When Blessed Junipero Serra is canonized in September, one of his new designations could well be "patron saint of California wines." It was the Franciscan friars, under Serra's direction, who planted the first sustained vineyard at Mission San Juan Capistrano soon after it was established in 1776. Other missions also planted vineyards, and at San Gabriel Mission, the first and largest of the mission wineries was established.
Following in that tradition, the Oakland diocese has been growing grapes on 16 acres of empty land at three of its cemeteries for several years. The project began under Archbishop Allen Vigneron while he was serving as bishop of Oakland. Continued support has come from Oakland's current bishop, Michael Barber.
Bishop's Vineyard, a business unit of the Catholic cemeteries, is now selling wine made from those grapes through its Bishop's Vineyard Wine Club. Proceeds will support Catholic schools in the diocese.
The vineyards began in 2006 as a way to beautify vacant cemetery land and reduce maintenance costs. Each of the three cemeteries grows the grapes best suited for its climate, according to the project's website.
For example, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Antioch, where the climate is quite warm, the vineyards are full of the thicker-skinned cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel, which are less susceptible to burn. At St. Joseph Cemetery in the cool and damp climate of San Pablo, varieties of pinot noir, merlot and sangiovese thrive in the colder soil. Chardonnay and primitivo grapes flourish at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in the more temperate climate of Hayward.
Besides the wine club, with memberships ranging from $50-$160, the Bishop's Vineyard also sells individual bottles from $7.99 for a rosé to $36.99 for the Cabernet Sauvignon Collector's Reserve.
Its sacramental wine, handcrafted by a local winemaker, is available to parishes within and outside the diocese.
First-release wines will be shipped to club members in July or early August, just in time for a toast to California's new saint.