St. Thomas of Napa Valley


May 23, 2013

The Sebastiani family has been making and selling wine in California for more than one hundred years. One of its Napa Valley wines bears the intriguing label, “Aquinas,” in honor of the Catholic Church’s greatest philosopher/theologian.

The choice of this label might raise some eyebrows. What is the “Angelic Doctor’s” name doing on a product that comes from the earth? What does intellectual speculation have to do with grapes?

Donny Sebastiani, Jr., the executive director of Don Sebastiani and Sons, has shed some light on the appropriateness of the label in a November 18, 2011 interview sponsored by the Aquinas Center at Ave Maria University and conducted by Joseph C. Trabbic. “Wine has a significant place in Catholicism,” he remarked. “You see people making and drinking wine in the Old Testament and New Testament.  You see Jesus and his disciples drinking wine … With the ‘Aquinas’ label we saw a natural opportunity to have something with a bit of a Catholic aspect to it. Obviously we want to market ourselves to a wide consumer base, so you don’t want to beat people over the head with a big picture of a crucifix on the label. But the Aquinas wines are still a clear, less than subtle reference to our faith.  It was a natural, obvious choice.” No doubt, the Angelic doctor, himself a rather robust man, would be pleased to hear this.

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The Sebastiani family is being astute in recognizing the down-to-earth temper of Aquinas’ thought. St. Thomas had far more practical sense than many people give him credit for having. “Sorrow can be alleviated,” he advised, “by good sleep, a bath and a glass of good wine.” Connoisseurs of wine can be pleased that the wise Doctor of the Church inserted the adjective “good” before “wine.” There is an art to making good wine.  Perhaps this is why Ernest Hemingway, another rather robust man, proclaimed that “Wine is the most civilized thing in the world” (although we may wonder whether this phrase came from Hemingway or from the wine).

What else did St. Thomas have to say about the consumption of wine?  In his most compendious work, the Summa Theologica, he argues strongly for the appropriateness of using wine as a sacrament (Holy Communion). He reasons that wine is more in keeping with the effect of the sacrament, which is spiritual, since, as it is stated in Psalm 103, “wine may cheer the heart of man” (vinum laetificat cor hominis).

Aquinas fully recognizes the body/soul unity of the human being. Therefore, he honors the natural desire that we all have for pleasure. In fact, he states quite emphatically that “none can live without some sensible and bodily pleasure” (nullus posit vivere sine aliqua sensibili et corporali delectioneST I-II, 34, 1).

St. Thomas is neither a Stoic who avoids all pleasure at all costs, nor an Epicurean who embraces all pleasure at every opportunity. He states that the purpose of the cardinal virtue, temperance, is to refine the way we enjoy bodily pleasures in order to facilitate a more enduring satisfaction (ST II-II, 141, 3). Virtue can allow us to get the most out of pleasure before pleasure takes something out of us.

Hilaire Belloc was very much in tune with Aquinas when he penned his famous encomium to wine:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino.

In Plato’s Symposium, there was plenty of wine at the table to loosen the tongues of the guests. As a result, they spoke eloquently and profoundly about love. In vino veritas.  For Socrates, “wine does of a truth moisten the soul and lull our griefs to sleep … [and with small cups] we shall … be brought by gentle persuasion to a more sportive mood.” Friedrich Nietzsche, no friend of Socrates, had an expressed admiration for Bacchus. But his resulting love affair with intoxication led him to babbling and to Bedlam. Aquinas saw no reason why one could not enjoy wine and remain on the path to wisdom. “A man may have wisdom,” he wrote, not by abstaining from wine, but by abstaining from its immoderate use (ST II-II, 149, 3, ad 1). Wine and wisdom are compatible as long as they are both situated on the path of man’s destiny.  Shakespeare put it more succinctly when he said, “Good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used” (Othello).

God’s arrangement of all things is profoundly organic. Delectation can be an intimation of wisdom.  It is interesting to note that the Latin word for wisdom (sapientia) is derived from the Latin word for taste (sapio). This analogical relationship between the sensuous and the spiritual is also evinced, many times in Scripture. In Ecclesiaticus, for example, we read, “My spirit is sweet above honey.” We also find this relationship expressed in Mario Soldati’s celebrated aphorism, “Wine is the poetry of the earth” (Il vino è la poesia della terra).  Soldati was, in effect, echoing the thought of Louis Pasteur who agreed that “The flavor of wine is like delicate poetry.” It is said that when Dom Perignon first sipped bubbly Champagne, he exclaimed, “I am drinking the stars!”

Wine is poetry. But there is a great deal of wine in poetry. The quintessence of the grape is irresistibly metaphorical.  Was Omar Khayyam’s immortal phrase, “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and Thou,” an unintentional, though oblique, reference to the Mass? Christ referred to Himself as “the true vine.” It could also evoke the religious, social, and familial uses of wine in Judaism’s long history that dates back to biblical times.

Wine played a prominent role in Christ’s first miracle at Cana. In the immortal words of the poet Richard Crashaw, “The conscious water saw its God and blushed.” It symbolized a blessing for both the newlyweds and the family that marriage prefigures.  Wine also played a prominent role at the Last Supper in signifying both Christ’s death and the lifeblood He would provide for his disciples.  Italian families seem to have a special respect for the virtue of a good meal that is graced with wine:  A tavola non s’invecchia (at the table no one ages). Wine can bless both hearth and home.

Wine that brings cheer to the heart and pleasure to our life can also evoke thanks to its Creator.  How fitting, then, for a bottle of wine to bear the name “Aquinas,” for whom wine was not only a delectation, but a sacrament as well.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Spring issue of Canadian Observer (an Ottawa quarterly) and is reprinted by permission of the author.  


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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