With practice, patience and prayer, the monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux look to be succeeding where Leland Stanford saw rare failure in his long and illustrious career.
Stanford successful merchant, railroad tycoon, California governor, U.S. senator and founder of Stanford University struggled mightily but futilely to establish a prosperous vineyard and winery in the northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley.
Stanford thought big. At its peak, his 3,575-acre vineyard at Vina in Tehama County reputedly was the largest in the world. His winery at the same spot was massive, covering 2 acres. He never came up with the best combination of grape variety, soil profile and climate to produce the prized table wines he envisioned, and much of the fruit ended up distilled into brandy.
Production at Vina gradually declined until 1915, when fire extensively damaged the facility and the last of his vines were pulled out.
The property languished until 1955, when the Cistercian monks of the overcrowded Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky bought a 586-acre portion of Stanford's sprawling old spread and dispatched a contingent of robed brothers to establish the Abbey of New Clairvaux.
At first, they farmed walnuts and prunes, but in 2000 they agreed to see if they might have better luck than Stanford at cultivating vines and making wine. They planted an initial 5 acres and hired as winemaker a recent graduate of the department of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, Aimee Sunseri.
From the outset, the monks had two things going for them that Stanford didn't. One is Sunseri's education and heritage. She's a member of a family that has been making wine in California for five generations.
Secondly, the Cistercian order traces its farming and winemaking tradition to 12th century Europe. Their vineyards include two of the more esteemed estates in the world, Clos Vougeot in Burgundy, France, and Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau, Germany.
With that foundation and perspective, the monks have had an advantage over Stanford. They better understand the area's soils, they appreciate how hot and dry the region can be, and they know viticultural and enological lessons that weren't being taught in Stanford's day.
Thus, they've planted different varieties, principally green and black grapes long grown in similarly bright and warm wine regions of Spain, France and Italy tempranillo, graciano, petite sirah, albariño, trebbiano.
The resulting wines have been so favorably received, despite the region's isolation and lack of standing as a prime viticultural district, that the monks have continued to expand their plantings. Their vineyards now total 14.5 acres. One is designated the St. James block, distinguished by its deep loam soil. The other is the Pour Souls block, where the soil is sandy loam complicated with large pockets of river rock.
From the St. James comes the New Clairvaux Vineyard 2009 Tehama County Vina St. James Block Tempranillo, an interpretation of the Spanish red that is lighter and brighter than generally found in California, but with refreshing cherry-berry fruit, a whiff of chalk dust and a note of mint. It's a straightforward tempranillo with both tannins and oak held in check, making it inviting and accessible.
This past fall, Sunseri capitalized on the fresh fruitiness of the estate's tempranillo to turn out a rare take on the varietal, the New Clairvaux Vineyard 2011 Tehama County Vina St. James Block New Tempranillo. Made in the "nouveau" style that is, relying on the brightness and spunk to pop from carbonic maceration of the grapes the wine looks like a rosé and delivers the genre's same sort of unassuming zest, spice and simplicity, but not without touches of subtlety, especially in a suggestion of cranberries to go along with the cherries.
Sunseri made 200 cases of the New Tempranillo and has been surprised at how fast it's sold. She suspects the wine has been popular because it's a lighter red wine that appeals both to customers who generally drink white wine and to those who usually drink a dark, aged red but want something lighter for a change of pace. If any still can be found, it sells for $14 a bottle.
Sunseri made the New Tempranillo at the urging of Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who has been an enthusiastic proponent of the revitalization of Stanford's former ranch since it began more than a decade ago.
At Corti's urging, the monks also have started to plant a couple of rows of two Greek grape varieties, assyrtyko and moschofilero. Assyrtyko is a versatile green grape indigenous to the island of Santorini, capable of producing wines from the bone-dry and citric to the sweet and honeyed. Moschofilero, grown mainly in the Peloponnesus, is a red grape primarily used to produce an aromatic white wine, though it also yields rosés.
New Clairvaux likely would be the first winery in California to make and market the wines. At first, only about 50 cases of each will be made, but that won't be for another four years.
"If the vines are growing well and the wine shows promise, then we will see if the market likes them. If all three work out, then we will expand, but if one of those parts fails, then we will be grafting over and trying something else," Sunseri said.
New Clairvaux Vineyard
2009 Tehama County Vina St. James Block Tempranillo
By the numbers: 13.5 percent alcohol, 420 cases, $16
Context: Aimee Sunseri likes the tempranillo with Spanish cuisine, especially her father's paella, based on chicken, chorizo and pork. "A couple of weeks ago I had a customer tell me about a pork and bean stew that they said was fabulous with it; they called it fabada," Sunseri said.
Availability: Corti Brothers in Sacramento generally has the wine in stock. It also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.newclairvauxvineyard.com.
More information: The tasting room at New Clairvaux Vineyard, 26240 Seventh St., Vina, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except holy days.