Wine and the church trace intertwined paths through California’s history

By Paul Hodgins     3/13/2015

In California, wine and the Catholic Church are as tightly intertwined as two ancient grape vines. The state’s celebrated wine industry owes a huge debt to the Church’s agricultural practices and customs during the mission era. And if it weren’t for Catholicism’s need for sacramental wine, California’s winemaking industry might have withered completely during Prohibition.

Spanish missionaries and other early European settlers brought the first grape plants to the state in the 18th century. As the mission system crept inexorably north along the Camino Real, a path that hugged the California coast, grapes were planted immediately, mainly for the purpose of making wine.

Historians have determined that the first vineyard was planted around 1779 at California’s first mission, San Diego de Alcalá, in present-day San Diego; the premiere vintage was in 1782. Coastal California’s Mediterranean climate – warm, dry summers and mild winters with significant rain – were perfect for many kinds of southern European grapes, particularly those of Italy, Spain and southern France.

The preferred wine of the time would probably not find favor with many wine connoisseurs today: quite sweet, often fortified, it could be as strong as port or sherry. Nevertheless it was in high demand, particularly from the Church. Father Junipero Serra, the architect of the mission system, complained that the missions often struggled to produce enough wine for the celebration of the Mass.

The grape of choice for the mission vineyards, called the Mission grape, is shrouded in mystery. There is disagreement about its origins, although it probably came to the New World from Spain. Some sources think it interbred with the pink Criolla grape from Argentina and Chile’s red País grape. It was better for sweet, fortified wines and brandy than high-quality dry wines.

After the mission era ended in 1833, winemaking outside the supervision of the Church grew in popularity. Many of the early winemaking families came from Catholic countries, especially France, Italy and Spain, and were familiar with the processes and rules governing the making of altar wine. Buena Vista, Krug, Gundlach Bundschu and other commercial wineries of the time undoubtedly provided wine for the Catholic Church, although evidence is largely anecdotal.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Europe’s winemakers fought a losing battle with phylloxera, a vineyard-destroying root louse introduced from America in 1863. Ironically, the American wine industry flourished because New World varietals were resistant to the disease. By the turn of the 20th century, California boasted a large wine industry with a global reach, and California wines were beginning to win prestigious European competitions.

But the American wine industry was soon felled by a man-made disaster called Prohibition.

In 1919, the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Before 1920, the U.S. was home to more than 2,500 commercial wineries. Less than 100 survived the 13 years of Prohibition. Making wine for the Catholic Church was the principal source of income for many of them.

But during those dark days, the Church helped form the foundation for the modern California wine industry.

Brother Timothy Diener, a teacher at the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, was transferred in 1935 to the order’s Mont La Salle in Napa Valley’s Mount Veeder region. While there he became a wine chemist and helped the order’s already-established wine business. The Christian Brothers had provided sacramental wine during Prohibition, and under Brother Timothy’s guidance the winery thrived as a quality commercial producer. It was considered one of the nation’s finest wineries in those years.

Today, two California wineries provide about 90 percent of the nation’s sacramental wine:

n Mont La Salle Altar Wine Company in Napa (www.montlasallealtarwines.com). Originally part of Christian Brothers, who made altar wine beginning in 1882, Mont La Salle became a not-for-profit company after the brothers decided to exit the wine business in the 1980s.

n Cribari Quality Reserve Altar Wines in Fresno (www.altarwine.com). Cribari began making altar wine in 1917. The company sold its consumer division to Constellation Brands in 1991 to focus exclusively on sacramental wine.

Altar wines are made in the same manner as all quality wines, according to Patricia Kau of Joseph Filippi Winery in the Cucamonga Valley, which produces about 4,000 gallons a year for the Catholic Church. “We follow canon law, and we clearly label it,” he says. “Most parishes prefer a wine that clearly says ‘sacramental wine.’”

The winery has a letter of approbation from the Bishop of San Bernardino allowing its wines to be used in the Catholic service.

There are no rules governing the varietal or blend that goes into an altar wine, Kau says. “The two most popular are our Communion light sweet red, a blend that’s predominately Zinfandel and Ruby Cabernet with some Barbera; and Angelica, which is white and tastes a little like a cream sherry and is made from Mission grapes.”


Sacramental Wine: Rules and Customs


  • Most religions that use wine in their service require that only pure grape wine be used. Additives are not allowed.
  • In Eastern Christianity sacramental wine is usually red, symbolizing its change from wine into the blood of Jesus Christ.
  • In Western Christianity, white wine sometimes is preferred to avoid stains on altar cloths and vestments.
  • A small quantity of water is added to the wine when the chalice is prepared.
  • Over the centuries, various rules were formulated concerning wine used during the Eucharist. Canon 924 of the Code of Canon Law (1983) states:
  1. The most holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist must be celebrated in bread, and in wine to which a small quantity of water is to be added.
  2. The bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption.
  3. The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.