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  • Luigi Gioia

Noble Rot

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"In the hands of competent, committed, and resourceful winemakers, even rot ceases to be a threat for the vine - on the contrary it contributes to the creation of the most exquisite of wines."

For almost 20 years I lived in a Benedictine monastery in the South-West of France, in the foot-hills of the Pyrenees, lost in the countryside, and conveniently surrounded by farms mostly dedicated to the production of foie gras. This might not correspond to the image people have of monastic discipline, but for most of the main liturgical feasts we had foie gras for lunch. Helas, you cannot really appreciate the taste of foie gras unless it is enhanced by the right kind of wine. This too, however, was provided for - as it happens, the monastery also was not far from Bordeaux.

It was not rare that we would go for a daily trip to St Emilion, for example, or, on one unforgettable occasion, to Chateau Fargues, one of the exclusive producers of the so-called “liquid gold” – the Sauternes, the most expensive wine of the Bordelais. The owner and the staff were visibly proud to be visited by monks and not only gave us a special tour, but at the end opened for us some of their best bottles. When I come to think of it, French Benedictine monks could share the same acronym used for the English Benedictine Congregation, EBC, which, I was once told, in fact means: “Every Bodily Comfort”.

This visit to Chateau Fargues happened in 2006, 15 years ago, but I remember it as if it was yesterday – no doubt owing to the wine tasting, but also because I was very impressed by the head of staff, who was both the wine maker and the vine grower.

Famously, Sauternes owes its unique balance of sweetness and acidity to the fact that it is made with grapes that have undergone a fungal infestation known as ‘moisissure noble”, “noble rot”. This rot is not distributed evenly on the bunches, therefore only the individual grapes which have reached the right level of rot are harvested – and we were explained that this often is a matter of hours, depending on the humidity and the heat of day. For this you need especially trained harvesters who have decades of experience (and are extremely hard to replace). The expertise of the vine grower in this process is absolutely crucial. He monitors the meteorological station of the chateau round the clock. He told us he can never go on holidays because the vine needs ceaseless watch. The success of a millesime depends on the tiniest details. One year, they started using a steamer to clean the wine cellar, but the winemaker soon noticed that this had an impact on the flavour of the wine. He found out that the steam killed bacteria naturally present in the wine cellar that played a role at the moment of the pressing of the grapes - so part of the secret of making a good Sauternes is not to be overzealous with cleaning. It made sense to me that the winemaker was known under the nickname of “the monk” because of the discipline required by his job – something he was very proud to relate to us on that occasion.

Today’s parable seems to start with Jesus directing the spotlight on himself, “I am the true vine” - but whatever is ‘true’ in him, that it whatever makes him a vine that produces something as unique and as special as a Sauternes, is entirely owed to the savoir faire, the devotion, and the passion of the vine-grower, that is the Father: “My Father is the vine-grower” Jesus says – and we are given a description of what he does: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit”. Incidentally, the vine grower of chateau Fargues also told us that just few months earlier his heart bled (he used these words) because he had to uproot a one-hundred year old vine in the property which was not bearing enough grapes anymore.

Jesus’ words presuppose the way the Old Testament uses the image of the vine to emphasize the contrast between all the care that the Lord lavishes on his people and the people’s continuous ingratitude: “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (Is 5.4).

We are told that after countless failures, the vine grower plants yet another vine, a ‘true’ vine this time, that is a vine that will finally respond to his dedication not with ingratitude, but with thanksgiving – give love for love, act in a way that will give joy, delight to the Father – as he himself acknowledges with regards to Jesus: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”, with whom I am delighted (Mt 3:17). This is why Jesus tells us that none of us can bear fruit unless we abide in him, unless we are grafted on the true vine which is himself.

It is tempting to think that the fruit that the Lord expects from this vineyard, that is, from us, are good works. Before any good we might or might not accomplish however, the ‘fruit’ is our acknowledgement of the love and dedication our wine grower has poured into planting us, making us grow, watching over us, being patient with us, pruning us on occasion, so as to enable us to produce any grape at all. Just as for Jesus, we are ‘true’ vine, that is we delight the Father, to the extent that we acknowledge his unfailing love for us and are grateful for it. Think for a moment at what a great incentive to action gratitude is in everyday life – love feeds on gratitude, for our parents, our role models, those who have believed in us and given us a chance in life, those who stood by us in the hardest and most challenging moments of our lives, those who had the courage to help us see our mistakes in a non-judgmental and loving way.

Most of what Scripture tells us is meant to elicit this acknowledgement and this gratitude which are at the heart of our worship – and this is our real fruit: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Ps 107.1).

In this page of the Gospel we are told that the Lord not only plants the vine, but himself becomes the vine in order to bear the fruit that we have been unable to produce by ourselves, to be those in whom the Father can be “well pleased”, capable to recognize his love and give thanks to him not only with our words, but with our own lives.

This is what happens each time we celebrate the Eucharist, as it is happening now. We have just listened to the Word of God which reminds us of all God does for us and the homily is meant to be an exhortation to acknowledge this – to confess this- and be grateful for it. It is not an accident if what follows is first our confession of faith (which is yet another form of acknowledgement of God) and then, crucially, the dialogue we are going to have in few minutes – in which the main celebrant will say: “Let us give thanks unto the Lord our God” and we will reply: “It is meet and right so to do”. As we know, the proper name of the Mass is 'Eucharistic celebration' because 'Eucharist' means 'thanksgiving'. It is the heart of what we do every Sunday.

However here there is a twist.

Just as “the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine”, neither we can thank the Father properly. Only Christ can, because only he has ‘loved until the end’, and this is what makes him the ‘true vine’. He becomes present in the bread and the wine which we offer in our thanksgiving to the Father for this reason – bread and wine are not simply the symbol of all we do with our works and offer to God – bread and wine are Christ himself who unites us to his sacrifice of thanks.

This is why, the Eucharistic prayer ends with the proclamation:

“by whom [that is by Christ], and with whom, and in whom,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

all honour and glory [that is all thanksgiving] be unto thee,

O Father almighty,

world without end”.

To which we all respond Amen – “Yes, it is so!”.

In the hands of competent, committed, and resourceful winemakers, even rot ceases to be a threat for the vine - on the contrary it contributes to the creation of the most exquisite of wines. We might be disheartened sometimes by the realization of how little gratitude we have for each other, and for the Father – but this too is taken care of, by our wine grower and by us being grafted into the true vine. We are left with only one job to do – and everything depends on it: “Apart from me you can do nothing. Abide in me, as I abide in you”.




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