VATICAN CITY — Last month, Pope Francis told a little story during his weekly Catechism lesson about Jesus’s first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana, a well known Biblical passage during which Jesus saves the party by turning water into wine.
In classic Francis form, he ad-libbed the better part of the lesson, explaining that at a certain point in the celebration the wine ran dry. “How is it possible to celebrate the wedding and have a party if you lack what the prophets indicated was a typical element of the messianic banquet?” he asked the crowd.
“Water is necessary to live, but wine expresses the abundance of the feast and the joy of the celebration. And a wedding party which lacks wine—the newlyweds feel ashamed of this. Imagine finishing a wedding party drinking tea—it would be shameful! There is no celebration without wine!”
And who can argue with that?
Apparently, the Catholic Church does practice what it preaches. Vatican City, with a population of just 842 people, has the highest per capita wine consumption in the world, according to the California Wine Institute, an American organization that tracks such trends. They found that each Vatican City resident consumes an average of 74 liters of wine annually, which is twice the per capita consumption in the rest of Italy and seven times the per capita consumption in the United States.
One might automatically assume that the reason for the high quantity of consumption is surely the wine used at holy mass, but the so-called sacramental wine isn’t even part of the equation, according to the Wine Institute. Wine used in mass can be red or white, sweet or dry, but it must be fermented naturally from grapes and not mixed with anything else, which is why the Vatican orders it from a special distributor.
An assistant to Monsignor Jose Avelino Bettencourt, who heads the Vatican’s protocol office, told The Daily Beast that wine used in sacramental ceremonies inside the Vatican city state is not ‘house wine’ or bottled wine, but rather comes in vats that are doled out as necessary, and therefore does not figure into the per capita consumption. “Altar wine and table wine are two different things,” he said. “Sacramental wine is considered holy, table wine is of a different variety.”
The most logical reason for the Vatican’s high consumption of wine is likely demographics. Among those who live inside the fortification walls are families and the population is mostly made of up ageing prelates and nuns, many of whom live communally and dine in mess halls where wine flows freely—quite literally. Wine is one of the most common gifts to the pope, with several vineyards printing special labels and sending cases of various vintages to the Vatican so they can claim the pope drinks their wine, which he regularly shares with Vatican City inhabitants.
Pope Francis’s own grandfather Giovanni Angelo Bergoglio was a winemaker from the Piedmont area of northern Italy, and he was known for making sweet Grignolino wine, which Francis (as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) regularly had sent to Argentina. He has also blessed winemakers and his given several private audiences to producers and sommeliers at the Vatican. And when Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi first visited Francis, he brought a selection of Tuscan dessert wines that the pope was said to appreciate.
Bodegas Heras-Cordon, a Rioja Alta winery from Spain, started gifting wine to the Vatican under John Paul II. Now they produce a vintage with the papal seal on it they claim Francis orders and say it is one of his favorite sips.
American winemakers Tim and Steph Busch of Trinita Cellars also make special papal wine that sells for $75 a bottle. In 2014, at their second audience with the pope as part of his blessing of winemakers, they presented the pontiff with bottles of Cabernet FRANCis, a wine named after him, for which he thanked them and then said, “Your wine is augmenting the pope’s vices.”
As the Busch’s tell the story, the pope’s assistants later called the couple to tell them how much the pope said he enjoyed the wine and asked if they had more with them in Rome. They say they then scrambled and called all the cardinals they had given bottles to and asked for them back to give to the pope. The California couple also made a Zinfandel wine for Pope Benedict XVI they called “RatZINger” and they produce a full list of religiously-inspired wines including “Psalms” and “Rose’ary.”
In the final analysis, of course, it really doesn’t mean much that the Vatican is apparently full of winos. “In vino, veritas, (In wine, truth),” as the Latin saying goes, which may give a window into why the devout are such drinkers. Or, perhaps a better quote came from Pope John XXIII, who also enjoyed a glass of the good stuff. “Men are like wine,” he said. “Some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”