California Forum

Vine to chalice

While Sacramento brands itself as the center of the farm-to-fork movement, parishioners at the midtown church I attend have similarly reconnected to the agricultural roots of the center of our worship and communal life, the sacramental wine.

Members at St. John’s Lutheran Church have spent the past six months tending vines at a Clarksburg ranch where longtime parishioners offered a portion of their family’s vineyard for us to grow grapes for Communion wine.

Craig and Nancy Kirchhoff and their son, Clayton, set aside eight rows of the 17-acre ranch for the church. It’s a portion of the ranch where Clayton grows grapes for his own wine label, Aluvion.

“Going to church has always been a highlight of the week for my family,” said Clayton, 30. “We thought this would be a unique way to give something back.”

Standing among vines bulging with grapes on a recent Saturday, Clayton explained that it was his mother’s idea to make Communion wine for church.

He decided to push the project further, encouraging parishioners to tend the plants and harvest their own fruit.

“I figured they’d learn a lot more if they did it all themselves,” he said, a wide-brimmed hat shading his eyes. “Farming is hard work. I think they’ll appreciate the process more for having gotten their hands dirty.”

They’ve named the project Vine to Chalice.

Since bright green leaves began sprouting on 4-year-old vines in late winter, groups of us have visited the ranch on occasional Saturdays to take lessons from Craig and Clayton, and then work in the field.

At first the call for workers went to families of teens because the project was a way to involve church youths. But as more parishioners learned what was happening, those wanting to volunteer grew.

The first thing we learned about grape growing was that it has no regard for the calendar. It was impossible to schedule farming sessions much ahead of time because the plants decided when they needed tending.

And their demands were immediate. If we couldn’t show up with a day or two’s notice, Craig and Clayton had to do the work themselves.

But usually a group of us would arrive, hats shading our faces and arms slathered in sunblock.

Craig and Clayton brought us to the barbera plants set aside for the church.

They explained how to select vines to lift onto a high wire pulled between posts that would allow sunshine to warm clusters of buds.

Alone in my row, I found myself unsure which vines to lift. I broke off precious stems. Clayton or Craig touched up our mistakes, their eyes keenly aware of any branch that didn’t look right.

What impressed me that day was how intimately the farmers connected not only to the vineyard but to every plant, every stem.

When asked a question, Craig would answer after pulling a leaf into his hand as if knowledge were transferred through his fingertips.

Sun baked my back and the row I tended seemed to grow longer as I moved from plant to plant. I was grateful when other volunteers appeared at the far end and began working toward me.

My eyes wandered to the acres of vineyard beyond the area set aside for the church. Nine varietals of red wine grapes were budding there.

The rows of vines disappeared into the horizon and I understood the times the family would miss church or an event because all hands were needed at the ranch.

Clayton helps when he can, but he is busy building his own career. He studied grape growing and worked in wineries in New Zealand and in the Ribera del Duero region of Spain, and works as assistant winemaker at White Rock Vineyards in Napa.

He’s also recently launched Aluvion and aims to make world-class wines exclusively from Clarksburg grapes.

“Farming is a ton of work, I’ll admit that,” said Nancy, who also works as a photographer. “But we think it’s worth it.”

The ongoing drought brought harvest early, so in mid-August it was time to pick the grapes and stomp them for juice. About 43 excited volunteers showed up to help.

Craig gave our lesson while Clayton prepared a “de-stemmer,” in which grapes are separated from stems.

Pastor Leslie Welton thanked God for the abundance of the vineyard and the generosity of the Kirchhoffs.

After a loud “Amen” and applause, the youngest volunteers ran among the vines popping blue grapes into their mouths.

Adults clipped heavy clusters of grapes and all ages lugged full bins to the de-stemmer.

We harvested about three-quarters of a ton of fruit, enough for a barrel of wine, Clayton said.

It was time to begin the process that would turn the fruit into wine. He divided the fruit into several low, rectangular bins the size of large dresser drawers and lined them up on the ground.

First in line to stomp was Bea Favre, a longtime St. John’s member, wearing a turquoise gauze dress that stood out among the jeans and shorts preferred by other volunteers.

“I’ve got my stomping clothes on,” she said. She lifted her skirt to her knees and stepped her bare feet into a bin, a broad smile widening on her face.

Children marched the grapes into pulp, holding onto each other’s shoulders for balance. Leslie stepped gingerly into a bin. Giggles filled the air.

Despite the gaiety, Craig’s attention seemed to move to another part of the vineyard. The farmers’ busy season had begun. Craig pointed to his unshaven face: “I don’t shave again until the harvest is done.”

While I and the other volunteers were celebrating a well-deserved sense of accomplishment, there was a lot more to be done beyond our small portion of the vineyard. The work hadn’t ended, I realized.

It never would.

That was one of the unexpected lessons I learned from Vine to Chalice. A farmer’s relationship to the land and the things growing on it is constant. And that relationship exists for anyone who consumes what is produced there, and anyone who enjoys a piece of fruit or a nut or sips Communion wine at church.

We are all connected to the land. The hard work that happens there is done on our behalf.

Craig was at church a week later, his stubble thickening into a beard. The harvest continued.

When our wine is ready in a year or so and it fills the chalices at St. John’s, we’ll all remember the Kirchhoffs’ generosity and honor the hard work that happens every day at the ranch.

As we dip Communion wafers into the holy wine, we’ll remember, too, that the fruit of that labor is precious.