QUEBEC CITY — Police have seized large quantities of altar wine in the province of Quebec, creating a situation where buying a bottle is nearly impossible.

On April 9, police officers seized sacramental wine from Bertrand, Foucher, Bélanger, Inc. in Montreal, Procure Ecclésiastique, Inc. in Quebec City and Chandelles Tradition MB, Inc. in Saint-Constant.

Sandra Dion, spokeswoman for the Quebec City Police Department, said the wine was seized following an investigation. The seizures appear related to laws governing the resale of alcohol within provinces, although some distributors claim they are within the law and have licenses.

The altar wine available in Quebec comes from two Californian producers: Mont La Salle Altar Wines and Cribari Premium Altar Wines. However, since the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) — the provincial liquor board — does not sell these products, the wines had to be imported from other Canadian provinces. Although that was the practice for many years, police now says it’s illegal.

“Officers from the Montreal Police Department showed up with a warrant,” said Alain Denis, general manager at Bertrand, Foucher, Bélanger, Inc., a store specializing in church goods. The warrant mentioned illegal possession and selling of alcohol. Chandelles Tradition MB did not return calls.

The Catholic Church says the wine used for Mass must be natural, made entirely from grapes, uncorrupted and free of foreign substances. A locally produced altar wine was available for a few years, but it is not produced anymore, so distributors in Quebec resort to American-produced wines. The specialized wine made in California is imported to Ontario or New Brunswick before resellers can get it in the province of Quebec.

“This issue has been dragging on for 40 years,” said Jacques Laroche, general manager and co-owner of Procure Ecclésiastique, which had its entire stock seized.

“The SAQ, since at least the 1980s, has been trying to prevent the distribution of altar wine in Quebec,” he added. “This forces parishes and religious communities to buy from other provinces.”

Last December, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario warned permit holders that selling alcohol in other Canadian provinces is prohibited.

“I can confirm there has been no change to the terms of the sacramental wine appointment issued by the LCBO,” an LCBO spokesman said April 22.

“Our suppliers have been told by the LCBO that they are no longer allowed to transit, even though the law allows them to do so,” said Laroche. He cites Canada’s 1985 Importation of Intoxicating Liquors Act, which provides for exceptions for the importation of beverages for sacramental or medical purposes. “My main warehouse is in New Brunswick. My altar wine is imported into New Brunswick. We pay excise taxes. We have a license, we do it legally, transparently.”

To regularize the situation in Quebec, the SAQ would have to grant licenses to import and resell altar wine directly or sell it itself.

“We applied for an altar wine license in 1997, but were denied. So we found another solution,” said Laroche.

He considers the seizures “incomprehensible” and denounces the negative impact on religious freedom. He said the police actions seek “to prevent the practice of religious worship. I don’t see what they’re trying to do, other than cause trouble and interfere with a fundamental right. Currently, parishes in Quebec no longer have access to Mass wine for worship.”

Police are continuing their investigation. It is not yet known whether fines or charges will follow.

Though it’s still not clear what might happen next, Msgr. Pierre Murray, general secretary of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, said his “concern is to work to restore the supply chain” for altar wine.

The assembly immediately asked the SAQ to issue permits or to supply the wine for Mass.

“The SAQ chose to become the supplier of altar wine,” said Msgr. Murray.

The SAQ confirmed it is in contact with the bishops.

“We have reassured the (religious) authorities that we are analyzing our current stocks to determine if products that meet their specific criteria are currently available in our network,” said Yann Langlais-Plante, public affairs spokesman for the SAQ.

Murray believes the issue could be resolved quickly, since the SAQ may already have wines that could be suitable for worship, especially in its natural wine selections.

The Archdiocese of Quebec said it does not envision a shortage for now, as parishes still have stocks. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic “is reducing the need for Mass wine these days,” explained the director of communications, Valerie Roberge-Dion.

Vaillancourt is editor of Presence info, Montreal.