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Film Stars Winemaking California Monks

New Clairvaux Vineyard marries devotion and commerce

by Jane Firstenfeld
Alternative text
The monks of New Clairvaux Vineyards have been making wine since 2000.

Vina, Calif.—Since 2000, a community of Cistercian (“Trappist”) monks has been tending vines and making wines in a remote corner of California. Now, John Beck documents their struggles in his new film “Monks of Vina,” which screens today and Sunday at the Napa Valley Film Festival.

Last year Beck released “Harvest,” which focused on Sonoma’s exceptionally difficult 2011 crush and the growers, winemakers and laborers who struggled to bring it in.

Filmed at New Clairvaux Vineyards “Monks of Vina” profiles the winemaking monks in the remote town of Vina, which is about 100 miles north of Sacramento, Calif. Although grapegrowing and winemaking are an essential element, many of the challenges faced by the monks are self-inflicted: Self-flagellation, “medieval undergarments,” poverty, chastity and “obedience.” These modern monks pray seven times daily, but limit conversation (the order was traditionally “silent.”) Their hypnotic, mournful chanting haunts the film’s soundtrack.

The brotherhood (and sisterhood: the community includes women) took up residence on this historic California site after outgrowing its “mother community” in Kentucky.

The original property owner, Leland Stanford, was a founding father of California, former governor and founder of Stanford University who helped link the nascent state to the East Coast via railroad. Stanford registered a rare “fail” at Vina. He planted winegrape vines next to the railroad, but never succeeded in marketing his produce.

Supporting the monastic life

The monks saw this as an opportunity. Although their lives are hardly hedonistic (and the sisters live separately), they added an important woman to their mix of wine and song. Aimée Sunseri is a fifth generation winemaker from the family that owns St. Helena’s Nichelini and Placerville’s Boeger 

“My dad had a ranch in Vina and wanted to convert some land into vineyards. He knew the abbot at New Clairvaux, and he volunteered me,” Sunseri told Wines & Vines. “We knew that the rocky vineyards could produce great wines. I put in Dad’s vineyard, learned about the history.

“I fell in love with farming and bringing back lost viticultural areas,” said the University of California Davis graduate, who grew up in Chico, near Vina, Tehama County. New Clairvaux now specializes in Iberian varieties including Tempranillo and Albariño, “a fabulous grape to grow and easy to grow, and not susceptible to disease,” Sunseri said. She’s just released a “Nouveau Tempranillo” and the winery also makes Barbera, Petit Sirah and Syrah wines.

She said the winery currently produces some 5,500 cases annually from its 16.5 acres of vineyard. “We are in a phase where the winery is too big for its britches,” she said. “We’ve quadrupled our production, knocking out walls and planting more vines.”

The winery is a “for profit” operation, she said. Although there is not another winery within 20 miles, the tasting room is open seven days weekly (excepting “holy days”) and 80% of production is sold direct-to-consumer, through the tasting room and website. The remaining wines are sold within the local region, notably at Corti Brothers in Sacramento.

Sunseri called herself a “lay worker, not a lame worker,” and said she enjoys the Abbey’s “great culture and positive energy.”

The monks and postulants (new recruits), who still refrain from conversation at meals, spoke frankly in the film.

Monks on film

“Monastic life is not always a happy life,” one said. “It’s suffering too.”

Another finds release in photography, reveling in nature, finding beauty in dirt and trash. “It’s hard to find a true friend to share emotions,” he said. “Photography is a tool to connect without talking.”

They may be monks, but they remain characters. Some play baseball; another creates paintings and pottery. When he needed to buy a glaze, he funded it by selling walnuts for $1/bag

“Wine was always used as an image of freedom,” one noted, citing the exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. It’s also a revered element of Christian sacraments. “The blood washes us free from sin and brings us into communion with God. The cluster of grapes symbolizes the human race.” Winemaking, said this man of God, “represents the transformation of the cluster into a new life.”

Writer/director/producer Beck, based in Benicia, Calif., was blessed with success from his more secular “Harvest” last year. After its release and initial screening, “Harvest” was picked up by a Los Angeles distributor, 7th Art Releasing.

Beck is currently shuttling across the continent, this week to six “Harvest” screenings in Georgia and Louisiana funded by the NEA, where he’s showing the film to receptions in small towns. After tonight’s
“Monks of Vina” premier tonight in Napa (for details, visit he’s headed back down south tomorrow.

He expressed his regret that none of the monks will be attending the Napa screenings. “It’s a shame, but they don’t get out much. I think they were apprehensive about th e red carpet.”

His goal for “Monks” was to take viewers to a place they’d never see. “It was exploratory. I had a preconception of monks as half-dead with their hoods on. Their humanity surprised me.”

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