Wine, spirits, history, reflection blend at Vina monastery

Wine, spirits and a thousand years of history are blended at Our Lady of New Clairvaux Abbey

The Our Lady of New Clairvaux monastery follows principles developed nearly 1,500 years ago. It offers spiritual retreats while producing 10,000 cases of award-winning wines a year in partnership with a fifth-generation Italian American vintner, U
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The Our Lady of New Clairvaux monastery follows principles developed nearly 1,500 years ago. It offers spiritual retreats while producing 10,000 cases of award-winning wines a year in partnership with a fifth-generation Italian American vintner, U

Down a country road across the railroad tracks in this tiny Tehama County farm town, just past a hulking oak tree, you come to a giant white cross showing the way to a California gem where wine, spirits and a thousand years of history are expertly blended at Our Lady of New Clairvaux Abbey.

This bucolic refuge built on grapes and miracles sits 115 miles from Sacramento between highways 5 and 99, where 27 Trappist monks – students of the beloved, albeit controversial, Catholic philosopher and mystic Thomas Merton – established a monastery in 1953.

As you drive around lush vineyards past what’s arguably the oldest church in North America, you arrive at railroad baron Leland Stanford’s tasting room, which is open every day. The monks, whose mottos include “alone with God” and “silence is golden,” don’t talk much during the week. For centuries, they had to talk to each other in sign language. But you can engage them Saturdays when they work the tasting room, offering wines from grapes they’ve harvested with roots in Spain, France and Italy, and insights into the deeply ascetic lives they’ve committed themselves to.

The monastery follows principles developed nearly 1,500 years ago. It offers spiritual retreats while producing 10,000 cases of award-winning wines a year in partnership with a fifth-generation Italian American vintner, UC Davis grad Aimee Sunseri.

“This is the first Trappist monastery in the Americas to be growing and making their own wines,” said Sunseri, 37. “I’ve learned so many things from them. I really admire their humility, hard work and dedication to serving God. I think most Americans miss out on a contemplative experience.”

The ghosts of an incredible cast of characters infuse the monastery’s 580 acres. You can stroll near Deer Creek, where Ishi, the most famous California Indian, hunted and camped. You can sample whites and reds grown in the vineyard where California pioneer Peter Lassen first planted an acre of mission grapes in 1846. Lassen, a Danish immigrant famous for helping open up the west, came up here from Sutter’s Fort. Lassen ultimately had to sell his vineyard to finance the Lady Washington, a steamboat which sunk on its 5-month maiden voyage from Sacramento up the Sacramento River to Deer Creek.

You can taste wines poured by monks from five continents, made from grapes grown in the same soil where Stanford grew the sweet fruit that financed one of the world’s greatest institutions of learning.

While his wife, Jane, campaigned against the evils of drink, Stanford fell in love with French wines on his trips to Bordeaux. Stanford hired several hundred Chinese to plant more than 600,000 cuttings, and spared no expense to turn his 35,000-acre Vina Ranch into the largest vineyard in the world, with 3,575 acres of grapes. His nearly 3 million vines produced more than 300,000 gallons of wine and 40,000 gallons of brandy a year by 1888, said Sunseri, who’s carefully researched the ranch’s history.

Stanford used the proceeds to open Leland Stanford Jr. University on Nov. 11, 1885, in honor of his 15-year-old son Leland Stanford Jr., who died of typhoid fever.


Despite his wife’s objections, Stanford would take the train from San Francisco to Vina and enjoy his wines and brandies in his parlor car, Sunseri said.

“He declared, ‘If I believed the use of wine was hurtful to the human race, I would pull up every vine I had.’ He believed the consumption of wine was ‘beneficial rather then detrimental’ and in wine-drinking nations, ‘extreme drunkenness was rare.’ 

If you don’t prefer your spirits in bottles, you can join the monks who chant and pray seven times a day, or visit their new church built with about 500 sacred stones purchased in Spain in 1931 by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.

The sacred stones once formed the “chapter house” or monks meeting room, in a 12th-century Spanish monastery. Hearst bought the remains of the chapter house for $85,000 and hired famed architect Julia Morgan to figure out how to reassemble it at Wyntoon, the castle he’d built for his mother along the banks of the McCloud River in Siskiyou County. But the Great Depression derailed Hearst’s dream and the stones sat in crates under trees and blackberry bushes in Golden Gate Park for decades.

Some of the monks say they can almost feel the presence of their Cistercian Trappist brothers who prayed in the chapter house for centuries when the stones were part of the Santa Maria De Ovila monastery, built in 1181 with the help of Moorish craftsmen on the Tagus River 90 miles northeast of Madrid.

The present-day monks come from all walks of life. The monastery’s “cellarer” or administrator, Stephen Nguyen, is one of three Vietnamese monks.

In Vietnam, he worked construction, sold tractors and spent 2 1/2 years in the army. When the communists took over, Nguyen, 39, said he and others had to either pray secretly or sneak into the church.

“They took me away for one day when they caught me,” he said.

He entered a monastery after he got out of the army and came to Vina after Father Thomas Davis recruited him.

“I feel my God calling me to Vina,” he said.

One of the Vietnamese monks learned how to grow grapes and make wine, then returned to Vietnam, but Nguyen finds Vina very calming and peaceful. He said his mother cried when he left Vietnam, but then she came to visit for a month when he took his final vows and was reassured by how content he was living a life of simplicity and prayer.

Brother Christopher Cheney, the monastery’s vocation director, charged with recruiting and training new monks, urges people who are interested in joining to contact them by email or phone. They even have a director of social media and a website. To be considered, “you need to be practicing Roman Catholic between the ages of 22 and 40, free of debt, with some college or work experience,” he said.

Cheney, 42, was working as a supermarket checker when he decided to apply.

“My family wasn’t too happy about my decision and neither was my girlfriend,” he said. “It’s pretty rough on them at first. Because we live a life of radical separation from the world, it’s almost like a death in the family. But when the family sees the person is happy, usually they come around.”

One brother gave up a promising baseball career, and still another had worked in restaurants.

“Our culture is very action-oriented and noisy, and it’s not easy to hear the call to contemplative life,” Cheney said.

Cheney does look at the daily newspaper that comes to the monastery and, like several other brothers, votes absentee. But most are so removed from the outside world they don’t know who’s running for president.

Any devout Catholic can apply to live here, but there’s no turning back. Once they come to Vina, they agree to never leave unless sent out on a spiritual mission. There are no televisions, radios or cellphones at the monastery, and only one shared computer, which they get access to in the evenings after dinner before they go to bed about 8 p.m., which allows them seven hours of sleep before they rise at 3 a.m. to get ready for their 3:30 prayers.

When they join the monastic order, they follow the Rule of St. Benedict, who grew up in Umbria, Italy, the son of a Roman noble. Benedict (480-547 AD) rejected the life of pleasure pursued by his contemporaries and spent three years in silence and solitude in a cave beneath a monastery at Subiaco, 40 miles from Rome.

He founded more than a dozen monasteries, including the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, and performed various miracles. He is considered the founder of western monasticism for the Rule of St. Benedict, built on three principles that were followed by thousands of monasteries throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Cistercian order, founded in France in 1098, tried to strictly adhere to the Rule of St. Benedict. In the 1600s, some monks and nuns who felt the Cistercians had strayed from Benedict’s Rule became Trappists and Trappistines.

The monks at New Clairvaux take the vow of stability, promising to devote the rest of their lives to one monastic community; the vow of obedience to immerse themselves in monastic life under the leadership of the abbot; and the vow of conversion, which includes celibacy, fasting, manual labor, separation from the world and silence in the service of prayer. They follow a strict vegetarian diet.

Since the time of Benedict, monks and nuns have devoted eight hours to prayer, eight hours to sleep and eight hours to manual labor, charity or spiritual study. During the first week in August, Abbot Paul Mark Schwan and 15 brothers were in the vineyards by sunrise harvesting 6 tons of white grapes by hand every day, using clippers and buckets.

“We picked them, stemmed them, crushed them, put them in our press, put the fresh juice into tanks and started the fermentation process,” Sunseri said, noting the monks had already prayed at 3:30 and eaten breakfast by harvest time.

“The monks have that meditative, contemplative way of calming the mind down and it gets them very focused on work and life,” Sunseri said. “It’s not just about getting the work done, it’s about doing it well, building a connection with your fellow workers.”

Winemaker joins forces with Trappists

Leland Stanford’s Vina Ranch passed to Stanford University after his death in 1893, and his widow fired many of the workers and replaced them with cheaper laborers. After her death in 1905, the winery continued to produce a million gallons of wine a year through 1909. But Stanford University began pulling out vines because press accounts criticized the hypocrisy of Stanford University President David Starr Jordan, a staunch prohibitionist, enriching himself and his university through the spirits made at Vina.

As Prohibition closed in, things went from bad to worse at Vina. As vines were pulled out and profits fell, Vina saw a rise in shootings, “scarlet women” and “blind pig raids” where law enforcement swooped down on those making or drinking alcohol. In 1915 a fire destroyed everything but Stanford’s wine cellar and by 1916 the last vines were pulled out, according to historian Ernest Peninou. Over the years, the university sold the land, which was used to grow hay and raise cattle.

The Trappists bought some of Stanford’s old ranch in the 1950s and grew prunes and walnuts. Then in the late 1990s, Philip A. Sunseri – whose great-grandfather Anton Nichelini started the Nichelini Winery in Napa in 1890 – bought a ranch in Vina and by 2000 had persuaded the monks to join forces and and bring back the vineyards.

Sunseri taught his daughter Aimee to drive a tractor, and the Sunseris helped the monks plant their vines. Aimee fell in love with the monks and the land’s rich history. She attended to UC Davis to earn her degree in viticulture. She became the monks’ first winemaker in 2003.

“The monks have planted 14 acres and we have another 14,” she said.

About 25,000 visitors a year sample their wines and explore the hallowed grounds.

The monks also have a partnership with Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which makes Ovila Abbey Quad dark beer “infused with the complex sweetness of abbey-grown plums.” The proceeds from Ovila go to finance another miracle: the sacred stones.

Thomas Merton and Sacred Stones

The transformation of Vina from wild West outpost to sanctified sanctuary began at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where young monks under the tutelage of Thomas Merton were sent west.

“Thomas Merton was a spiritual master, a brilliant writer, and a man who embodied the quest for God and for human solidarity,” says the Gethsemani website. The author of 70 books, the journalist-monk, social activist and philosopher traveled the world in search of enlightenment. He met the Dalai Lama, who said no Westerner better understood Buddhism.

A rebel and outlier who once belonged to the Young Communist League, Merton described himself as a drinker and womanizer who fathered a child out of wedlock before his conversion in 1938. But his impact on the church was so profound that last year, Pope Francis told a join session of Congress, “Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”

Merton inspired many of the brothers here, including Abbot Schwan, who read Merton’s “Waters of Siloe” as a teenager in Fargo, N.D. “I was so intrigued by a life so radically given over to the search for God, which is the search for truth, that I feel in love,” he said. “My heart danced, my heart sang, if God wants me in this particular life, that’s it.”

Schwan, who worked in the circulation department of the Minneapolis Star Tribune before enrolling in seminary, said a radical departure from corporate America in a quest for truth spoke to him. “Even though I could have lived a good life outside the monastery, this was the fast track into this mystery.”

There are 17 monasteries in the U.S. and 186 worldwide called Trappist Cistercians, Schwan said.

Several monks here studied under Merton, including Dom Thomas Davis, whose mother was a German American housekeeper and whose father, a descendant of Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock, played trombone on a Mississippi River showboat.

At 18, Davis entered Gethsemani, where he became one of 250 monks. He had Merton as a teacher for two years.

“I found him very dynamic, vibrant, quite avant garde in his thinking, a very fine man in synch with the younger generation,” Davis recalled. “He was a deeply spiritual man in the body of an extrovert.”

Merton never came to New Clairvaux, but he did visit the Trappist nuns at their abbey in the Redwoods.

Just as Merton challenged him and the other young monks to think for themselves in a creative way, Davis teaches his young monks “to be open to other viewpoints, try to receive what they have to offer and integrate it into your own spiritual path.”

When the abbot at Gethsemani asked him to become one of the founding monks at Vina, “I was trained by Merton to think for myself and said, ‘No, I didn’t really want to go to California,’ ” Davis said. But according to the Rules of St. Benedict, “you don’t tell the abbot no.”

So he flew out to San Francisco in September 1955 and the friend who picked him up drove him out to the ocean, then through Golden Gate Park, where he pointed out a large pile of wooden crates cloaked by the graceful branches of eucalyptus trees. When Davis learned they were the pieces of a Cistercian monastery’s chapter house Hearst had imported from Spain, he vowed to adopt the orphaned stones and turn them into the monastery at Vina.

Davis embarked on as seemingly quixotic quest, during which time the weather-beaten stones endured five fires, blackberry brambles and the occasional thief. They began to appear in the Strybing Arboretum, the Rose Garden and the Japanese Tea Garden. In 1963 the stones almost went to the Buddhist Monastery of Middlebar in Amador County. By the late 1970s, one of Davis’ colleagues, Brother Regis King, managed to get the park superintendent to let him take some stones to Vina.

Finally, 511 carved stones were identified by Dr. Margaret Burke, an art historian financed by the Hearst Foundation. In 1995 the last stones left for Vina. They were blessed by druids in Golden Gate Park who had performed their sacred rituals around the stones since 1941, Davis said. They were sorry to see the stones go, and consecrated them with Scotch whiskey.

Using funds from a variety of donors, 2 tons of rebar and 23 truckloads of cement, the Chapter House’s foundation was poured, the stones were imbedded in the walls, the first portal stone was installed along with an arched window and a circular window in the ceiling.

By 2007, most of the rebuilt Chapter House was standing. Today, visitors are free to wander inside the structure, which has remained faithful to some of the architectural flourishes found in the original Santa Maria de Ovila.

“Within a year, there will be an atrium outside with an entrance,” said Davis, now 83 and abbot emeritus at New Clairvaux Abbey. When the church is finished, they plan to build an infirmary because there are nine monks older than 80 and six need care, said Arlene Herrick, director of development.

Davis calls the rebirth of the Chapter House at Vina a miracle orchestrated by God. You may encounter him in his black scapula, or monastic habit, draped over his white robe as he communes with the Chapter House, ready to point out the original sacred stones.

“The monks will chant in here, and we’ve had a reception for the benefactors, the acoustics are superb,” he said. “In the evening, the setting sun turns the walls gold,” he said, his blue eyes sparkling. “ I personally think God is impossible to describe. The closest we can get is awe, reverence and beauty. You can find them in this space.”

On retreat

Aside for the day trippers, people from around the world come for spiritual retreats usually lasting three days, either Friday to Monday, or Tuesday or Thursday. The retreat center, booked through the rest of the year, has 10 rooms, a gift shop, a library, a koi pond and a fountain. There are two hosts, Michelle and Will Nagy. Will said he came to Vina because he’s a devotee of Merton, and owns all 60 of his books. The guests include writers and poets from the East Coast and would-be monks. “Silence is optimal,” Michelle said, “but everything is self-directed.”

The meals are prepared by the monks, who also work as forklift operators in the winery and tend the fields.

“The brother in charge of the vineyard is a graduate of USF in philosophy,” said Davis, who drove a forklift himself for years and now teaches theology and public speaking. He also works in the wine tasting room on Saturdays several months a year. Though the monks are allowed to drink wine on Sundays, when there’s a Friday barrel opening they can sample the new wine.

“I prefer Spanish-style wines and merlots,” Davis said.

The monastic life seems to promote longevity. Father Bernard Johnson is 91 and his mind is clearer than Lake Tahoe. He knows the history of the order and all 72 chapters of the Rules of St. Benedict.

“We read a chapter every day,” he said. Over the years, monks began to eat meat, forgot about working in silence “and they began to talk all the time,” Johnson said, which is why the Trappists felt the need to go back to the Rules.

When he entered the order 70 years ago, monks were only allowed to speak to the abbot or direct supervisors.

“The penalty for speaking to anybody else was to kneel in the rectory with a piece of cardboard in your mouth., or you had to wash all the brothers’ feet.” By 1964, the church relaxed the vow of silence, “but this is a very quiet community. Meals are taken in silence,” Johnson said. He’s not afraid of death – “it’s a fact of life, as normal as breathing. Some people pass from one life to another,” he said. “I’m happy. It’s all in God’s hands.”

The magic of New Clairvaux Abbey “is two words: God alone,” Johnson said. “It takes a little while to accept it, but when you do you have a very ordered life and happiness that no one can take away from you. You ask the monks who are running for president and very few are going to be able to tell you."

Like any other group of people living in close quarters, the monks have their ups and downs and disagreements, “but we accept one another,” Johnson said. “We have Chinese, Africans, Ecuadorians, Canadians, Vietnamese and Filipinos. We really love one another and it doesn’t stop at the gate. ”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini. The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this story.