Monks dedicated to faith, hard work and the fruit of the vine
By Christine Souza
Brother Rafael Flores
Secluded behind the quiet walls of a Northern California monastery, the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux spend each day enhancing soil and spirit. This religious community is grounded in faith and hard work, and both are necessary in one of their latest ventures: growing winegrapes.
"Working in the vineyard, I feel that part of me is here. Your inner self has put in somethingmthe goodness or the beauty of you, like in a painting or in a carving," said Brother Rafael Flores, pride radiating from his sun-warmed face as he prunes the vines. "It is difficult to put in words, but when the grapes are close to ripening and changing color, or you taste the grapes and they are sweet, you feel that inner satisfaction that the whole community is involved."
For 50 years this community of monks has built a spiritual life in Vina, a small town north of Chico. Under the Roman Catholic Cistercian order the 25 men follow the teachings of St. Benedict, balancing their lives with private and communal prayer and self-support through manual labor.
Taking up residence in the No. 1 agricultural state in the nation, the monks selected agriculture as their primary source of income. After their 1955 arrival from Kentucky, they started a dairy. Today their acreage includes walnuts, prunes, some organic vegetables and, most recently, winegrapes.
Growing winegrapes at the property dates back to the 1800s when, almost 20 years after serving as California's eighth governor, Leland Stanford owned what was considered the largest winery in the world.
"While we are the first Cistercian winery in North America, our order has a strong agricultural and winemaking foundation dating back to 12th-century Europe," said Abbot Thomas Davis. "This includes some of the finest vineyards in the world, such as Clos Vougeot in Burgundy (France) and Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau (Germany). Our vision is no less dedicated here."
In 2002, the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux harvested the first winegrapes to be gleaned from the Vina property since the close of the Stanford Winery in 1917. They are currently using Stanford's 100-year-old brick wine cellar to produce, age and bottle their wines.
Brother Rafael, who came to the monastery eight years ago from Ecuador, spends several hours a day with fellow monks caring for the 10 varieties of grapes chosen specifically for the region's fertile loam soil and mild climate. These include petite sirah, syrah, tempranillo, graciano, zinfandel, barbera, viognier, albarino and muscat blanc.
"We live a simple life. Our community is a contemplative order. We are not active," Brother Rafael said. "We pray for the needs of the world and for peace for the world, but we do not have much contact with the outside world. We do not work in parishes or hospitals. We do not have apostolic work. We spend time here and we pray and we work."
According to the Cistercian conviction, the inner self learns through experience. For Brother Rafael, working in the vineyard aids his spiritual process.
"Like the pruning of the grapevines, constantly, every day I need to change and make adjustments," he said.
Whether individually or as a community, these men of disparate backgrounds realize that to succeed in faith or in agriculture, it is important to evolve.
As farmers, the monks have had to change commodities to remain successful. In the monastery's early days, the main source of income was dairy farming, supplemented by a few orchards. The dairy herd was sold in 1963 to expand prune and walnut orchards. Today the abbey maintains 150 acres of prunes and 200 acres of walnuts, along with 8 1/2 acres of vineyards. The monks have also begun expanding the farm to include a plot of organic vegetables they hope to sell this summer to area chefs.
The monks made the transition to winegrapes after they recognized that one of their other cropsmprunesmwas not making enough of a profit to cover expenses.
"Diversity is important for survival when farming because the seasons and markets are in constant motion," said Aimee Sunseri, a fifth-generation winemaker who has found her passion in making wine with the monks of New Clairvaux. "California is fortunate for its diversity, and adding grape growing to the monks' repertoire of skills couldn't be more fitting."
Sunseri, a graduate in viticulture and enology at the University of California, Davis, oversees one of the vineyards and has been working with the monks since 2000 when the vineyards were planted. Three years later, Sunseri and the monks completed their first commercial grape crush. Her close relationship with the monks comes as a result of a business partnership and longtime friendship between her father, Phil Sunseri, and the monks at the abbey.
"I absolutely love what I am doing and I wouldn't change a thing," Sunseri said. "I definitely feel blessed and honored that I have been given the opportunity to not only work with the monks, but to also carry on a deep-rooted family tradition."
Sunseri's great-grandfather started Nichelini Winery in 1890, considered the oldest family-owned winery in the Napa Valley. Her winemaking heritage influenced her decision to become a winemaker, and today her passion is to work side-by-side with the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux to produce wines the public will enjoy.
"I never really thought of winemaking as a career even though my family had been doing it for so long," Sunseri said. "It didn't really occur to me until I worked for the monks and saw the passion and dedication in their lives. It was then that I understood what it meant, and I knew there was more that I needed to learn."
With the wines produced at New Clairvaux, Sunseri and the monks hope to capture the essence of Vina.
"I think every grape grower in a certain region tries to find their region's greatness by finding the most suitable varietal for an area's unique growing conditions. Once you grow sound, clean fruit, the ability to make a good wine that is distinct for the area hopefully will fall into place," Sunseri said. "We hope as growers to be able to grow something that has distinct features so you can almost taste the essence of the Vina area."
The monks introduced their first commercial wines to the public last August during the abbey's 50-year jubilee celebration. The Abbey of New Clairvaux was founded in 1955 in honor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th-century church leader.
If the public responds positively to the Abbey of New Clairvaux wines, the monks intend to increase winegrape acreage.
Frank Clark, a visitor on retreat at New Clairvaux, appreciates the flavor of wines created at the monastery as well as the sanctity that goes into each bottle.
"There is always something special about wine. It enriches the meal. It brings a little more joy to the food," Clark said. "I'm not an expert in wines, but I know that this place has a holiness around it and the intention behind making this wine is for the glory of God. It allows for part of God's creation to be celebrated in a very special way. When you get a bottle home and share it, you hope to share the same sense of life that is experienced here at the abbey."
Wines produced by the monks can be sampled and purchased at the New Clairvaux Vineyard's tasting room at 26240 7th St. in Vina. The room is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, go to www.newclairvauxvineyard.com.
Christine Souza is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.