This story is about row after row of vines, lots of grapevines. And where there’s vines, there’s wine.
Amongst his ambitious business interests and pursuits, Leland Stanford was bent on making wines as good as the famous French wine houses. After a couple of attempts, his biggest push started in 1881 with purchasing land in northern California’s Tehama County. Shortly after he started his vineyards there, Stanford constructed a winery that would eventually be capable of storing two million gallons of wine. By 1889, almost 4,000 acres of vineyards had been planted, making his “Great Vina Ranch,” at that time, the largest vineyard and winery in the world.
Stanford threw a lot of money into the effort, importing rootstock from Europe and hiring the best viticulturists and wine makers. Despite all of this, the vineyards limped along and resulted in lackluster wines. Stanford wanted to cultivate vines and make French varietal wines that were from grapes more accustomed to cooler climes and different soils. The hot sun in the upper end of California’s Sacramento Valley scorched the berries, and the soils didn’t encourage the vines to thrive. Thus, by the fourth vintage, 1.7 million gallons of wine from that harvest were made into brandy. For a time, Great Vina Ranch supplied nearly 20% of America’s brandy. Distilled spirits from the estate were notable but the wines were not, then.
By the time Stanford died in 1893, the ranch was already endowed to Stanford University. As prohibition approached (1919-1933), brandy production ceased and the university sold off the ranch in multiple parcels. Several decades and owners later, 600 acres of the ranch, including the original winery buildings (the brick wine cellar is now the tasting room) were acquired by the Abbey of New Clairvaux. Since 1955, this has been home to the Trappist Monks.
Fast forward to more modern times. In 2000, Phil Sunseri, grandson of the founder of Nichelini Family Winery (oldest continuously operating Napa Valley winery), partnered with the monks and planted two experimental vineyards, the loamy St. James and rocky Poor Souls, with grape varieties that flourished in the local terroir – success! – the right vines in the right place.
Phil’s daughter, Aimee Sunseri, after receiving her degree in 2003 studying viticulture and enology at UC Davis, became New Clairvaux’s winemaker. Today, this fifth generation enologist continues to make wine at New Clairvaux (about 8,000 cases) and also at her family’s aforementioned winery.
Albariño, tempranillo, zinfandel, viognier, syrah and barbera are some of the grape varieties that Aimee has vinified into exciting wines for New Clairvaux. Wines made from the estate’s grapes are well-balanced in fruit and tannins; Aimee easily tames the minerally acids. These Iberian, Rhone, and Italian grapes also stand up long, hot, blistering heat summers.
The valley’s heat in summer can peak around 110-115° F in the afternoon. Visit when the weather is mild (the wine in the trunk will be happier, too). The short drive north from Chico is beautifully lined with stone fruit and nut orchards, and dotted with occasional family produce stands. Vina (pronounced VIE-nuh), with a population of less than 250, is just west of Highway 99.
Highlights from our tasting: 2014 St. James Block Albariño – this white is well-balanced with up front fruit and a clean crisp finish. We also liked the 2013 Poor Souls Barbera. Characteristically high in acid, this red has just enough fruit and a lingering finish to bring your taste buds back for more; it is a barbera that can cut through the creamiest mac and cheese. The winery also makes trebbiano – they were sold out of the 2013 vintage and had not yet released the 2014. We’re looking forward to an autumn visit to taste this white that’s not readily found in California particularly as a stand-alone varietal.
While visiting the winery, walk through the chapter house just a short distance from the tasting room. The building was originally constructed between 1190-1220 on the grounds of a Spanish monastery. William Randolph Hearst purchased the European limestone building and in 1931 shipped the dismantled building to San Francisco. His intent was to use the chapter house as the centerpiece at his future northern California home. Financial winds shifted, Hearst couldn’t pull off this dream, and for many years, the stones of the chapter house were scattered in various locations throughout Golden Gate Park. In 1994, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco awarded the remaining pieces of the dismantled building to the Abbey of New Clairvaux. The “Sacred Stones” project at the Abbey has reassembled the building with the original stones while crafting new pieces for those lost. Eventually, the chapter house will become the church for the Abbey’s monks.
While Cistercian monks have been making wine for over 1,000 years, this Abbey is the first Cistercian Monastery in the new world to grow grapes and then make and sell wine made from the same grapes. The majority of the labor in the vineyards and winery are supplied by the monks who live in seclusion.
More details about the winery, wines, and monastery can be found at the winery’s website.