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placeholder December 15, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 21   •   Oakland, CA

Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, received a check for $250,000 in August from Robert Seelig, executive director of Catholic Cemeteries, to be used specifically for seminarian education. An additional $10,000 was donated to the Capital Campaign's educational endowment for Catholic schools.

Cemeteries' winemaking aids parishes, schools

Vineyards are planted in every diocesan cemetery. Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are planted at St. Joseph Cemetery in San Pablo, where grape vines also decorate the entry.

Joe Rivello

Catholic Funeral and Cemetery Services' decision to plant vineyards on vacant land and produce wine has turned into a financial win-win for the Diocese of Oakland, its parishes and schools.

The plan took seed in 2006, when executives at Catholic Cemeteries were looking for ways to beautify open grounds on various cemeteries and cut maintenance costs. Today, about 16 acres of various grapes has been planted, with about 1,200 cases (12 bottles to a case) of altar wine produced in 2013.

The grapes are produced into wine under contract, and the bottled altar wine is offered free to diocesan parishes. About 74 of the 84 parishes have been sampled with the Sacramental wine, said Joe Rivello, director of winery operations, and about half the parishes have taken advantage of the free offer.

Cemetery wine managers estimate parishes could consume about 865 cases a year. "At an estimated retail cost of $6 a bottle delivered, that is a savings of $52,000 to the parishes of the diocese," Rivello said.

At St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon, pastor Rev. Ray Zielezienski estimates the donated wine saves the parish about $2,500 a year.

In a letter to parishes, Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, wrote: "The grapes planted in our cemeteries are clearly now not only part of a beautification project, but, providentially, became a sign of our participation in eternal life, through the celebration of the Eucharist." Parishes, the bishop continued, will not only benefit from its quality, but also financially from the generous donation.

Catholic Cemeteries has also donated wine to parishes and charities to support local fundraising activities, Rivello said. A Knights of Columbus council raised $600 for youth homes, San Damiano retreat raised $720 at its annual fundraiser and St. Vincent de Paul used a winetasting benefit to raise funds at its 100th anniversary celebration.

"Grapes are the quintessential California crop," Rivello said.

Initially, Robert Seelig, Cemeteries' executive director, and Tom Richardson, development director, considered the advantages: Grapes require little maintenance and cost about half as much as maintaining a lawn; they have a smaller carbon footprint; you can either make wine or sell them to a vintner; and they are an important symbol of Christianity.

With the advice of Steve Brutocao of Brutocao Winery in Hopland, Cemeteries' first winemaker, Chardonnay, Primitivo and Pinot Noir root stock was planted at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Hayward; Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted at Holy Cross in Antioch; and Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese were planted at St. Joseph in San Pablo.

"After a few years, the grapes were harvested and sent to Brutocao winery in Hopland for crushing and bottling," Rivello said. "These first efforts yielded bottles of altar wine and varietals of chardonnay, cabernet and merlot."

The plan is to create a website and wine club, and sell the premium varietals.

"Hopefully next year, parishioners will be able to buy wines on the Bishop's Vineyard website," Rivello said. "But, it is not operational yet. We still have to get licensing and set up the ordering logistics. However, some wine may be purchased at the Cathedral Gift Shop."

"As to the pricing, we will have to see what the quality of the wine is before we can put a price on them," he said.

In 2013, Jim Ryan, a wine consultant formerly with Firestone Vineyard in Southern California and Concannon Vineyard in Livermore, joined the operation, Rivello said. Ryan brokered an agreement with Shauna Rosenblum and Matt Smith of Rock Wall Winery, Alameda, and they blended a new altar wine, and produced several premium wines for the "Bishop's Vineyard Wine Club."

None of the grapes are purchased, Ryan said. "Every grape in every bottle" comes from our land.

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