story: Beth K. Maxey photos: Brent Van Auken
NEW CLAIRVAUX WINERY PRODUCES FINE WINE
There is a sense of “rightness” about the New Clairvaux winery, a synchronicity of nature, nurture and heritage that has accomplished what many have tried to do for more than 163 years: grow healthy grapes to produce unique, flavorful wines.
THE GRAPES The fertile vineyards first saw grapes planted by emigrant-rancher Peter Lassen in 1846. Henry Gerke expanded the vineyard and in 1871 established the town of Vina. In 1881, Leland Stanford created his 55,000-acre Great Vina Ranch, intending to originate the world’s largest winery and vineyard. After his death, Stanford University trustees eventually parceled it out. It is in Stanford’s two-acre brick winery that the Cistercian monks of New Clairvaux have based their own wine-making, adding modern machinery and solar power to the sturdy 128-year-old building.
THE MONKS The monks came in 1955 to the 580-acre Abbey of New Clairvaux from a monastery in Kentucky. Also known as Trappist and following the Rule of St. Benedict, their order has a long history in agriculture and winemaking, dating to the 12th century with European vineyards in France and Germany.
In Vina, they supported themselves first as dairy farmers, then with prune and walnut orchards which they continue to tend along with the vineyards. New Clairvaux is the first Cistercian winery in North America and has two vineyards totaling 10 acres, with two more planned for 2010.
THE WINEMAKER Some 30 years ago, general contractor Phil Sunseri built the Abbey’s refectory and other buildings and established a lasting friendship with the monks: he now oversees the Abbey’s Sacred Stones project, reconstructing a 12th century Cistercian chapter house.
Sunseri, a fourth-generation member of the Nichelini family which began making wine in California’s Chiles Valley more than 119 years ago, also fell in love with tiny Vina where he bought a 100-acre ranch.
But there was a patch that wasn’t very good pasture, a section that because of his family’s winemaking heritage he thought might do well in grapes.
So he talked to his friend, then-Abbot Thomas X. Davis, about sharing start-up costs, and in 2000 Sunseri and the monks each planted a vineyard.
“I was going to the University of California at Santa Barbara,” says Aimeé Sunseri, Phil’s daughter and New Clairvaux’s winemaker. “I would work at Dad’s ranch during the summers. In 2000, I helped with the irrigation and trellis systems for the vines, and it sparked my interest.”
She was majoring in biopsychology, planning on medical school. But as she worked with the monks side-by-side in the vineyards, some of the brothers began asking why she wasn’t going to school to become a winemaker.
“It was the first time it had entered my mind,” she admits, despite her family’s winemaking history. “I’d never even considered it until a monk asked me.”
So after Sunseri graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2001, she attended UC Davis and received her second bachelor’s degree in viticulture (cultivation of grapes) and enology (the science of wine and winemaking). Because her first degree had included many science courses, she completed the second in just two years, working at the vineyards on the weekends.
“I brought questions to my teachers and shared them with Dad and the brothers,” she says. She also interned at and continues to work with Boeger (Placerville) and Nichelini (St. Helena) Wineries, owned by her relatives.
THE WINES First harvest at New Clairvaux was in 2003. “They hired me as the winemaker – gave me a shot at it,” Sunseri says with a smile. “We’re in our seventh harvest now.” She has researched and changed some of the grapes to better suit the area’s temperatures and growing conditions.
The monks harvest the plump grape clusters by hand, and when grapes and prunes are ready for harvest simultaneously (often the case), they work where they’re most needed. The winery bottles 2,700 to 3,000 cases annually and has around 13 wines available.
“We mostly keep everything separate (rather than blending) because we are still discovering the vineyard, the grapes’ personalities,” says Sunseri. “We can adjust the water, canopy management, pruning in the field – fine-tuning areas to make better grapes that will make better wines.”
Expansion is in the works, says John Adams, Sunseri’s husband and a freelance animator/designer who helps where he’s needed. “The barrel room needs to expand – we’re at maximum capacity right now – but it will be planned growth.”
New Clairvaux will release a 2009 New Tempranillo wine on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14-15, with winery tours, barrel tasting and hors d’oeuvres that complement the fruity, slightly spritzy red wine. It is similar in style to the Beaujolais Nouveau wines of France, fermenting by carbonic maceration which uses yeast to gently crush the grapes. Grapes go from vine to bottle in just two months; the wine is intended to be consumed in the first year.
“The monks call it their picnic wine,” Sunseri smiles, “because it is a fun, refreshing red to drink. It tastes like strawberry with a little bit of banana and is a perfect Thanksgiving wine because it goes well with turkey and cranberries.” •
New Clairvaux Vineyard 26240 7th Street, Vina (530) 839-2200 Tasting Room open weekends 11 am -5 pm, or by appointment