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The Slowly Changing World of Sacramental Wine

TIMES WINE WRITER

When the priest offers the chalice at Communion, chances are the wine inside is not a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon but a sweet blended wine, fortified with brandy, from the San Joaquin Valley.

Sacramental wine, which has been part of religious ceremonies for centuries, has changed very little over time. And Napa Valley Specialty Wines, the national leader in sales of altar wine, says trends in this tiny and nearly invisible segment of the wine business move as slowly as the wines do.

Napa Valley Specialty Wines distributes about 65,000 cases of Mount LaSalle Altar Wine nationally, an 8% increase over 1990. You’ve probably never seen a bottle, though, since it is sold almost exclusively at church goods stores. All Mount LaSalle wines are sealed with screw caps, and most are sweet.

Next week, however, Napa Valley Specialty Wines will release a small amount of 1992 Mount LaSalle Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1992 Sonoma County Chardonnay. The bottles have corks. And the wines are dry.

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“We think these wines will serve the domestic needs of priests and other clergy,” says Napa Valley Specialty president Jim Cox. “As the clergy gets younger, the older tastes for sweeter wines may fade, and we want to have a dry wine for them.”

Still, Cox holds little hope this move toward dry wine will invade the church: “Sacramental wine is an amazingly conservative business,” he says. “It changes very little.”

Sacramental wine has been around for centuries, but its only real heyday in this country came during Prohibition, between 1920 and 1933.

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“There were certain permitted uses for ‘non-beverage wine’ during Prohibition,” says Thomas Pinney, an historian of the early U.S. wine industry and professor at Cal Poly Pomona. “There were medicinal uses, sacramental uses and wine for flavoring food.”

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Consequently, the sacramental use of wine became widely popular. “Suddenly a lot of religious communities sprang up,” Pinney says, “and the use of sacramental wine rose.”

However, even at its height, altar wine sales never exceeded more than about 1 1/2 million cases in a single year, Pinney says. And even that figure plummeted when authorities cracked down on the dubious use of the product in communities that were clearly not primarily religious.

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Although altar wine wasn’t a huge industry, it did save a number of wineries during Prohibition. Beaulieu Vineyard in the Napa Valley, for instance, remained in business by making and selling altar and kosher wines. "(BV owner Georges) de la Tour had excellent connections with the Catholic hierarchy,” says Pinney. BV made altar wine well into the 1950s, before refocusing on dry table wine.

The Christian Brothers winery also flourished during Prohibition by making altar wine. This Catholic teaching order, formally called the Brothers of the Christian Schools, used profits from the sale of all its wines to fund more than a dozen schools. In fact, the altar wine business, which became so substantial during Prohibition, remained a major part of the company’s business until Heublein Wines acquired the company in 1989.

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It was this sacramental wine business, including the use of the Mount LaSalle brand name, that was bought from Heublein by Cox, Hardy and two partners in January, 1990. It was a gamble, says Hardy, because church attendance was in decline and some inner-city churches were closing, which could have reduced altar wine sales.

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However, sales never dropped. Hardy attributes that to two factors.

“When (the Catholic church) reformed the Mass,” he says, “they went to an optional Communion where the parishioners can actually drink from the chalice. That meant they began to use a greater volume of wine than when the priest was simply dipping wafers in it. And what has happened too is that as some of these churches closed, the people simply moved to the neighboring church.”

Still, the altar wine business remains quite small. There are no firm figures, but most agree that no more than 150,000 cases of sacramental wine are sold in the United States annually--a tenth of its Prohibition-era peak.

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The second largest altar wine firm in the nation is Los Angeles’ San Antonio Winery, which bottles about 50,000 cases of such wine under its own brand as well as for the Cribari family. Between them, Napa Valley Specialty and San Antonio account for about 80% of all the sacramental wine sold in the United States.

In the past, most altar wine was called Angelica or Muscatel or Tokay or Port. Steve Riboli, vice president of San Antonio, says there is a recent trend to lower-alcohol wines, and to lighter-styled pink and red wines. “And (the priests are) using them other than in the Mass,” he adds. “They’re having them at the table too.”

Nearly half of Napa Valley Specialty’s sales are in table wines, but almost all are fairly sweet.

At the Los Angeles firm of Cotter Church Goods, Mike Cotter says there is little demand for dry table wine for sacramental use. He says his typical altar wine client still likes the sweeter, heavier, fortified wine for sacramental use.

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Hardy said 85% to 90% of his firm’s wine is sold to Catholic clergy, with the remainder sold to Lutheran, Orthodox and Episcopal churches. Cribari and Hardy say Lutherans and Episcopalians use more Port than drier wine, and that Spanish and Italian priests prefer red wine.

However, Hardy adds, “What the priests buy for their table and for their chalice may be two different things.”

Hardy says his firm’s altar wines generate about $1.6 million in gross sales and that the firm has been profitable from the day his company bought it. “But there aren’t many people who want to compete in this area, because the (profit) margins are considerably lower than most wineries would expect,” he says. “We are in the 20% profit range, and most wineries shoot for 30% to 35%.”

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Hardy says his company considered making kosher wine, but found that “though the American Jewish community has a long tradition of wine use, it’s primarily in the home, not in the house of worship. So it was not a market for us to move into.”

In addition, there are more restrictions in making a kosher wine than in making an altar wine. Kosher wine must be made according to strict guidelines, some of which are open to interpretation, depending on who’s making the wine. Hardy said the definition of an altar wine is simpler.

“There is a section in canon law that defines altar wine, but basically it must be pure wine made only from grapes, so technically most wines made in California would qualify,” he said.

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It can never be known how much wine is actually used for sacramental purposes, since a priest could buy wine from a local grocery store, if he desired, and use it sacramentally without violating canon law. In fact, says Riboli of San Antonio, a number of churches regularly order a few bottles of a fine Chianti along with sweeter wines. “They like the way it tastes,” he says.

Sweet wine, however, remains the traditional wine for the Communion chalice. Says Hardy: “If a pastor starts out using Mount LaSalle Angelica at the altar, chances are he’ll use it for his entire life.”

Wine of the Week

1992 Vegni Rosso ($7)-- The hills of Tuscany are strewn with vineyards canted at odd angles. The larger wine producers have buildings with distinctly Tuscan architecture, but one Chianti landmark is a plain brick block schoolhouse. Capezzina-Cortona is an enology school founded in 1885 by Dr. Angelo Vegni and now operated by Domenico Petracca. The enology students here make small amounts of commercial wine every year. In the last few vintages, production not only has expanded, the product has become excellent.

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Made almost entirely of Sangiovese grapes, Vegni Rosso might be compared to a fine, lighter-styled Chianti. However, the label (which depicts a drawing of the school’s main building) says simply Vino da Tavola di Toscana .

There is a light red color, a marvelously fruity nose with slight plummy, anise and black-cherry notes, and a soft taste and tart finish--a perfect foil for tomato-based dishes. Though 1992 wasn’t a great vintage for Chianti, this wine is a tasty treat and occasionally may be discounted to $6 or so. A companion wine, 1993 Chardonnay ($10), has lovely melon, lime and spice components and a delicate, crisp finish. Imported by Monte Bianco Imports of San Francisco.


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