Catholic churches need wine. It’s written in the Code of Canon Law that uncorrupted grape wine be served during communion. But sacramental wine is more than just fermented juice; it’s a stand-in for the blood of Christ and his sacrifice. And in America, the history of this sacred wine, and the destiny of those who make it, was ironically shaped by a law that deemed alcohol decidedly profane: Prohibition.
The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol, and the accompanying Volstead Act enabled the government to enforce that ban. David Blair, the commissioner of internal revenue from 1921 to 1929, was in charge of regulating the alcohol ban, and he was a strong, even fanatical supporter of the Prohibition cause. In the run-up to Prohibition, he stated that every bootlegger should be stood up before a wall and shot to death. He also encouraged people to anonymously report their law-breaking neighbors.
But in 1922, Blair removed the ban from sacramental wine, the Yorkville Enquirer reported, allowing priests to use wine in religious services. Reports from newspapers at the time seem to suggest that even before Blair eased up the ban for priests, local officials had been allowing church leaders the use of wine in their sacraments (doctors could also prescribe it with a special prescription pad). Very quickly, religious permits began to operate as a loophole for the young wine industry growing in California.
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Making sacramental wine meant surviving Prohibition. It gave wineries making church wine a huge competitive advantage, says Keith Wallace, the founder of Wine School of Philadelphia. But getting a permit didn’t come easily. Commissioner Blair’s 1922 rules included a host of measures meant to keep sacramental wines in the hands of the devout. First, wineries had to obtain permits from the Prohibition director. Then a religious leader had to act as the proprietor of the winery when it came to production and distribution, and the same leader had to ensure that the wines were used for religious purposes, not general consumption. Under no circumstances could wine be consumed at the wineries.
Still, a loophole is a loophole, and with houses of worship one of the only legal outlets for alcohol, production of holy wine skyrocketed. “Grape production in heavily Roman Catholic California increased by 700 percent during Prohibition,” writes Gregory Elder, professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. This increase in production came despite the fact that the laity was forbidden from partaking in the sacrament at that time. “One has to wonder where all that sacramental wine was going if not into the rituals. Having a friend in the clergy might lead to better parties, at the very least,” Elder concludes.
Indeed. In 1925, the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ reported that nearly three million gallons of wine had been withdrawn from warehouses for sacramental purposes. “There is no way of knowing what the legitimate consumption of fermented sacramental wine is, but it is clear that the legitimate demand does not increase 800,000 gallons in two years,” the report concluded.
Illegitimate demand, on the other hand, knew no bounds. It meant that many priests were essentially bootleggers. “One of William Faulkner’s own personal bootleggers was allegedly a young New Orleans priest who took his customers’ orders in the belfry of the St. Louis Cathedral,” writes Kathleen Morgan Drowne in her book “Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933.” Then there was Georges de Latour, a Catholic and friend of the archbishop of San Francisco. The archbishop insisted all the priests in his diocese buy their wine from Latour. “The amounts were so huge that it is clear that most of the priests must have been bootleggers as well,” writes Edward Behr in his book about Prohibition. The number of questionable priests predictably skyrocketed.
But the religious exception not only made priests into bootleggers. It also made churches targets for thieves, or people just thirsty for a glass of wine. The owner of a New York wholesaler must have been frustrated but not completely surprised when, in late December of 1919, he found that nine barrels of wine had been siphoned via a 75-foot pipe from his basement to another person’s seller. “The owner had a special permit from the government to keep the wine in bond, with the understanding that it was to be sold for religious purposes only,” the Associated Press reported at the time. That permit was enough to keep the wholesaler safe from law enforcement, but not from the criminal element thirsty for a drink.
In 1920 in Washington, D.C., the Associated Press reported on another such theft. “Church Wine Lures Him From Prayers,” ran the headline. “Rev. J. Henning Nelms of the Church of the Ascension, noted the devout appearance of a stranger, kneeling alone in the church,” the writer notes. “Some time later the stranger had gone and with him six quarts of communion wine from the church cup-board.”
It wasn’t a rare case. In 1921, the Associated Press reported on yet another theft. “Youthful crime tendency, the Volstead Act, and sacramental wine were curiously muddled in a story revealed today in which four youngsters were alleged to have entered a west Tampa church, abducted the wine in question, which they later embibed (sic)” (The youthful offenders were not impressed with its quality. “It was fine,” they later said, though they were disappointed when it didn’t make them drunk).
One priest was even shot and killed for his wine. “Priest Killed For Wine; Man Escapes,” reads the headline in the South Bend News-Times. “Police today were without a trace of the bandit who shot and killed Father Florian Chodniewicez, 65, pastor of St. Florence’s Roman Catholic church,” the story reads. “The aged priest was shot in the hip by the bandit he surprised while looting the church’s sacramental wine storeroom. Loss of blood caused the pastor’s death,” the item concludes.
Today, the sacramental wine market is less than a half of one percent of all wines sold in the United States, and that number will likely continue to fall as the country becomes less religious. But there will always be Catholic churches that need wine. The Prohibition loophole ended up shaping this corner of the wine industry in ways that persist to this day, not least because the regulations created a high barrier to entry for new companies that wanted to get into the church-wine business.
Cribari Altar Wines is one of just three major companies that produce the vast majority of sacramental wine in the U.S. The Cribaris started making sacramental wines in 1917, and their foothold in the market solidified during Prohibition.
Sacramental wine is “about people’s faith and making sure that they’re practicing in the appropriate way,” Ben Cribari, the fifth-generation owner of Cribari Altar Wines, tells VinePair. “The history of being in the business for so long, and providing these products specifically for that use,” are just a few of the reasons why the company has thrived.