Diocese Cultivates Wine Grapes in Cemetery

The Associated Press
Wednesday, January 3, 2007; 3:26 AM

HAYWARD, Calif. -- Grapes and graves might seem an unlikely pairing, but Catholic cemetery officials in this San Francisco suburb are cultivating a graveyard vineyard in hopes of making sacramental wine.

Robert Seelig, director of funeral and cemetery services for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, views the vineyard in the context of the symbolic importance of wine to the church _ from the water-to-wine miracle of the wedding at Cana to the consecration of wine during the Mass.

"Wine and the blood of Christ is very much a strong symbol," he said. "We're always looking for signs and symbols to place in the cemetery whether it's a statue of a saint or some building. People like those things."

The vineyard began as a beautification project. Unused land at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery needed sprucing up. The diocese decided to spend $25,000 for grape vines rather than $50,000 per acre for weed-free, irrigated turf.

The nearest graves are about 60 feet away from the grapes, though Seelig suspects some people will request plots closer to the vines.

The diocese has hired a vineyard management contractor to put in zinfandel, chardonnay and pinot noir grapes on the cemetery's west-facing slopes.

"We talked about merlot, but we know the merlot market is flooded right now," said Tom Richardson, operations director for diocesan cemeteries and a quick study in the switch from landscaping to winemaking. "Pinot noir is supposed to be up and coming so we thought, `Well, let's put in a little more pinot noir.'"

The cemetery operators had no previous experience with viticulture "other than drinking wine," joked Seelig.

"We'd have meetings and you'd have people come in and they'd tell us how to do this stuff and you start learning as you go along," he said.

At the California Association of Winegrape Growers in Sacramento, president Karen Ross wasn't quite sure what to make of the cemetery vineyard, though she noted that cemeteries often abut farmland.

"The chances of having a vineyard as a next-door neighbor to a cemetery isn't all that farfetched," she said, "but I just can't think of any."

Still, a church-operated vineyard makes sense, she said. After all, Franciscan friars introduced wine grapes to California in the late 1700s.

Seelig plans to start out with sacramental wine. Should the wine prove worthy, it might be sold at parish fundraising dinners or in diocesan gift shops. And plans are afoot to plant grapes at two other cemeteries.

Someday, the diocese just might produce a Bishop's Private Reserve _ particularly appropriate in that Oakland's bishop is The Most Rev. Allen Vigneron.

Vigneron is French for vine grower.


On the Net: http://www.oakdiocese.org/

© 2007 The Associated Press