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Copyright © 2018
Forkmedia LLC


by Fred McMillin
for November 2004



Saints and Wines

The first Spaniards in California brought the cross, wine vines and the names of a lot of saints. We encounter a number of the latter on wine labels. But exactly who were Santa Barbara, Saint Helena, Santa Ynez and others? Here are the answers, along with a related wine that scored well in my San Francisco State University (CEL) classes. We'll start in southern California, and move north, as did the Franciscan friars.

When the Saints Came Marching In ---
          to California Wine Country

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, the site of the Golden State's first wine production, was named after the fighting priest, Saint John Capistrano (1385- 1456) who played a heroic role in defending Vienna against invaders. That first wine was produced from the Mission grape, and the Story Winery's Mission provides a nice sip of history.

SANTA BARBARA—Barbara was a legendary 3rd century heroine, who bravely overcame her father's opposition to her conversion to Christianity. Dad locked her in a tower, but later was killed by lightning. A fine Santa Barbara County wine: Consilience Viognier.

SANTA YNEZ—Saint Agnes at Rome was a contempory of Barbara's. Agnes' dedication to Christ led to her death at age 13. One of her rude admirers also was killed by lightning. Good wines from the Santa Ynez Valley: Firestone Sauvignon Blanc and Zaca Mesa Syrah (we gave Zaca Black Bear Syrah a rousing 93).

SANTA MARIA VALLEY—The Virgin Mary obviously is the most important of a number of saints named Mary. Santa Maria Wine—Byron Pinot Noir, Nielsen Vineyard...tops!

SAN LUIS OBISPO was named in honor of Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297). His dad, king of Naples, lost a sea battle to the Spanish and Louis spent seven difficult years as a hostage near Barcelona. Freed, he renounced his royal position and became a Franciscan friar. The wine—Tobin James Merlot. (Oh yes, he was appointed Bishop of Toulouse in 1297, and then promply died at age 23.)

SAN FRANCISCO BAY became a federal wine district in 1999. Assisi, northeast of Rome, was the home of a wealthy cloth merchant, whose son was captured in a 1ocal war and spent a year in prison. Freed, he renounced his inheritance and became Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. Wine from the district—Wente made the first California wine to be called Chardonnay, and they haven't lost their touch. Note. My wife and I once had the great James Beard to dinner alone. When I brought the glasses of wine, he took one sip and said, "That's a Wente." He was right!

SANTA CLARA COUNTY—Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) became a devoted follower of Francis (above) and is even credited with twice leading the successful defense of Assisi against invaders. The wine—Mirassou, which is turning out fine fighting varietals since Gallo purchased it.

SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS—Santa Cruz does not refer to a saint. It means "holy cross." Wine: anything by Bonny Doon, with wines matched only by its puns, such as its white wine labelled "The Heart Has Its Rieslings."

And finally—

SAINT HELENA of Carnarvon, wife of western emperor Magnus Maximus, and mother of Constantine the Great. She is credited with one military expedition. The Wine—Made in St. Helena, we have yet to taste a mediocre wine by Ballentine. Their red blend "Integrity" scored 90 in my class.

Caution: Historians tell us the saintly records are a happy mix of fact and legend.


Of these seven saints that came marching into California wine country, two were men (San) and five were women (Santa). That seems appropriate, since in general, women are better wine tasters than men.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. For information about the wine courses he teaches every month at either San Francisco State University or San Francisco City College (Fort Mason Division), please fax him at (415) 567-4468.




This page created November 2004

Copyright © 2004
electronic Gourmet Guide, Inc.