We weren’t expecting much. We were only stopping in Vina, California because they had a nice state park along the Sacramento River with a pleasant campground and it was time to stop for the day. We set up camp and proceeded to the park ranger’s station to ask advice for the best restaurant in the area. The ranger rattled off a few names that were quickly discarded including Denny’s and the local casino (we were celebrating our wedding anniversary while on this adventure so we were looking for something nicer than just a meal) which left us with just one choice – the Lassen Steak House. We headed off to find the steak house for dinner and, again, weren’t expecting much.
Upon arriving, the parking lot was full which is always a good sign at a restaurant but, then again, if you are the only restaurant in town, perhaps not so much. Venturing forth, we went in, sat down and took a look at the menu. Shrimp in a white wine and garlic sauce, grilled salmon, steaks of all shapes and sizes, the Lassen burger (it was tall like the mountain) and more. Perhaps we were hungry but it all sounded great and exactly what we were looking for that evening.
A quick look at the very short wine list looked promising too with a local winery taking top billing. We asked what our choices were for a bottle of something from New Clairvaux – the winery that was around the corner and down the road just a couple of miles.
We could choose between either a syrah or a barbera. We weren’t up for both so we ordered the Barbera. (We were near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and every winemaker I know who grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills talks about making Barbera ‘back home’ so I figured we had location working to our advantage.)
The wine came and it was good! It was very good, as a matter of fact.
When my shrimp scampi arrived and Chuck’s Lassen burger showed up, we were equally impressed. All was superb. We had ‘chosen wisely’ as we often say when something turns out to our liking.
After dinner, and itching to take a bit of a stroll after a long drive, we decided to go check out this winery at the Abbey of New Clairvaux. We were certain the tasting room would be closed but, being a monastery, the grounds might be interesting. Little did we know how much of an understatement this would be.
We followed a few signs and pulled into the monastery/winery grounds to check things out. As expected, the tasting room was closed but we could see an interesting building under construction amidst the fields of growing grapes. We continued forward.
In the middle of the grape fields was a building that looked like something out of the middle ages; a French Gothic structure taking shape in the middle of nowhere. By now, we were curious and wandered in to see if we could figure out what it was. On our way, we found a few signs.
Apparently in 1931, the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, who was known for buying up European treasures, bringing them stateside and then using bits and pieces in his own architectural projects (like the magnificent Hearst Castle at San Simeon on the California coast) had acquired selected stones from an abandoned Santa Maria de Ovila abbey in Spain. He had intended to use them in the construction of a vacation lodge he called Wyntoon near Mount Shasta in northern California but never did. By 1941, he was out of funds for the Wyntoon project and gave the stones to the city of San Francisco to be used to build the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. World War II got in the way of those plans and that never came to fruition either and the stones just lay in a pile in Golden Gate park for the longest.
In the meantime, the Abbey at New Clairvaux was established in 1955 when the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky sent a group of Cistercian monks to California to relieve overcrowding at the monastery in Kentucky. (Having grown up around Cincinnati, I actually knew of this Abbey of Gethsemani. They make great Kentucky bourbon fudge and fruitcakes. I’ve had my share over the years!)
But back to the story at hand, the land that these monks chose for their new monastery in California was once Leland Stanford’s Great Vina Ranch. Back in 1890, it was the world’s largest combination vineyard, winery and distillery. Stanford had planted over 4,000 acres in French vines, had the same architect who constructed Chateau Montelena in Napa to build the winery building and set up shop trying to make his fortune in fermented grape juice by investing his fortune from running the railroads, being governor of California, breeding trotting horses and all the other ventures that Stanford got himself involved in. None of the French vines grew very well because they were the wrong types of grapes to be planting in the hot Sacramento River valley so Stanford made and sold more brandy than he did fine wine and eventually abandoned the ranch.
The monks, however, when they got their hands on the property, planted it in Italian vines which are much better suited to the hot valley temps and the wine business has been going along just swimmingly for them. I guess it just goes to show that sometimes a little know-how can get you further than even the best bit of funding. And this order of monks is not short on know-how. It is the same order that runs Clos Vougeot in Burgundy and Kloster Eberbach in the Rheingau. They have a heritage of strong agricultural and wine-making roots that goes back to the 12th century in Europe.
After years of being vandalized, pilfered in part for other projects in Golden Gate Park and Lake Merritt in Oakland, and almost being sold to become part of a Buddhist monastery, in 1994, an agreement was reached to transfer the old Santa Maria de Oliva stones from Golden Gate Park to New Clairvaux. (Yes, the pile of old stones just lay in Golden Gate Park for over 50 years!)
As it turns out, Santa Maria de Oliva was a Cistercian-built structure so it seemed only right that the stones be returned to a Cistercian order to utilize them (and get them out of Golden Gate Park). The agreement required that the monks actually “do something” towards reconstructing the stones within 10 years.
As you can see from the photos, they have done “something” but they are far from finished. Perhaps they are too busy making wine to make progress on the building. Perhaps they need to sell more wine to fund their efforts. I don’t really know. But I do know that on this particular evening when we really weren’t expecting much, we got way more than we bargained for!
By the time we returned to our tent along the Sacramento River, the sun was setting on an absolutely unexpectedly lovely evening in Vina, California.