Holy Hooch 

Winemaking monks work wonders at New Clairvaux Vineyard.

On the long list of unusual things about New Clairvaux Vineyard, a fledgling winery two-plus hours north of the East Bay, is the fact that it uses a basket press to extract the juice from its grapes. But this time-honored and labor-intensive technology doesn't faze winemaker Aimee Sunseri for one simple reason. "I've got a lot of monks," she explains casually, as if to say, "Hey, don't we all?"

Sunseri has two dozen monks, to be exact. The winemaking operation she oversees in the Tehama County hamlet of Vina is smack in the middle of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, a serene community of Trappist-Cistercian monks who spend their days tending and cultivating land that was once part of Leland Stanford's Great Vina Ranch. In the 12th century, there were three hundred winemaking Cistercian monasteries in the world. Today, New Clairvaux is one of only five. It's also the only winemaking monastery in California and one of only a handful of commercial wine producers in an area better known for its olives.

New Clairvaux' grapes were planted in 2000 in two adjacent vineyards, Poor Souls and St. James; those nine acres now boast ten different varietals. The winery opened in summer 2005, and has since offered on-site tastings for the Wineau-friendly price of ... free! (11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays.) The wines themselves are affordably priced for a local small-production winery, especially with the 10 percent case discount, which climbs to 20 percent if you buy cases of futures, or wines still in the barrel that are sold before they're bottled.

The 2006 St. James Albariño ($14) is a delight, with its addictive, slightly floral aroma and a pleasantly bitter taste. The 2005 St. James Tempranillo ($14), rumored to be the abbot's favorite, has a light yet complex taste, tangy and fruity. The winery's crown jewel is clearly the 2004 Poor Souls Petite Syrah ($16) — which despite a subdued nose has a rich berry flavor. (Sunseri suggests enjoying it now with steak or letting it age.) The Poor Souls Zinfandel ($12) is New Clairvaux' best buy: The 2004 vintage is solid, but it's outdone by the 2005's velvety vanilla aroma and deep spicy flavor.

Next weekend marks the official release of both the 2005 Poor Souls Zin and the 2005 St. James Syrah ($15). The abbey will celebrate with a public ceremony in the St. James Vineyard at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, August 17, plus parties, grape-picking, winery tours, and free barrel-tastings throughout the weekend. For those interested in combining their tippling with a spiritual retreat, accommodations are available at New Clairvaux (free, donations welcome), but one-night stays are discouraged. A better bet are the many budget motels in nearby Corning or Chico. It's also an easy day trip. For more information or to buy wines online, visit NewClairvauxVineyard.com


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