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Drinking Out Loud

The Cistercian Search

When wine is more than just … well, wine

Matt Kramer
Posted: July 17, 2012

VINA, Calif.—This tiny spot (population 237), in the midst of the vast sprawl of California's northern Central Valley about 25 miles southeast of Red Bluff, is an unlikely place for growing grapes and making wine. Not only is the growing season unrelentingly hot (olive trees thrive in the area), but the soil is simply too good.

"It's really a problem," observes Aimée Sunseri, winemaker of the Cistercian monastery of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, which today is pretty much the only thing going in Vina (pronounced vy-nah). "In some places the deep loam topsoil can be 20 feet thick. It's too rich. And then, of course, there's the challenge of the heat."

Ms. Sunseri, who acknowledges with a laugh her improbable situation as a woman in an all-male monastery, is undaunted by the winegrowing challenge. She is the fifth generation of an old California farming family. Not only does her father own a vineyard not far from Vina ("The soil is much better—there are a lot of rocks."), but her family also owns Nichelini Winery in Napa Valley, which proclaims itself the oldest family-owned winery in Napa County. Ms. Sunseri, a fifth-generation Nichelini, is the winemaker for that property as well. Her family also owns Boeger Winery in Placerville, in the Sierra Foothills.

But even that pedigree pales against the wine history of tiny Vina, to say nothing of the profound winegrowing legacy of the Cistercian order, which dates to the 12th century.

You see, Vina was the improbable—indeed, misguided—site of one of California's most ambitious fine-wine efforts, a pharaonic attempt by railroad baron, California governor and United States senator Leland Stanford to create wines that he boasted would rival the best of France.

Stanford planted more than 1,000 irrigated acres in a single year; imported French vineyard workers; built a brandy distillery, and by 1885 had amassed a fiefdom of 55,000 acres of pasture and farmland.

By 1887 his Vina Ranch had 3,575 acres of vines and a wine cellar with a 2 million–gallon capacity. Then, as if this were not enough, a year later Stanford built yet another winery to handle the grapes grown farther south on his ranch in Palo Alto, the site of which is today Stanford University.

Where is Vina Ranch today? It's gone, with only the remnants of an array of handsome, but utilitarian, large brick structures that sheltered the vats and distillery of Vina Ranch's gargantuan production to prove its once-boastful existence.

After Stanford's death in 1893, Vina Ranch became part of the endowment of Stanford University. It expired altogether in 1915, when its vines were uprooted. (Stanford University's first president was, ironically, an ardent Prohibitionist.)

The former Vina Ranch was sold off in pieces, and in 1955 the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky purchased 586 acres of it for $1 million to create a new monastery, the Abbey of New Clairvaux. That then-substantial sum got them not only land, but also all of the old brick buildings that had housed Stanford's wine dream.

Somehow it's fitting that Cistercians are in charge of reviving—far more modestly, to be sure—Leland Stanford's old wine dream. After all, it was the Cistercian order of monks and nuns, over a span of several centuries starting in the 1100s, that created what is now a roll call of some of the greatest vineyards in Burgundy and the Loire Valley in France as well as Germany's Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau districts. They were famed for their prowess with water management (Cistercians helped drain Italy's swampy Po Valley) as well as being methodical, exacting winegrowers.

Unlike Stanford, the modern-day Cistercian monks of New Clairvaux have no illusion that what they can create in the hot, flat expanse of their land will rival the best of France—or for that matter the rest of California.

"Every time I go to Napa Valley to my family winery," reflects Ms. Sunseri, "I'm struck by how easy it is to grow grapes and make fine wine in Napa. I mean, compared to what we struggle with here, the grapes in Napa just show up with pretty much all the right acidity and ripeness and flavor. I never really grasped that until I started making wine here at New Clairvaux about eight years ago."

Among the challenges she faces is selecting which grapes might perform well in this environment. The vineyard currently is planted to the red varieties of Syrah, Tempranillo, Petite Sirah, Graciano and Barbera and the white varieties of Albariño, Trebbiano and Viognier.

"Recently, we got cuttings from U.C., Davis, of the Greek varieties Assyrtiko and Moschofilero," she reports. Assyrtiko is a white grape indigenous to the Greek island of Santorini. Despite having a reddish skin, Moschofilero typically is used to create a white wine, as is done with Pinot Gris, which also has a light red skin.

"We're now propagating those cuttings to create a sufficient number of vines to plant in our new vineyard. Will they work?" she asks rhetorically. "Who knows?"

In the meantime, the wines of New Clairvaux are, perhaps inevitably, a bit of a mixed bag. After all, this is hardly one of California's predestined-for-greatness sites, where one has a right to expect even early efforts to shine.

For this taster, the Petite Sirah performs best, delivering a savory, spicy, true-to-the-variety muscularity. New Clairvaux's most popular wine, according to Ms. Sunseri, is the Albariño, which retains the signature acidity of the variety but is made in an off-dry style that renders it more easy-down-the-gullet than characterful. Still, it's early days and a Cistercian monastery is, if nothing else, in it for the very long haul.

Talking with Father Paul Mark Schwan, the Abbot of New Clairvaux, it became clear that wine for the monks is not merely a practical agricultural pursuit (along with 150 acres each of walnuts and prunes), but something spiritual as well.

"We only started growing grapes in 2000 and today we have about 14.5 acres of vines, although there are new plantings going in. And we really don't know yet what works best here," he says.

I reminded him of the ancient Cistercian history of transforming seemingly impossible sites into agricultural triumphs, such as the steep, slate-laden slopes of the Mosel and more than a few once-unpromising locations along Burgundy's Côte d'Or that are now, thanks to Cistercian labors, celebrated grands crus such as Clos de Vougeot and Musigny.

Father Schwan, an affable, modern-minded sort ("Yes, we have the Internet here and we even blog.") seemed to brighten when recalling the long, triumphant sweep of Cistercian winegrowing history. "That's certainly something to work towards, isn't it?"

"You know, for us, the vineyards and its wine are expressions of God. As Aimée can tell you far better than I, we don't know yet what we can achieve here with wine. But we know that we're not alone, in any sense. And we trust that we'll remain here a very long time. So hopefully, we'll all find out."

Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  July 19, 2012 3:38pm ET
What flaws occur to the grapes and the wine when the soil is too good?

And similarly, can you have soil that is "too bad" assuming that you still get vines and fruit?
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  July 19, 2012 5:25pm ET
Mr. Quong: You ask: "What flaws occur to the grapes and the wine when the soil is too good?"

As you doubtless know, grape-growing is a complicated business, one involving an interactive matrix of climate, microclimate, air drainage, water drainage, soil structure, grape variety, rootstock, irrigation (or the absence of it), as well as trellising and pruning techniques.

Put simply, when a soil is too good--meaning that it's rich, fertile and encourages the vine to grow easily and readily--putting its energy into an abundance of leaves and shoots--the resulting fruit can be lacking in character.

Of course, a grower can make life harder for the vine through severe pruning of shoots (to diminish an over-abundant crop size) and by choosing one or another trellising technique (to modify and control the leaf canopy).

It's a cliché in winegrowing--but no less true for being such a commonplace--that a grapevine must suffer in order to create a characterful wine. Poor soils, paradoxically, make for superior wines precisely because they force a vine to struggle.

Which brings me to your second question: "Can you have soil that is 'too bad', assuming that you still get vines and fruit?"

The short answer is: You bet. Soils that are deficient in essential nutrients are just as unrewarding to the resulting wine as soils that are excessively rich. Winegrowers often must make soil amendments to ensure the presence of essential nutrients, the simplest and most common soil amendment being a regular application of compost.

The trick is to have an environment where the grapevine must struggle, but not so much so that the vine is weakened or that the crop is overly small with fruit at harvest that lacks the necessary balance of sugar, phenolic ripeness and proper acidity and pH.

This is why some vineyard sites--even entire districts--seem so "magical". From a combination of the factors mentioned previously, both the soil and the microclimate create an ideal environment for one or another grape variety, one which results in intrinsically characterful and balanced wine.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  July 23, 2012 8:08pm ET
What flaws occur to the grapes and the wine when the soil is too good?

And similarly, can you have soil that is "too bad" assuming that you still get vines and fruit?

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