There are at least 30 saints who are honored for an association with wine, but of all St. Vincent is at the top of the list.
St. Vincent was born toward the end of the third century and is the protomartyr of Spain (first one martyred for Christian beliefs). He was a deacon of the church of Saragossa. Since the bishop Valarius had a speech impediment, he became his right hand and spokesman. During the persecution under the emperor Diocletian, which closely proceeded the tolerance brought by Constantine’s Edict of Milan, Vincent was imprisoned along with Valarius for their Christian teachings. It was St. Vincent who spoke up and refused the governor’s request to burn the scriptures. His tone was so sharp that the governor had him racked, whipped with metal hooks, and roasted on a metal grate. Afterward, he had his wounds rubbed with salt and then was thrown onto a prison cell floor covered with broken pottery pieces. He died shortly after. The year was 304 a.c.e.
Legend has it that he converted his jailers to Christianity through his serene manner during torture–a storyline oft repeated in early church history as it patterns the example of the Apostle Paul and his jailers. St. Vincent’s burial site was said to be protected by crows and eventually became the site of a church.
His feast day is celebrated on January 22nd, which marks a perfect halfway point between the dormant stage of European grapevines and bud break the next year. In fact, it is because Columbus landed on St. Vincent in the Caribbean on January 22nd that it received its European name. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, St. Vincent is celebrated on November 11th.
St. Vincent is the patron saint of vintners, vinegar-makers, brick-makers and sailors.
There are several theories on how St. Vincent came to be associated with wine. One comes simply from his name: in French, Vincent is pronounced “Vin” “Sang,” which is literally translated wine + blood.
Another common story is that St. Vincent’s donkey once ate the dead wood of vines while St. Vincent was talking with winemakers. The vines that were thus pruned had a greater yield and quality the following year, which supposedly led over time to the heavy use of pruning for grapevines we know today.
In the Medieval period, French winemakers relied heavily on prayers to Saints for their intervention with God on behalf of the winemakers and their need for favorable weather conditions for upcoming vintages. This tradition, along with all other Christian traditions, was later undercut by the French Revolution. The French Revolution took aim at the church, religious orders, and monasterial lands as being complicit in the corruption of the monarchy and aristocracy. Therefore, religious rites were abolished and religious lands (including many of the best vineyards) were reclaimed and sold to pay down national debt.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, after several bad harvests and the rise of fraternal organizations wanting to revive Bacchic drinking fraternities of the 17th and 18th centuries in various French wine regions that St. Vincent’s Feast day began to be celebrated again. These celebrations in Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne and other regions began as simple feasts, but evolved into more elaborate festivals with parades and the creation of local traditions. The current forms celebrate unity amidst the diversity of the various wine region villages (all who have their own patron saints) by moving the host village from year to year and by engaging in the medieval tradition of raising funds to care for winemakers and their families in times of need.
January 22nd serves as the marker for winter pruning in many French regions. Likewise, we at Winderlea follow in this tradition and begin our pruning and preparation for the following vintage after January 22nd. We recognize the power and mystery of creation. We look for blessings on the vintage not only for ourselves, but for our region and community. And, finally, we too seek to be involved with the communal benevolence (through the ¡Salud! charity auction) that is such a beautiful part of the history of wine and the people who make it.
Here’s to St. Vincent, his donkey, the French and their traditions and the feasts that mark such an important part of our cultural history!
by Ken Wytsma, Winderlea Education Ambassador