Faith in Grapes

Church operates vineyard to supply sacramental wine

The Vineyard at St. Joseph Catholic Church
The Vineyard at St. Joseph Catholic Church on the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City. Photos by Karen Norton

Parishioners at a church in northern Lower Michigan sip sacramental wine that is made from its own grapes.

St. Joseph Catholic Church on the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City began growing grapes after the 100-year-old church building was moved to a new 25-acre location in 2015. It’s located in the heart of the Traverse Wine Coast, encompassing the wineries of Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas.

It’s also not far from Chateau Chantal winery, where founder Bob Begin, also a church member, first floated the idea of carving out a 2.3-acre vineyard on the site.

And so The Vineyard at St. Joseph came to be. Parish members Allan Edford and Dan Brick were selected to oversee vineyard operations along with the creation, sale and distribution of a sacramental and private-label wine.

Volunteers in the vineyard doing fieldwork

Volunteers from St. Joseph and others were recruited to do the field work: pruning, weeding, mowing, netting and hand-harvesting among the tasks. Chateau Chantal produces the wines on behalf of the church. Other nearby wineries, including Chateau Grand Traverse, Brys Estate and Bonobo, and growers Island View Vineyard, Island View Orchards and Cimarron Farms, provide support as needed.

“We contract out for the specialized skills we need, like the spraying,” Edford says.

In all, 1.3 acres of the St. Joseph vineyard is dedicated to Rieslings, Edford reports. He anticipates a 2019 harvest of about 7,000 pounds.

Around three-fifths of an acre is devoted to Gamay Noir, with a harvest of about 3,800 pounds this year.

“We craft that as a rosé wine, and that becomes our altar or sacramental wine,” Edford says, noting that production should amount to about 120 cases this year. That’s enough to supply St. Joseph for a year, along with a few other parishes and schools, plus private-label family and wedding wines that are sold at Chateau Chantal.

“We put a Spanish name on our family wine, and that is Sagrada Familia, which is Spanish for ‘holy family,’ … to honor the Spanish heritage of the workers in this area who actually did work the vineyards,” Edford says.

The remainder of the vineyard is used to grow Marquette grapes, with a yield of about 1,200 pounds expected this year.

Grapes at The Vineyard at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

“Primarily what we do with the Marquettes and what we do with the Rieslings is we sell those grapes so we can generate revenue to cover our operating costs,” Edford says.

It’s a labor of love — and faith. Edford says several factors fuel participants’ passion for the project.

The primary driver is being able to supply the church with its own sacramental wine. But the volunteer angle is a close second.

“A lot of our volunteers say that working out in the field is very therapeutic,” he says. “And the other aspect is it’s communal — you’re out there working alongside your fellow parishioners and/or parishioners from other parishes, and you become friends.”

That’s one of the parts that volunteer Michael Cianciolo enjoys.

“It was a chance to learn something new and meet people and volunteer for the church, and it’s actually been great fun,” Cianciolo says. “It’s been everything I wanted and more.”

Another volunteer, Karen Norton, says she and husband Mike Norton have been spending a lot of time in the vineyard this fall.

“It is so much work, but we love being out there,” she says. “And even before it becomes the blood of Jesus, it’s really good wine.”

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