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(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)


An atheist's search for sacramental wine Add to ...

For those of you who feel a tingle at the sight of beer for sale in a Montreal dépanneur, and who become visibly flushed walking down the wine aisle of a Buffalo-area Super Duper, that same thrill can be had right here in Toronto.

I experienced the sensation just this week. It took place at a religious supply store located in a derelict commercial zone out by the airport. Next to a shelf of altar candles, I beheld a glass case filled with California wine.

For sale. And not by the LCBO. The price: $9.

Sacramental wine may be this province's most glorious loophole. This sacred tipple, which is no different from regular wine - it isn't blessed or grown on holy land or anything like that - is hardly tainted by the profane hand of government taxation. About 200,000 bottles of sacramental wine bottles are sold every year in Ontario, and the LCBO collects a mere 15 per cent on each one, which is about a quarter of the tax charged on bottles of ordinary non-sacred vino.

And now the bad news. The LCBO has sniffed out something unholy in the sacramental wine world. Stores have been flouting the rules. Some are flogging non-sacramental wine. Some have been selling sacramental wine for non-religious purposes, which is to say ordinary Joes are quaffing cheap altar wine, and loving it, I presume. The LCBO calls this "general non-compliance with rules and regulations," which is bureaucratese for: someone out there's getting a good deal on wine. Someone, that is, other than me.

I decided to change that. I began phoning religious supply stores.

At a Christian religious supplier in North York, a man named John Paul got on the line - I'm not making this up - refused to sell me so much as a drop of sacramental wine without the name, address and phone number of my church.

But in the west end, I discovered a religious supply store that sounded eager to do business. "Yes, we sell sacramental wine," the man said. "Come in and have a look at our selection." Code, I hoped, for general non-compliance.

I endeavoured to look "religious." I put on a corduroy jacket and formulated a week of facial growth into a beard. When I walked in the store, I headed straight to the goblet section and solemnly admired a stand of ornate chalices, none of which, I noted, had the right shape to properly express the bouquet of a sacramental wine.

A balding monkish type approached me. "Is there anything particular you're looking for?" he said.

"Candles," I said. The man nodded. "And sacramental wine." He led me to the back of the room.

"What did you have in mind?" the man asked.

Did I want a bottle of Angelica? ("Extremely popular, light gold in colour, very fruity and flavourful. ) Or was I in the mood for a nice Rosato? ("Very sweet and fruity with a rich mellow flavour. Very popular.") "A dry red," I declared.

The man suggested a bottle called Burgundy. ("A full-bodied, medium dry red wine with a rich, pleasing taste.") A three-litre jug was going for $24.75. "I'd like one of those," I said.

That's when the trouble began.

"What is the purpose of the wine?" the man asked.

"Religious," I said, which is not as brazenly false as you may think. Vulcans, don't forget, are not theists in the Judeo-Christian sense. They worship logic. (And drink Vulcan brandy.) More recently, I've been considering worshipping Eywa, the 3D tree in Avatar.

The bottom line, it quickly became apparent, is that without a signed letter from a deacon, rabbi or bishop, I wasn't walking out with any wine.

All of which strikes this atheist as blatantly unfair. It's bad enough that believers in the Almighty don't get parking tickets on Sundays. Do they have access to cheaper wine, too? Consider this: Sarah Palin would, no doubt, support the idea of believers paying less tax than atheists

The answer, however, is not to hand over the sacramental wine business to the government. I say this with some authority, because on the way home from the religious supply store, I pulled into an LCBO and bought the lone sacramental vintage in stock: a bottle of King David Sacramental Sweet Red Wine. Its sacramental tasting notes might read thus: "Cloyingly sweet, with notes of grape Kool-Aid, Hubba Bubba, and high fructose corn syrup. Extremely unpopular."

The answer to the thorny issue of sacramental wine is this: Let everybody drink it. In the short term, wine will get a lot cheaper. Over time, Toronto will become the world capital of sacramental wine - a claim even Dubai cannot take from us.

In the meantime, atheists such as myself can drink King David. But not more than three sips, by which point I found myself raking my tongue across my teeth and craving a palate cleanser. What I needed, I realized, was a nice frosty mug of sacramental beer. Unfortunately, there's no such thing.

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