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Sunday, 13 September 2015

California Diocese Sells Premium Wine Made from Cemetery-Grown Grapes!

"There's definitely some jokes one could make about the wines having a specific minerality." – winemaker Shauna Rosenblum.

It started as a cost-saving gardening project. The Oakland Diocese wanted to beautify the grounds of some Catholic cemeteries east of San Francisco, but grasses are expensive. So in 2006, the executive director of cemeteries came up with the idea of planting ornamental grapevines.
Why not? It's California. People like grapevines. All that was needed was the blessing of the Bishop of Oakland, whose name was – I swear I'm not making this up – The Most Reverend Allen Vigneron. Naturally, he got on board. No wonder: Grass costs $50,000 an acre, whereas vineyards are $20,000 an acre or less, said executive director of cemeteries Robert Seelig.

"I said, in the worst case, if we get bad grapes, we'll make altar wine out of it," Seelig told Wine-Searcher. "Altar wine, you just have a little sip. It doesn't have to be that good."
Mainly, the vines were there to look pretty when people came to visit their loved ones. And that worked out great.
"It turns out the folks with people buried in the cemeteries really appreciate the lush greens," Catholic Cemetery Services marketing director Kevin Sherwood told Wine-Searcher. "People coming in really want to be buried next to the vineyards. Some have asked about moving. We've had inquiries about weddings out there. It's a real basic human connection, being next to the vineyards."
It being California, they didn't just plant Baco Noir and Norton willy-nilly regardless of the climate. Seelig hired a vineyard manager from Wente Vineyards, who advised the church to plant Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Primitivo at Holy Sepulchre in urban Hayward, closest to the ocean; Sangiovese and Merlot at St. Joseph's in windy San Pablo; and Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel at Holy Cross in much warmer Antioch. The Merlot hasn't been successful, but the other varieties were well-matched to the sites.
When they got their first crop in 2009, they trucked the grapes up to Hopland to turn into altar wine. But Seelig soon thought they could do better.
So in 2013, the diocese approached Shauna Rosenblum, winemaker of Rock Wall Wine Company in nearby Alameda, about making sacramental wine for them.
"We harvested everything together and turned it into one big sacramental rosé," Rosenblum told Wine-Searcher. "(Assistant winemaker) Matt (Smith) and I were looking at the grapes and we said, 'This Chardonnay is pretty good, we ought to ferment it separately next year.' Then we said, 'Hey, this Cabernet is pretty good. It could use oak treatment'."
How was Rosenblum chosen as winemaker, with, um, a name like Rosenblum? "I think they really liked my style of winemaking," she said. "I make a well-balanced, elegant style of wine. I think that's what they were looking for. I'm not Catholic, but people always assume I'm Jewish, with a last name like Rosenblum. I'm a European mutt. My Russian side is Jewish. Technically I'm Christian, though. We have a Christmas tree and a Menorah during the holidays."
Seelig said, "The church doesn't sit there and say, we only deal with Catholics. We just looked for who was a good fit. We wanted to have somebody local. We wanted to keep the production local."
Rosenblum convinced the diocese to make a line of reserve wines, called Bishop's Vineyard. They're available online at the Bishop's Vineyard website for surprisingly reasonable prices for California, considering they're single-vineyard – well, single-cemetery – wines made in small lots by a well-respected winemaker. Not only that, you won't find any other commercial wines on the market grown in Hayward, because most of the land there now goes to housing for living people.
"Hayward is old farming country." Rosenblum said. "Back in the day, Hayward was planted to peach trees and cherry trees. The weather hasn't really changed. So for Chardonnay and Pinot, the Hayward growing climate is really similar to Sonoma Carneros. It has warm days and cool evenings. And the soil in Hayward allows the roots to run down deep. It's close enough to the ocean that they can probably soak up a little bit of salt."
Sherwood said people with loved ones buried in the cemeteries have been interested in the wines.
"They're connected to it, very much so," Sherwood said. "It's completely unique. It's wine from consecrated land. It's literally Catholic land."
But they may not be unique for long. The Catholic church has cemeteries all over the U.S. – indeed, the world – and Seelig said there has been a lot of interest in the Bishop's Vineyard wine program. Soon, a cemetery near you may be producing high-end Chardonnay, God and climate willing.
Proceeds from Bishop's Vineyard wines will go to support Catholic schools in the diocese.
"It'll save people from having to pass the hat," Sherwood said.

Source: http://www.wine-searcher.com/

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