Stone by stone, grape by grape

The monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux bless this year’s grape harvest and look to completion of the ancient chapter house at their Vina monastery

The monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina chant while walking in procession to bless this year’s grape harvest.

The monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina chant while walking in procession to bless this year’s grape harvest.

Photo By Tyler Ash

With soil that once fed the world’s largest vineyard and more than 700 years of winemaking tradition, the Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux celebrated their annual blessing of the harvest at their Vina monastery, the only one in the Americas that both makes and influences spirits.

Two dozen cloaked brothers marched in a procession through a crowd of nearly 400 silent people Friday afternoon (Aug. 5), chanting while making their way across a shaded plank bridge to a platform just in front one of their lush, green vineyards.

The crowd watched the ceremony, which originated in 12th century Europe, with rapt attention. Historically, this tradition was not shared with those outside the order, but with so few monks who participate—in their heyday, several hundred filled a monastery—New Clairvaux has opened to the public its tradition of blessing the harvest.

New Clairvaux, which has been producing wines since 2003, has gained a reputation in recent years, both in Northern California and beyond. Not only is it one of just 17 Cistercian monasteries in the United States, it’s also undertaken the huge task of reconstructing an 800-year-old Spanish chapter house, the stones of which were brought to this country in the 1930s by William Randolph Hearst. That project is nearing completion, with the interior expected to be finished later this year. With the abbey’s wine production slowly growing, the harvest blessing is just another way Vina, a small town between Chico and Red Bluff, is finding its way on the map.

Following the procession, Abbot Paul Mark Schwan blessed the monastery’s crops, its laborers, the makers of the wine as well as those who will enjoy it, and then waved holy water on the grapes and the soil around him. After a concluding rite, the abbot, who has been with the monastery since 1980, dismissed the attendees to the wine-tasting room housed inside a brick wine cellar, which itself is steeped in history.

In the late 1800s, railroad baron Leland Stanford’s Great Vina Ranch became the largest vineyard and winery in the world. After a fire in the fermentation building in 1915, the ranch was sold, eventually becoming home, in 1955, to the Abbey of New Clairvaux and its 26 monks.

It had seemed that the sandy Vina loam that had once fueled Stanford’s enormous vineyard would sit unused until the sandaled monks of New Clairvaux and Aimee Sunseri, a fifth-generation winemaker, tapped into the extraordinary soil at the turn of this century.

One of the main projects at New Clairvaux is the reconstruction of the 12th century chapter house. The Gothic interior is expected to be finished this December.

Photo By Tyler Ash

Sunseri’s family hails from California’s prime Napa wine country, but she didn’t really plan on making wine until meeting with the monks.

“I’m a fifth-generation winemaker, but to be honest it took a monk asking me why I wasn’t going to college to follow in my family’s footsteps,” she said after the blessing. “It was in that one single question that I realized that I needed to go to UC Davis and get my degree in this.”

The monks at New Clairvaux, also called Trappists, are part of a contemplative division of the Catholic Church known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, who dedicate their lives to finding unity with God. They trace their roots to the French Abbey of La Trappe, where nearly 1,000 years ago the mission began to restore the care and precision of an earlier era by renouncing the excesses of everyday life.

So today Trappist monks don’t watch television, chat online, or even call their friends and family whenever they feel like it. But, contrary to popular belief, they have not taken an oath of silence and they are free to drink alcohol.

The monks bless their grapes, walnuts and prunes, as well as their neighbor’s crops, as a way to give thanks to God for their hand-labored harvest each year. With Sunseri’s help, they create eight varieties of wines, red and white. Following Friday’s ceremony, they revealed their latest: a red table wine.

The Cistercians of New Clairvaux are monks of many spirits, not just wines, one of the most widely known being the Sacred Stones project to reassemble the chapter house from Spain’s Santa Maria de Ovila monastery. The ancient Cistercian monastery was partly disassembled in Spain and brought over to California by Hearst, but he abandoned his plan to create a castle of sorts near Mount Shasta, and the sacred stones were left to collect graffiti in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

The monks received the stones in the 1990s and set to work rebuilding the chapter house, whose stones are incomplete due to years of decay and theft, so many new bricks have been hewn in order to fill the gaps of the puzzle. The interior is expected to be finished by December under the guidance of master stone mason Frank Helmholz, who has also worked on ancient Egyptian structures in Luxor. The outside will be completed next year with the parking lot and landscaping.

“We have the money to cover for this year, but it moves slowly because each stone needs to be placed in a unique way,” said Father Raphael Flores, who has been a monk for 14 years at the monastery and originally hails from Ecuador. “It’s not like a factory where you can buy the bricks all the same size; they are carrying it stone by stone.”

The monks at New Clairvaux have encountered many difficulties in restoring the original beauty of the chapter house, but they are passionate about maintaining their history and traditions.

“We are not free from problems, but problems are good because that’s the only way to grow,” Flores said.