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Grace and flavour

Published:  23 July, 2008

If the worldly trials of the drinks industry ever get you down, a trawl through the entries relating to religion (Bible, Eucharist, Religion) in the Oxford Companion to Wine could prove to be a tonic. Whatever your spiritual persuasion - Christian, Jewish, pagan - here you will find succinct reminders of the central role that wine has played in myriad aspects of Western spiritual and psychic development ever since Noah planted the first vine in Genesis.

Indeed, according to the Bible, Noah was the first to experience the escapist - and some would argue divinely mandated - joys of inebriation. You will also find insight into the complex corollaries between the rise of monotheism in the Near East and the nascence of modern economic principles permitted by settled agriculture, of which the vine is an important part.

For Christians, Easter is the culmination of the spiritual importance of wine. Although the significance of what is variously known as Eucharist or Holy Communion is debated between - and indeed occasionally within - Christian denominations, it can generally be considered to be 'a Christian sacrament commemorating the action of Jesus at his Last Supper with his disciples, when he gave them bread, saying, "This is my body," and wine, saying, "This is my blood"' (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

The commercial angle

For the companies that supply what is known in the Anglican tradition as communion wine and in the Catholic tradition as altar wine, it is the spiritual side that is a given (most are run by Christians). The worldly machinations of selling and making a profit, however, are less tangible. Nonetheless, selling communion wine is a business, and, as such, subject to many of the concerns that face others in the drinks industry, whether the companies in question are large or the equivalent of independent merchants.

Paul Playford is assistant manager of The Churches Purchasing Scheme Ltd (CPS), a subsidiary of The Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, which sells communion wine as well as anything else one could concievably need for a church (chairs, candles, nappy-changing tables for younger members of the congregation). He says that CPS's business flow 'very much reflects trends'. 'What is happening on the high street is no different from what is happening within CPS,' he says. 'If people are struggling to meet household bills, it can affect what they give in the collection plate.'

Neither has CPS been shielded from the headaches that face other companies listing a range of products. For a long time, CPS's communion wine had been produced and bottled by Harveys of Bristol under the Harveys name, with CPS the sole distributor.

When Allied bought Harveys and wanted to streamline its portfolio, communion wine had to go, which 'presented us with a dilemma', says Playford - of the wines CPS carried, this was by far the most popular. Displaying fine commercial acumen worthy of any in the wine trade, and after amicable negotiations with Allied and Harveys, CPS contacted the producers - in Valencia, Spain - and now buys direct from them.

Playford, who reckons CPS sells 1,500 cases of communion wine per year, says that CPS orders the wine in 500-case batches.Playford explains that although CPS is part of a larger parent organisation, the company does not benefit from any greater marketing budget than would a secular company of similar size (five employees).

CPS does, however, explore the synergies between the churches that Ecclesiastical insures and those that CPS would like to furnish with products. To that end, Playford explains that CPS has recently been working with three Anglican dioceses in an effort to raise awareness of its services among church workers, for example by having input at seminars and workshops for Church wardens. 'Telephone research following one such event revealed that despite being in business for over 20 years, awareness of CPS was not as high as presumed,' says Playford. 'However, without exception, all those approached were very positive about using CPS in the future, with one church warden saying that CPS was "a godsend".'

Modern marketing

Modern marketing principles and means are a priority of Hayes and Finch, which, like CPS, supplies communion wine as part of a range of products, selling more than 100,000 litres per year. According to marketing director Karen Reilly, the company markets its products via a 256-page full-colour catalogue which it updates 'approximately every 18 months' and 'mails to approximately 24,000 churches with Easter and Christmas brochures containing special offers and seasonally related products, in addition to further smaller brochures and newsletters sent at various times of the year'.

She adds that 'the branch network around the UK and Ireland enables Hayes and Finch to offer cases of altar wine with a free personal delivery service to most customers, via the company's fleet of vans and drivers.' In response to consumer demand for its products in the US, and after several months of research and feasibility studies, the company recently opened a US office, near Philadelphia, of which Reilly is the president.

As in the secular wine industry, however, marketing only gets you so far if what is in the bottle doesn't match expectations. She explains that while Hayes and Finch wines 'have all been carefully selected for their smooth, light taste to suit the morning palate, over the years, tastes have changed'. 'People are now more knowledgeable about New World wines, so we have to keep up with new tastes and trends,' she says.

However, Francis Peel, who founded and runs Whitebridge Wines in Stone, Staffordshire, which is housed in a 7,000-square-foot warehouse and stocks an impressive range of wines, from interesting everyday bottles to top crus, feels that communion wines leave a lot to be desired.

A committed churchgoer who read theology at Oxford, Peel says that around five years ago 'I got fed up with the quality I was getting while I was on my knees'. He decided to provide a communion wine that satisfied his palate and 'looked into communion wine on the continent'. He found, however, that France and Spain 'used different styles - sweeter and weaker', so he eventually sourced a Spanish Port-style wine that was not a communion wine.

Called Poterion, the Greek word for cup, the wine is 18% abv and thus attracts higher duty than usual communion wines (see box opposite), but Peel's mission to provide a premium communion wine makes him unwilling to compromise. He points out that the higher abv means that the wine stays fresher for longer and the intensity of its flavour stands up to the dilution with water that takes place as part of the communion rite.

He further notes that because he sources direct from the supplier, he is able to offer the product at a competitive price.

'There have always been middlemen in the market - people making the wine, who sell to Church suppliers, who sell it to the clergy,' Peel explains. 'We make the whole thing simpler and clearer. We can offer a better product at a competitive price.' He does stress, though, that at 20 cases a week of sales on average, 25% of the profit of which is given to charity, this aspect of his company is a 'bolt-on' and more a means of 'providing a service'. 'I am not going to retire on it,' he says.

What's in the bottle

B 17 Of bread and wine for the Holy Communion

1. The church wardens of every parish, with the advice and direction of the minister, shall provide a sufficient quantity of bread and wine for the number of communicants that shall from time to time receive the same.

2. The bread, whether leavened or unleavened, shall be of the best and purest wheat flour that conveniently may be gotten, and the wine the fermented juice of the grape, good and wholesome.

3. The bread shall be brought to the communion table in a paten or convenient box and the wine in a convenient cruet or flagon.'

The Canons of the Church of England, Canons Ecclesiastical promulged by the Convocations of Canterbury and York in 1964 and 1969 and by the General Synod of the Church of England from 1970

Canon 924, Article 3: The Rites

and Ceremonies of the Eucharistic Celebration

1. The most holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist must be celebrated in bread, and in wine to which a small quantity of water is to be added.

2. The bread must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption.

3. The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.'

From The Code of Canon Law in English translation, prepared by The Canon Law Society Of Great Britain And Ireland In Association With The Canon Law Society Of Australia And New Zealand And The Canadian Canon Law Society. English translation copyright 1983 The Canon Law Society Trust, Sixth edition 2000.

As the canons governing the use of communion wine in the Church of England and Catholic churc, quoted above, indicate, wine used in Eucharistic celebrations must be real wine, and not unfermented grape juice. While in some Church of England churches concessions are being made towards alcoholics who wish to avoid alcohol altogether, and while in most Methodist churches non-alcoholic wine' or even substitutes such as Ribena have come to be used in deference to the teetotalism inherent in this tradition, the Bible and subsequent tradition mandate that the wine be alcoholic.

As Professors James Douglas and Mary Douglas explain in the Oxford Companion to Wine, Sacramental signs

are supposed to be "natural", that is, unmistakable and able to be specified unambiguously.'

Because wine fermented to less than the maximum 18% abv stipulated by Church law is unambiguously prone to instability if left open for too long, this presents a range of challenges to both suppliers and clergy, and is also the reason why communion wine tends to be very sweet. As J Chandler & Co tells its clients in its Altar wines brochure, by skilful selection of wines presenting a nice balance between alcohol - below the permitted maximum - and natural grape sugar, it is possible to provide Altar wines that are stable. It is not possible - and we are often asked - to provide an entirely dry wine without any sugar that can maintain stability and purity.'

Paul Playford, during his research into what is meant in Catholic Canon Law by not corrupt', gained further insight into the making of altar wine from Jesuit Brother John May, director of mission at Sevenhill in South Australia's Clare Valley, where he was chief winemaker until 2000 and where sacramental and non-religious wine has been made for more than 150 years.

Sacramental wine regulations are that wine is made from grapes, with no artificial additives other than those made from grapes, such as tannin and tartaric acid, no sweetening and minimum sulphuric acid,' May states.

Altar wine is not valid for mass if more than a third has become vinegar, or if added substances make up a notable part of it. Fortification with grape spirit can be used, providing the addition does not approach a third of the final mixture, and should be done in one operation. The normal practice for Sherry-style wines is to halt fermentation with the addition of minimum alcohol and then to top up to the required strength later. However, the Canonists were not winemakers!'

While suppliers of communion wine have ensured that the wine is as stable and palatable as possible, and while many provide a range of serve sizes to help congregations of varying sizes keep demand and supply in tandem without too much loss of wine - many offer a 20-litre bag-in-box - it can still be challenging for clergy to meet demand.

The Reverend Vicky Maunder, of St Peter's Eaton Square in London, recalls that in a small, previous parish, they went to the nearby off licence to buy bottles of Sherry whenever they needed more communion wine.

Other challenges one hears about anecdotally include altar boys dipping into the communion wine in their first experiments with alcohol and, indeed, clergy partaking of more than the usual approximately one-fifth of an ounce of a communion portion'.

At one exhibition,' recalls John Payne of Frank Wright Mundy, leading suppliers of non-alcoholic wines to Nonconformists for almost 150 years, an Anglican clergyman stopped to discuss our wine and when I informed him that, according to one of his colleagues we had just spoken to, it did not comply with Canon Law, he replied, "That is probably the only part of Canon Law that I keep."'