Monks’ life

New film captures life at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in nearby Vina

Monks on bikes at New Clairvaux monastery in Vina.

Monks on bikes at New Clairvaux monastery in Vina.

Photo courtesy of John Beck

The Monks of Vina
Narrated by Tim Bays. Opens Friday, Jan. 17, at the Pageant Theatre, 351 E. Sixth St. Director John Beck will be on hand on opening night to talk about the film and answer questions.

When filmmaker John Beck entered the gates of a local Trappist monastery two summers ago, he thought he was going to be making a documentary about monastic winemaking.

What the Benicia-based journalist ended up uncovering and portraying in his film, The Monks of Vina, was a deeper, layered drama at play within the Abbey of New Clairvaux, in the small town of Vina. Here, not so far from the roar of Interstate 5, dozens of Trappist monks—men who have abandoned the outside world in a lifelong commitment to God—eat in silence, pray, pursue quiet hobbies, make wine and, sometimes, grapple with inner demons.

Secrets are revealed to the camera. One young man just months into a three-year trial as a so-called novice, or postulant, at the monastery confesses to Beck that he was, when still on the outside, working through anger-management issues. In a dramatic scene, the New York native says he spent a night in jail shortly before arriving at the monastery on a rainy night in the winter of 2012.

Beck himself, though not religious, said he was impressed by the spiritual strength of the men he interviewed.

“It’s inspiring to see the amount of devotion and sacrifice people will give to achieve a goal,” Beck said.

The film tells us that roughly 85 men per year visit the Vina Monastery—which was built in the 1950s—interested in pursuing a life there. Most don’t pass their first interviews, however, and just three new entries take up the lifestyle every two years. Of these novices, just 40 percent become lifelong residents.

The Monks of Vina portrays the daily routine of the monastery’s roughly two dozen inhabitants—an ethnic blend of men of all ages—during the wine-grape harvest season. This very property was the location of Leland Stanford’s disastrous winemaking venture in the late 1800s, when he planted more than 4,000 acres of grapes in the hopes of bettering the wines of Bordeaux. His wine, though, gained a lowly reputation, and much was distilled into hard liquor—one of the greatest failures in winemaking history.

Yet the monks of Vina, working with heat-loving grape varieties that Stanford overlooked, make it work. Brother Rafael Flores is the vineyard manager, and the winemaker is an outsider, Aimee Sunseri, the only woman in their midst. Trained at UC Davis, Sunseri works with the monks from vineyard to bottle, using varieties of grape like Albarino, Syrah, Tempranillo and Barbera. Threaded through the film is the ongoing saga of Stanford’s failed endeavor. While the early governor of California eventually gave up his dream—the vines torn out and the land sold—the monks, it seems, succeed. In fact, the wine they bottle and sell under their New Clairvaux label is what pays their bills. The wine is sampled by visitors at the monastery tasting room.

The property’s prune orchard also generates some cash, as does monastic ingenuity. One monk, who has taken up making ceramics, tells us he once collected thousands of fallen walnuts to sell at $2 a bag in order to buy materials.

Others, between their hours of toil, play golf or throw baseballs.

Beck told the Chico News & Review that he was pleasantly surprised at the willingness of Vina’s monks to be portrayed onscreen. “We think of monks as being secretive and curtailed, but they opened right up and talked to me,” Beck said.

Especially, it seems, the abbey’s two postulants, whose respective stories are the film’s strongest anchor. One tells the camera that a person can’t escape his troubles simply by entering a monastery. The other, filmed while harvesting grapes, likewise notes that who you are on the outside is who you remain on the inside. It’s clear that their past lives, and the greater world, still haunt them. The viewer can detect the doubt in them both—are these guys really monk material?

And then the question turns inward: Am I?