Ashes to ashes, dust to . . . wine?
That's the story at Bishop's Vineyard in Oakland, California, which is one of a sparse handful of wineries growing atop a cemetery. A traditional vintner might obsess over the pH balance or shale deposits present in the land, but these men of cloth are all about the dead and decaying.
When the Diocese of Oakland began a much-needed beautification project for the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery back in 2006, they came to an unusual conclusion for what to do with the unused and untended land. Instead of spending upwards of $50,000 per acre for simple irrigated turf, they decided to plant grape vines there at half the cost. That far-fetched solution became Bishop's Vineyard.
Robert Seelig and Tom Richardson of the Diocese of Oakland sought support from local experts and the then-Bishop, The Most Reverend Allen Vigneron. They began planting wine grapes at three local cemeteries: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Primitivo at Holy Sepulchre in Hayward; Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel at Holy Cross in Antioch; and Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Sangiovese at St. Joseph's in San Pablo.
"I think we celebrate new life in Christ as we bury folks here, and the new life is brought up symbolic of the grapes used in Mass which is definitely part of our own ritual used in the Catholic Church," Father Landeza of the Diocese told KTVU.
As it turns out, the Church administrators didn't in fact know all that much about wine, so they sought help from Shauna Rosenblum of Rock Wall Winery in Alameda.
"So he asked me if I'd be interested in making Sacramental wine. As a winemaker that's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I said absolutely," Rosenblum explained. However, it didn't take long for the winemaker to be shocked by how much greater the quality of the Chardonnay grapes were than she had expected.
"You know what? Shockingly, they're killer. No pun intended. I didn't mean to say that," she laughed.
Before a concerted effort to improve Bishop's Vineyard's quality in 2013, the would-be vintners were simply offering altar wine to Oakland's parishes free of charge. With Rosenblum's help, the quality of the wine improved and distribution possibilities expanded.
Or, as the Vineyard's website puts it, "Due to the Lord's grace and the unwavering support of Oakland's current Bishop, The Most Reverend Michael Barber, what started as simple sacramental altar wine and parish giveaways quickly grew."
Once harvested, the grapes begin to undergo processing into wine at an old airplane hanger at what used to be Alameda Naval Air Station.
The brand is now offering several types of both red and white wines commercially, available all across the country. They've even created a wine club, whose profits go to Catholic charities. Bishop's Vineyard is now producing hundreds of cases of wine per year.
Jim Ryan of Rock Wall told KTVU that the wine has, in general, been well-received. "Everyone's very positive about it except for a couple of people. They have this vision maybe of the vine coming out of a headstone or something like that," he said.
Looks like it's time to bust out the communion wafers and really taste the terroir.