communion wine in the United States. The original Mont La Salle winery and vineyards in Napa was run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order. They began producing wine at these vineyards for sacramental use in the late 19th century and expanded into commercial production after WWII. 

Eventually the monks decided to get out of the wine and spirits business (they also produced a brandy). In 1989, the Mont La Salle brand was sold to beverage company Heublein, Inc. and was soon after purchased by four former employees of the Christian Brothers winery. The Mont La Salle vineyards remain property of the Christian Brothers and are currently leased to the Hess Collection, a premium winery in Napa. There’s more information on their history here.

The current Mont La Salle altar wine company produces over 150,000 gallons of wine a year, the equivalent of a little over 63,000 cases. While not much in comparison to huge winemaking conglomerates, its annual production is still more than most Bordeaux Chateaus. Although based in the city of Napa, most of the grapes used in their altar wines — Chenin Blanc and Colombard, among others — come from the Central Valley, the agricultural heartland of California extending from Redding through Sacramento to Bakersfield, California.

Read more about the Central Valley and its wine production next week in part 3.

*This paragraph was updated on March 16 to clarify that deRuff coordinates the growth of wheat at The Bishop’s Ranch, but does not coordinate Grace Cathedral’s bread baking. The paragraph was updated and expanded later on March 16 to clarify the cathedral’s source for flour and the frequency with which the flour will be used. It was further edited March 17 for additional clarity.