Pope Francis received a delegation of some 180 Italian wine producers, vintners, sommeliers (wine stewards) and wine writers on January 21 at his Wednesday morning general audience in Vatican City’s Palazzo Nervi. The meeting was organized by Franco Ricci, head of the Fondazione Italiana Sommelier (The Italian Sommelier Association). “The idea of asking for a papal audience came to me because of Pope Francis’ many references to wine in his preaching,” said Ricci, who is also editor of the Italian wine guide Bibendum. “For us producers, sommeliers, and vintners, it is an important honor and encouragement for our work.”
In fact, in February 2014, Pope Francis — whose paternal grandfather Giovanni was a wine producer in Italy’s Piedmont before emigrating to Argentina — made news when he said, “Without wine, there’s no party,” referring to the wedding feast at Cana. “Imagine finishing up the feast drinking only tea,” the Pope said. He also said: “The older a wine is, the better it gets,” referring to Jesus’ expression: “No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, the old is better.”
Not surprisingly, there are some 224 references to wine in the Bible, both in the Old and in the New Testaments.
Pope Francis often uses wine in his metaphors. On one occasion, he compared the heart to a fine wine, and said that “a heart which isn’t luminous is like a bad wine — over time, it spoils and becomes vinegar.” On another occasion, he said that the elderly are like “a fine vintage wine with the power to give us this noble inheritance.”
Pope Benedict XVI also made frequent references to wine. In fact, in his very first public greeting after his election, speaking from St. Peter’s loggia, he defined himself as “a simple and humble laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.”
Much to Ricci’s relief, at the audience Pope Francis denied rumors that he drinks only mate tea, an herbal infusion typical of several Latin American countries. “I’m not a teetotaler,” he confessed in response to an inquiry. “I drink a little wine from Italy and from other countries around the world…. but just a little.”
A good example to follow!
Ricci’s delegation gave the Pope a tastevin (a silver or silver-plated cup on a chain that sommeliers use to taste wine before serving it), a diploma as “honorary sommelier,” and a crate of three bottles of red wine chosen by Bibendum but kept secret (because the Holy Father did not want to promote specific producers). Not to mention that Ceci Cellars in Torrile near Parma dedicated a bottle of its Otello Nerodi Lambrusco to mark the occasion. It was wrapped in white velvet and imprinted with the Vatican State seal; the Pope’s name is written in yellow Swarovski crystals (white and yellow are the colors of the Vatican flag).
Ceci Cellars is not the only cantina to dedicate a wine to Pope Francis. So has Trinitas Cellars, founded in 2002 and owned by devout Roman Catholics Tim and Steph Busch with their CEO son Garrett, at the southern end of the Napa Valley in California. Tim Busch is a trustee of the charitable organization The Papal Foundation. One of several wines in their “Faith Collection,” begun in 2008, is Cabernet FRANCis 2012, which costs $75 a bottle. Another is RatZINger, a 2008 zinfandel at $35. Still others include “Psalms,” a sauvignon blanc blend; “Revelation,” a port-style dessert wine; “Rose’ary,” a rosé; and “Father Matthew Cabernet Sauvignon,” named for a popular retired Napa Valley priest. (Sales from this wine benefit Father Matthew’s charities in his native India.)
On the evening after the papal audience, halfway across the Eternal City, at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, at No. 8 Via del Bottino, a fifth-generation hotelier, Roberto Wirth, owner of the iconic luxury five-star Hotel Hassler, reinaugurated his International Wine Academy of Rome (www.wineacademyroma.com). It is located within Il Palazzetto, a small boutique hotel with four suites, a panoramic terrace wine bar, a private event space with a garden, a library, a salon with a fireplace, and a state-of-the-art classroom. It offers numerous opportunities to anyone passionate about the world of wine. Anyone can reserve one of the “Wine-Pairing Dinners” prepared by Neapolitan Francesco Apreda, chef of the Hotel Hassler’s rooftop restaurant Imàgo, which has had one Michelin star since 2008.