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Cemeteries: A New Terroir for Altar Wine

Every Easter, Americans congregate to sip from the cup of sacramental wine at their church service or mass. And while none of us are going to church for the wine tasting, we sometimes wonder: where does alter wine come from?

The Daily Beast revealed a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the changing face of altar wines. For starters, given how tight most church budgets are, altar wine is cheap. At $6-7 a bottle, the key priority is consistency, not flavor. Unlike kosher products, altar wine does not need to be blessed by a priest. It just needs to be from pure, unadulterated, properly-fermented grapes.

Most churches source from the largest maker, Mont La Salle, who produces over 150,000 gallons annually. Other major players include Cribari Quality Reserve Altar Wines, the San Antonio Winery, and the Joseph Filippi Winery.

So what’s new? This year, approximately 24 churches in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, California will be serving altar wine grown in — wait for it — cemeteries. As a move to grow grapes sustainably during the great California draught, Bishop’s Vineyard made the innovative move to switch from growing grass in its cemeteries to grapes. Apparently, this was a massively eco-friendly and cost-efficient measure. Grass costs $50,000 per square acre to maintain, versus just $17,000 per square acre from grapes.

Since its inception in 2006, Bishop’s Vineyard has grown significantly. One of their biggest learnings early on was that people didn’t actually want Zinfandel or Chardonnay first thing in the morning, but sweeter wines, via a note written by Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Management Services Robert Seelig. Winemaking is currently guided by Shauna Rosenbaum of the award-winning Rock Wall Wine Company. This has led to some award-winning wines, including a rosé now distributed to the local parishes.

While it might be disconcerting to some, it’s clear that sacramental wine grown in cemeteries is a sustainable and fruitful concept that simply makes sense.

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