Recently, we spent a long weekend in Northern California visiting friends. High on my list of things to do on our visit was a visit to the New Clairvaux winery at Vina, California, about 20 minutes North of Chico. I had never been to New Clairvaux. It wasn’t until after I moved away from Chico that I discovered the monastery vineyard, and my interest was further piqued when I learned about the gothic church from Spain being reconstructed on the site.
One cloud covered afternoon we made our way to the monastery winery, stopping first in the Chapter House reconstruction. The 12th century chapel stones from Spain were brought to California in the late twenties and were eventually abandoned to the elements in Golden Gate Park. The abbot of New Clairvaux discovered them in 1955 and pushed for the reconstruction of the chapel for almost fifty years before work finally started in earnest, rebuilding the chapel among the Cistercians at the New Clairvaux monastery in Vina.
From the outside, the building does not seem like much. The path worn into the surrounding grass approaches from the back, and a buttressed wall with cornice reminiscent of ancient greek architecture is strange in modern (earthquake safe) materials. We entered through an opening in the wall that will one day probably hold a door. Inside, modern stone gothic windows were set into plain concrete block walls, another strange contrast. The partial completeness of the project was evident in the unfinished concrete subfloor and in the visible metal reinforcement overhead.
The real gem of the site, however, is the ancient stones. As you pass under gothic archways deeper into the church you see the limestone vaulting. The stone is a mix of the original Spanish chapel stones with additional modern stone cut to match. Even in its unfinished state the potential for what the church will be is apparent standing under the limestone vaulting. Something about limestone speaks to things greater than what is apparent. The ripples and imperfections in the once-living stone are beautiful in contrast with the precision cut of the blocks.
The weathered stones installed in among the newer add so much character. The concept was described in Japanese philosophy as Sabi, and refers to the beauty of natural patina and aging. The new cut stone in the chapel is a very close match to the old, but the older stones have an aged grace that seems so appropriate for a monastery and winery.
After taking in the beauty of the chapel stones we made our way to the winery tasting room. Compared to the chapel stones, the brick building is practically modern, though still historical in its own right. The railroad tracks still run through the floor of the old warehouse turned tasting room, giving a nod to the days when shipments of brandy was sent out from the area before prohibition.
Inside the tasting room, bright copper countertops showcase the lovely pale gold and deep purple-reds of the wine as you sample a flight of featured vintages. My favorite of the tasting was a blended red called Petite Temptation, and I also bought a Zinfandel for my dad that turned out to be fantastic.
After trying the wine, we walked the public grounds, strolling around the orange trees and wrought iron fencing separating the monastery’s private grounds, and past vineyards and retreat cottages. It was a strange day, overall. The sky was overcast in that high pressure way as when a storm is brewing. The brick of the winery buildings practically glowed under the pale gray of that sky. A hint of the heat to come in the NorCal summer was already evident, even in March.
I am glad I made the time to visit, despite the less than fabulous weather. I’ll bet this place is an absolute gem in autumn, when the leaves are just turning and the crisp breezes have you craving a bit of warming wine. I’d highly recommend a stop if you find yourself in Northern California.