The Cup of Salvation: Where Does Altar Wine Come From?

Producers of sacramental altar wines are a select group.

O-Neh-Da Vineyards in Conesus, New York (shown above), and Cribari Vineyards in Fresno, California, are two vineyards that make altar wine.
O-Neh-Da Vineyards in Conesus, New York (shown above), and Cribari Vineyards in Fresno, California, are two vineyards that make altar wine. (Courtesy of the vineyards)

When at the request of his Mother Mary, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding at Cana, it was the finest of all wines. And it was the purest wine of all when, at the Last Supper, he “took a cup … saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28). The wine had to be the purest from the vine because earlier Our Lord also said, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55).

Naturally, the wine that will become the true Blood of Christ at the consecration during Mass must also be of the purest, highest quality.

To meet the necessary standards, producers of sacramental altar wines are a select group. Two such producers are William Ouweleen of O-Neh-Da Vineyards in Conesus, New York, in the state’s Finger Lakes region, and Ben Cribari of Cribari Vineyards in Fresno, California, located in the state’s Central Valley wine region.

When John Paul II celebrated Mass at World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002, the altar wine was from Cribari Vineyards. When Pope Francis celebrated Mass in New York City in 2015, “Cardinal Dolan insisted on using only O-Neh-Da wines for the Pope’s visit,” vintner Ouweleen told the Register.

Unlike table wines, the altar wines from these vintners have to meet requirements set by canon law and the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM). Briefly, Canon Law 924§3 declares what qualifies for valid and licit matter: “The wine must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt.” GIRM 322 continues: “The wine for the celebration of the Eucharist must be made from the fruit of the vine (Luke 22:18), natural and unadulterated, that is, without admixture of extraneous substances.”

Ouweleen explained that grapes are the only fruit on earth that will ferment by themselves. “Until Louis Pasteur discovered how fermentation takes place, it was a mystery, so a sign the Creator loves us,” he said.

Sacramental wine for the altar cannot rely on any “helpers.” Only a very small amount of one kind of preservative is considered valid — sulfite. The fraction of added sulfite is necessary to prohibit refermentation, said Ben Cribari, a fifth-generation winemaker. His family has been making sacramental wines since 1917. “What we do and have been doing for our entire time is simply take California grapes, different varieties that we use to make our blends, and use a minimum amount of intervention in our modern preserving of wines, the addition of sulfites … just a bare minimum to keep the wines in accordance with canon law.”

“Sulfites are not part of the wine — technically in the wine. They are in-solution with the wine,” Ouweleen said, also explaining that sulfites are natural and do not introduce a synthetic ingredient. Canon law states that sulfites are permissible “to keep the integrity of, and preserve, the wine,” because otherwise it would quickly start turning into vinegar, which would be invalid matter for Mass.

Based in Fresno, Cribari Vineyards ( has been making varieties of altar wine from grapes in California’s central valley. “Our family are devout Catholics for every generation — it’s something important to us,” Cribari said. The family has made the Church a central part of their lives, and the reason they got involved in making the sacramental wine way back “was to provide it in a way that was efficient.” Today it — and making altar wine — remains “something important to us and our family to continue to do.”

Today the Cribari family vineyards provide 10 varietals “for different tastes,” Cribari said, adding that they also produce a red and white wine. Because some priests are concerned about spilling and staining altar linens, he noted, there are white varietals, and some priests want the wine to be “more visually red, like the Blood of Christ.”

Rosato, a rosé wine sweet and light in flavor, is the No. 1 seller. Cribari said the second most popular is the producer’s Angelica. Similar to sherry, Angelica is light red — slightly darker than the Rosato — but also sweet. Cribari has distributors in every state and clients as far away as Poland and Vietnam.

At St. Therese parish in Fresno, Msgr. Raymond Dreiling, pastor and diocesan vicar general of the Diocese of Fresno, continues the parish’s tradition of using Cribari wines at the church. “We use that winery,” he said, “simply because it’s local, fulfills all the qualities the Church requires, and has the approbation of the local bishop. We’re happy with it.”

Tom Cribari hopes his 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter will be the sixth generation to continue the family tradition. “We’re proud to be doing this for a long time, and it’s a very important core to our business. The Church is important to us, and people trust we’re making the wines in the way of the guidelines of the Church.”

O-Neh-Da Vineyard’s ( “authentic sacramental wines” have had the approval of the bishops of Rochester, New York, since their founding. The winery, located in the beautiful upstate Finger Lakes region, renowned for its wineries, was started by Bishop Bernard McQuaid (1823-1909), the first bishop of the Rochester Diocese and first president of Seton Hall University. To provide sacramental wine for himself and his priests, Bishop McQuaid founded O-Neh-Da (the Native American name for Hemlock Lake) in 1872, making it the oldest such dedicated winery in the country.

Upon his death in 1909, Bishop McQuaid willed the property to St. Bernard’s Seminary, which he had founded in Rochester. The diocese ran the winery until it turned ownership over to the Society of the Divine Word, which operated it until the late 1970s, when it came into private ownership. The Ouweleens are running it fully in line with its founding principles as a family farm and vineyard.

The vineyard’s founding mission is “to make wine that is pure-grape wine for clergy to use in the Holy Sacrifice of Mass,” said vintner Ouweleen. He and his wife, Lisa, and son Jacob, along with a small team of friends who live nearby, run the winery and are committed to creating valid and licit wines for Mass.

“I make 100% pure-grape Finger Lakes wine,” he emphasized. “This is a mission, not a business. I do it to defend the integrity of the Eucharist. I’m going to do the best job I can. It’s a labor of love.”

Raised Catholic and educated in Jesuit schools, and after being a fundraiser for a Catholic school for more than 20 years, Ouweleen now focuses on grapes — growing the fruit naturally, without chemicals.

“I grow the soil, the soil grows the vine, the vine produces the grapes, and when I harvest the grape and squeeze it, the Good Lord makes the wine,” he explained. “It is natural.”

Ouweleen follows the same noble tradition of the way wine was made for thousands of years, including at the time of Jesus. He explained that wine ferments spontaneously, without the aid of dried, bagged yeast, non-grape sugars, flavorings, water and other additives. This all-natural approach to winemaking retains “the mystery and majesty of naturally fermented juice becoming wine for Mass.” (See steps below.)

The vineyard produces 10 different varietals, including White Haut Sauterne, St. Michael’s White, St. Michael’s Rosé, Chalice Red, St. Michael’s Red and Angelica. Pink Delaware, with its light, sweet flavor and soft pink color, is the most popular, followed by St. Michael’s Rosé, St. Michael’s Blush and St. Michael’s Red. There are white wines, too. The majority of the churches in the Rochester Diocese use O-Neh-Da wines, which are also distributed up and down the East Coast, from Toronto to Florida. And they are exclusively used in Guam.

Father Ronald Antinarelli, pastor of Our Lady of Victory/St. Joseph Church in Rochester, prefers O-Neh-Da because there’s no question it’s valid matter. “He said wine off the shelf might have, or has, other matters making it invalid, “so no Mass. You couldn’t be sure if you buy from secular wineries. This is vinum de vite” — pure juice of the grape naturally and properly fermented,” he said. “It’s still the same vineyard started by our first bishop, and all the wines they produce there are valid for use at Mass. Our current bishop is very much behind them.”

Every three years the winery is reviewed by the Rochester bishop and “granted a letter of approbation, which testifies to the integrity and liturgical fitness of the wine,” Ouweleen told the Register.

“We can guarantee the wine is valid and licit.”

While 95% of the vineyard’s production is sacramental wine, O-Neh-Da has a winemaking “sister,” Eagle Crest Vineyards, also located in the Finger Lakes region, that accounts for the remaining 5% of wine sold locally as premium dinner wine — this wine was served at dinner with Pope Francis during his New York visit.

Although producing altar wines is a difficult process, Ouweleen remains dedicated, saying, “I have the most honorable job on Earth.”

The Steps of Sacramental Winemaking

The process for sacramental wines should differ from dinner wines. “Wine is made in the vineyard,” according to vintner William Ouweleen. “The more work you do to produce ripe and healthy fruit, the less you will have to do in the winery to make the wine stable,” he told the Register.

He explained the process at his vineyard of O-Neh-Da in Conesus, New York. The annual cycle begins in early spring. Vine canes are tied to the trellis system to support buds that produce clusters of grapes.

“Throughout the summer months, we mow in between the rows of vines and use a ‘green hoe’ to remove weeds,” Ouweleen explained. (Commercial vineyards not making sacramental wines usually spray herbicides, pesticides or insecticides.) In the Finger Lakes, while insects aren’t yet a huge problem, two types appear that Ouwellen treats with “Neem oil, which sits on the surface but does not penetrate the fruit,” he said.

When ready, grapes at Oh-Neh-Da are harvested as much as possible by hand, as Oh-Neh-Da does. Many commercial vineyards will harvest grapes with a mechanical picker, Ouweleen said, which sometimes crushes them, producing juice that can start fermenting right there in the vineyard. “We use a combination of hand-harvesting and machine picking, depending on harvest conditions,” he explained. Weather is the big factor. A dry rain-free harvest means more time for hand-picking. But foul and wet weather means “we want to get the grapes in as quickly as possible, and so machine-harvesting is applied.”

In the winery, several machines separate juice from skins, stems and seeds. The juice sits in a chilled tank until fermentation begins spontaneously. Ouweleen explained that most commercial wineries add dried bagged yeast, yeast nutrients, cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup at this stage. “Our fermentations go very slowly over many months, gently fermenting the grape juice into natural wine,” he said. “Commercial wineries can see the fermentations finish in a matter of a few days.”

In spring, the wine is “racked” from the top of the tanks; spent cells from naturally occurring yeast have settled to the bottom. “We then filter the wines and transfer the finished wine to tanks for bottling,” Ouweleen said of the process that includes “a very small amount of potassium metabisulfite (sulfur) … to insure [the wine] is stable for use at the Sacrifice of the Mass.”

             Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.