For more than 100 years, Bertrand, Foucher, Bélanger has been Montreal's go-to spot for church-related goods, stocking things like religious vestments, holy water sprinklers, and both traditional and gluten-free altar breads. That's why it had to be an absolute shock when Quebec City police officers came into the store carrying a warrant that referenced illegal possession of alcohol.
According to Catholic News Service, the cops seized bottles of sacramental wine—the kind used during communion—from Bertrand, Foucher, Bélanger, as well as from two other stores that specialize in religious kit, Procure Ecclésiastique in Quebec City, and Chandelles Tradition MB, Inc. in Saint-Constant.
A spokesperson for the Quebec City Police Department told the outlet that the wine was taken as part of its investigation into altar wine that has allegedly illegally been imported into Quebec from other Canadian provinces. Quebec's alcoholic beverage authority, the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), does not allow the import of products that it does not sell and, since these Californian altar wines aren't part of their inventory, they're not permitted.
"This issue has been dragging on for 40 years," Jacques Laroche, the general manager and co-owner of Procure Ecclésiastique, told Catholic News Service. "We applied for an altar wine license in 1997, but were denied. So we found another solution."
The kind of wines that meet the Catholic church's sacramental requirements are not currently produced in the province, so they are imported from California into New Brunswick and Ontario, before being transported to Quebec. "My main warehouse is in New Brunswick," Laroche said. "My altar wine is imported into New Brunswick. We pay excise taxes. We have a license, we do it legally, transparently."
He also suggests that the SAQ's reluctance to grant licenses for the import and sale of altar wine, or to sell it through their own stores infringes on religious freedoms. "I don't see what they're trying to do, other than cause trouble and interfere with a fundamental right," he said. "Currently, parishes in Quebec no longer have access to Mass wine for worship."
A spokesperson for the SAQ said that it was "analyzing its current stocks" to see if it had any wine that might meet the church's standards for altar wine. (It must be made "from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt," not mixed with any substances other than water, and it can't have soured or turned to vinegar. "It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance," the church warns.)
In January, the Vignoble Vertefeuille vineyard in La Prairie, Quebec said that its white wine was awaiting approval from the Archdiocese of Montreal, and if it gets their OK, it would be sent to the SAQ for final approval as altar wine. It would be the first Quebec-made wine to receive that designation since 2015—and it sounds like that can't happen one minute too soon.