Churches take grapes from vine to chalice

Published February 2, 2007

Burl Deatherage, one of three founders of the vineyard at St. Stephen’s church, Victoria, tends to some cabernet sauvignon grapes ready for harvest.

When you buy a bottle of wine for the table, you probably care about its origin. You might want California chardonnay, Australian shiraz or riesling from Ontario or British Columbia. But when you kneel at the altar rail and sip communion wine, do you know where it comes from?

From Newfoundland to British Columbia, every province in Canada produces wine but do Canada’s 2,800 Anglican churches buy their wine locally? An informal survey by the Anglican Journal reveals a wide variety of practice.
Traditionally, altar wine has been a fortified wine (such as port), on the sweet side and higher in alcohol (18-20 per cent) than table wine (about 12 per cent).

If the rubrics, or instructions, in the Book of Common Prayer concerning communion are followed, then the fruit wines of Manitoba or Newfoundland need not apply: “The bread shall be the best and purest wheat bread, whether leavened or unleavened, and the wine pure grape wine with which a little water may be mingled.”

However, wine from grapes is produced in at least six provinces: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. Among Canadian wines, the wines of Ontario and British Columbia are the most well-known, both at home and abroad.

Oenophile Bishop Ralph Spence, of the Hamilton, Ont.-based diocese of Niagara, has made support of the Niagara peninsula’s wineries a hallmark of his tenure. He has purchased and solicited donations of Niagara wine for dinners and events and has had labels printed that read “by appointment to the bishop of Niagara” to be applied to bottles from certain wineries.

“We’ve really worked hard to support it because it is an important industry in the area. A lot of our wineries have been generous to us,” said Bishop Spence in an interview.

However, the diocese’s cathedral, Christ’s Church Cathedral in Hamilton, buys a California port called Mont La Salle, admitted Dean Peter Wall, citing “ease of supply” as the reason why. Church supply houses such as the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto or Hamilton’s DiCarlo Religious Supply Centre are allowed by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario to carry altar wine. The Anglican Book Centre carries California’s Cribari altar wine. All other beverage alcohol in the province is sold through the board’s stores or winery stores.

“(The church retailers) sell supplies and they deliver, so you can say ‘You’re coming next week with candles and we need a case of wine.’ You don’t have to go out to buy it (on a separate trip),” said Dean Wall, adding, “I could go and buy a port from a local winery and probably should.”

Altar wine makers usually say their product is “approved” or “prepared in accordance with canon law,” which refers to the Roman Catholic church’s rule – similar to that of the Anglican church – that the wine must be made “from grapes of the vine.” Otherwise, there is no other procedure that distinguishes sacramental wine from a dry chardonnay off the shelf.

Many clergy and altar guild members believe that communion wine needs to have high alcohol content in order to control infection when using a common cup at the altar rail. However, microbiology professor Tony Mazzulli at the University of Toronto said the difference is negligible. “There would essentially be no difference in 12 per cent versus 18 per cent (alcohol) with respect to sanitary practices. There are many factors which affect the destruction of viruses, not just the alcohol content (which in this case would be too low anyway). We use alcohol concentrations of 70 per cent in the laboratory!” he wrote in an e-mail in response to an inquiry.

Major Canadian wine makers such as Inniskillin or Jackson-Triggs do not produce altar wine, since tastes in table wines have changed toward a drier, more-complex product, but some individuals and churches are taking matters into their own hands.

Last September, St. Michael and All Angels Cathedral in Kelowna, B.C., diocese of Kootenay, announced it was teaming up with Calona Vineyards to create a sacramental wine that is intended to generate some income for St. Michael.
“No one else in Canada is in that business,” Dean Allan Reed told the Kelowna Daily Courier. St. Michael’s, acting as agent for Calona, hopes to sell the wine to Anglican cathedrals across the country and make it available to Episcopal churches in the U.S. Dean Reed also said Lutheran and Catholic churches have also expressed interest.

St. Stephen’s church in Victoria, diocese of British Columbia, overlooks Mount Newton Valley and has had a working vineyard on the church property since 1996, said sexton David Scarth, one of the three founders of the vineyard.
“About 20 vines were planted. In 1998, the original vineyard was relocated and expanded to include approximately 300 vines producing both red and white grape varieties. These include a cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. We normally blend a merlot with the cabernet sauvignon to produce our communion wine which the ladies seem to feel should be sweetened a bit! As far as I know, we are the only church in Canada with a producing vineyard,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Tony Turner, a parishioner at Trinity Church in Saint-Bruno, Que., diocese of Montreal, knows you do not necessarily need a vineyard to make communion wine, since he donates to the church a portion of the brew he makes in a locker at his condominium building. He has even designed labels for Trinity’s altar wine.

“If any other church wanted to brew their own, the costs are quite reasonable – about $4 per litre for a really good quality Australian cabernet sauvignon. It doesn’t require too much room or any exotic equipment,” Mr. Turner wrote.
In the end, it might be the clergy who would be the most interested in a lighter-alcohol, less-sweet altar wine that is easier on the digestion, since they usually must drink all leftover consecrated wine.

The Book of Common Prayer says that “if any of the consecrated bread and wine remain, the priest and other communicants shall reverently eat and drink the same.” Traditionally, clergy are also allowed to pour leftover wine directly into the ground, returning it directly to God’s creation, but this is not a convenient option if a cathedral altar, for instance, is far from the back door.
Dean Wall, who recalled that one of his previous parishes, Bishop Cronyn Memorial Church in the diocese of Huron, also made its own wine, said one Easter Sunday at the cathedral, he celebrated at all three services, consuming the equivalent of several chalices of communion wine. “I walked home and hit the bed and slept the whole afternoon,” he said.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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