Amazing Grapes: How the Church Created and Saved America’s Wine Industry
Wine has always a been a means for me to explore the world, discover new tastes and aromas, and engage with fellow wine professionals from around the world. As a wine educator, nothing fulfills me more than encouraging my students to discover new wines and spark a bit of the passion I have for the world’s most venerated beverage. As a Catholic, wine has also played a significant role in my spiritual beliefs, as well as those of my fellow mass-goers. The relationship between the church and wine industry is as intertwined as the oldest and gnarliest of grapevines. In fact, the wine industry has the church to thank for its genesis and sustainment in the Americas.
Holy (Founding) Father Beginnings
English Puritans, French Huguenots, and German Pietists believed wine was a gift from God and were the first to plant vines when they arrived in the Americas in the early 1520’s. Unsurprisingly, the French Huguenots are the first group referenced in historical texts for having successfully made wine in the mid-1500’s. But these early attempts to continue wine production with both native vines and European—or vitis vinifera—vines on the East Coast failed due to incompatible climactic conditions. Despite the unsuitable wine-growing weather and numerous failed attempts, tenacious German Protestant refugees and the French were able to establish a fledgling industry after the American Revolution in areas such as Finger Lakes region of northern New York State. Even Founding Father Thomas Jefferson believed viticulture was a God-given vocation. And while his own attempts to grow wine grapes failed, his evangelical efforts to promote wine helped establish an American wine culture.
Mission (Wine) Makers
Under the dominion of Spain, the development of viticulture on the West Coast was directly linked to the establishment of Jesuit and Franciscan missions. Jesuit monks grew vitis vinifera grapes for use in mass in New Mexico as early as 1590, then expanded to southern California shortly after. After the Jesuit order was banished from Spain the Franciscans quickly assumed the missions and settled in northern California. It was one of these intrepid monks that brought Catholicism and viticulture to the Bay Area with the founding of San Francisco de Asis in 1776. Twenty-one missions were eventually founded there and with the climate much more favorable for grape growing than the East Coast of America, the rest is California wine history.
While the success of the Franciscan friars was short-lived, the seed was planted for secularization and expansion of the wine industry. By 1837, all missions were dissolved by the Mexican government following independence from Spain. But even despite phylloxera—a louse which decimated the wine producing world in the mid-1800’s—California viticulture became a thriving industry, due to entrepreneurial lay producers. Unfortunately, at the height of its momentum Prohibition went into effect in January 1920 dealing a devastating blow to the industry. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibited production, consumption, importation, and exportation of alcohol. The production of wine collapsed from 55 million of gallons in 1919 to 3.6 million in 1925. While the impact of Prohibition is still felt today, the church is credited for sustaining the wine industry during this turbulent 14-year period. Exceptions were made for sacramental wine and wineries serving this need had a competitive advantage. The loophole was a lifesaving mechanism for many wineries especially for those closer to big cities with strong Catholic populations. Of course, there were plenty of abuses with many bootleggers linked to churches and clergy populations curiously exploding during that time. But ultimately the church can be credited with sustaining—and creating—an industry and culture that has become one of the largest sectors of the American economy.
Spirituality and wine is a deeply interesting—and personal—topic. I believe wine is an extraordinary gift to humanity—a gift from above. Let’s reflect together on this connection. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my website at www.thevinicola.com to schedule some wine time.