About an hour south of Redding, in a tiny town called Vina, there’s a winery that’s definitely off the beaten track. A lot of people in surrounding Tehama County have never heard of it. That might be because this region’s better known for olive groves and cattle ranches than grapes. For these, vintners, though, it’s spiritual work.

When I visit New Clairvaux winery, two people are filtering wine, getting it ready for bottling. On the surface, they make an odd pair. One is Aimee Sunseri, the winemaker heading up operations here. The other is Brother Christopher, a monk. He grew up in Sonoma County, wine country, but never thought he’d make the stuff, until a religious conversion led him to the Abbey of New Clairvaux in 2004, just a few years after the brothers planted grapes.

“Actually the winery and my vocation have grown up together,” he says.

Father Paul Mark Schwan, Abbot of New Clairvaux.
Father Paul Mark Schwan, Abbot of New Clairvaux. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

The brothers of New Clairvaux are Trappist monks, a subset of Cistercians that follows a strict observance. They’re cloistered — rarely leaving the property and live in a walled-off cluster of buildings.

“There’s people who don’t understand that. They think, ‘What are you guys doing? There are so many needs in the world, and here you guys are wearing your pajamas, singing in a barn,” he says with a laugh.

They wear long white robes called habits, and their plywood church is beautifully designed but unadorned. They spend hours every day in silence and prayer.

“I really believe that it’s important that there are people who are totally, 100 percent devoted to prayer,” Brother Christopher says.

But the monks need to work to survive. They live off their own labor — not donations — and winemaking is one of their efforts.

“You can almost see your progress in spiritual life by how you react to work,” Brother Christopher says, especially during times like the busy harvest, or the physically challenging days spent bottling.

“You’re tired, working with brothers, somebody’s got one way they want to do things, tensions can grow, you can almost measure your progress by how you react, or how poorly you react. It’s a real barometer,” he says.

Brother Rafael is in the abbey’s St. James vineyard wearing the work uniform of jeans and a navy sweatshirt to prune vines. When he came here from Ecuador 18 years ago he’d been seeking the right religious order for all of his adult life. He also had no experience with grapes, but he’s part of a long legacy of Cistercian vintners. European monks of their order have made wine for nearly 1,000 years, including at one of the most celebrated wineries in the world, Clos de Vougeot. For Brother Rafael this work and his vocation go hand in hand.

Brother Rafael prunes vines in the Abbey's St. James vineyard.
Brother Rafael prunes vines in the Abbey’s St. James vineyard. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

“One thing that has been extremely helpful for me is to know myself by pruning,” Brother Rafeal says. “What you do with the vines is you’re constantly removing what is extra: you remove the extra clusters, you remove the extra leaves and canopy. For what?”

It’s so the remaining grapes to have space to develop beautifully. Brother Rafael continues, “It’s the same with me in my interior life. I need to remove what is superfluous.”

Bother Rafael says being a monk doesn’t mean he totally sheds desires for things, or attractions, or anger. He’s just more aware and more in control of his emotions. Like prayer, work helps. He has a lot to contend with on the vineyard. It gets unrelentingly hot here, without the cool nights of other California wine regions. Then there’s the soil.

“This soil is extremely rich,” he says. “Some of the best soil is in California.”

It’s deep, moist, sandy soil called Vina loam, which seems great to the outsider, but wine grapes do best in rocky soil where they have to work harder to grow. Here, Brother Rafael says, he can spend 20 minutes working down a row of vines removing leaves, and when he goes back to the beginning of the row: “You think, ‘Wow, something has changed.’”

The leaves have already started to grow back. “It’s very labor intense,” Brother Rafael says.

Given these conditions, why would a winemaker like Aimee Sunseri want to become business partners with the monks of New Clarivaux?

“I like the challenge,” Sunseri says.

Winemaker Aimee Sunseri
Winemaker Aimee Sunseri (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

Her family has made wine in Napa and other parts of California for five generations.

“If you make good wines in Vina you’ve got to be really good at your craft,” she says.

Even better than Leland Stanford. In the late 1800s the railroad baron and one-time governor created the Great Vina Ranch here, planting 4,000 acres. It was the world’s largest vineyard at the time. He did pretty well with brandy, but not with wine.

“We’ve come a long way, let’s just put it that way,” says Sunseri.

She and the monks benefit from air conditioning and lots of other new technology and knowledge.

They started by researching and planting grapes that thrive in similar Mediterranean climates, like Tempranillo, Graciano, Albariño and Viognier. Sunseri has another challenge — the monks make up a majority of the operation’s workforce, but they pray seven times a day.

“You have to realize they’re not here to make a career in winemaking or grape growing,” she says.

The brothers alter their schedule for a few days during harvest, but otherwise, Sunseri works around prayer. She says, unconditionally, it’s worth it.

Visitors in the New Clairvaux tasting room.
Visitors in the New Clairvaux tasting room. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

“I really love working with the brothers,” she says. “They fulfill something in my life, and they’ve got some core values I hope rub off on me.”

The partnership seems to satisfy customers, too. Though it’s a little out of the way, visitors come to the tasting room in a part of the old brick wine cellar Stanford built. The wines win scores of awards and the whole stock — nearly 8,000 cases –- sold out last year.

For a tasting party, about 250 people make the drive out to Vina. Sunseri gives guests tastes right out of the tanks she and Brother Christopher worked with today, and a few monks pour wine for visitors like Roland Resendez.

“Just the idea of the Abbey and the association with the Sunseri family makes it a great experience,” Resendez says.

But Resendez isn’t just here for the setting or the novelty of being served wine by monks. He’s a big fan of the wine and a member of their wine club.

“I have to tell you it’s outstanding,” Resendez says.

That pleases, but doesn’t really surprise the Abbot, Father Paul Mark. The star of the party, the Angelica, is a sweet dessert wine. It’s also the Abbey’s altar wine, served at mass to the brothers and regular attendees from the public.

Not a sign you see at most wineries - at the entrance to New Clairvaux.
Not a sign you see at most wineries – at the entrance to New Clairvaux. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)

The abbot jokes, “I’d like to think we’ve had an increased devotion to the precious blood of the Lord at Mass now!”

Then we get serious. I ask, even knowing the monks have to support themselves with their own work, isn’t there something almost paradoxical about creating a separate, sacred space and then inviting people in?

“There is a tension there,” he says. “But if we see it in the context of our mission as Cistercian monks, doing all things so that God may be glorified, it’s just we’re being who we are.”

At the tasting room, and at winery parties.

“It’s a witnessing of who we are, and what our life is about. However we support ourselves at the heart of it is doing things for the glory of God.”

And that’s a pretty high standard.

The series California Foodways is funded, in part, by Cal Humanities. Reporter Lisa Morehouse produced this story during a fellowship at Hedgebrook, a residency for women writers.

California Foodways: Winemaking a Spiritual Practice for Trappist Monks 6 April,2015Lisa Morehouse


Lisa Morehouse

Lisa Morehouse is an award-winning public radio and print journalist, who has filed for National Public Radio, American Public Media, KQED Public Radio, Edutopia, and McSweeney’s. Her reporting has taken her from Samoan traveling circuses to Mississippi Delta classrooms to the homes of Lao refugees in rural Iowa. In addition to reporting, she teaches radio production to at-risk youth in the Bay Area.  Her series After the Gold Rush featured the changing industries, populations and identities of rural towns throughout California. She’s now producing California Foodways, a series exploring the intersections of food, culture, economics, history and labor.  Follow along on the Facebook page or on Twitter @cafoodways.

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