by Bob Dempel, December 14, 2016
My late friend Ernest Peninou wrote four books on vineyards and wineries in California. I met Ernie in 1977 when he co-owned a grapevine nursery in Winters. Grape vines were in short supply and my usual supplier Jim Lider, owner of Casa Verdi Nursery was sold out. Lider suggested I contact Ernie Peninou. His Nursery was named Yolo Hills Vinicultural Society. One of Ernie’s first books was a history of The Orleans Hill Vineyard and Winery close to Winters. I contacted Ernie and from then on we were not only friends but I sold grape vines for him in the North Coast area for many years
During the friendship I learned much about Ernie, a little older than me, never married, and lived in San Francisco. Owned a grapevine nursery and wrote books. Whenever visiting a new town he would go to their library and research any local information about wineries and grape growing. One of the four known books Ernie wrote was “Leland Stanford’s Great Vina Ranch”. Most people would not know where Vina, California is let alone about the Leland Stanford Ranch. Stanford’s Ranch in its time housed the world’s largest winery and some 3500 acres of vineyards on around 50,000 acres. Formally known as Peter Lassen’s Bosquejo and Henry Gerke’s Ranch. Ernie’s book covers the years from 1881 to 1919. The book is currently out of print. I may have received one of the last copies. I regret not having Ernie autograph my copy
Today this ranch (now some 600 acres) is home to The Abbey of our Lady of New Clairvaux.
On July 2, 1955 Our Lady of New Clairvaux Abby was founded. It is one of seventeen Trappist-Cistercian monasteries in the United States. The Abby is adjacent to the town of Vina, 115 miles Northwest of Sacramento. Do not attempt to find the Abby in nighttime, and only in daytime if you have a GPS. Think more like Philo rather than Boonville.
I had searched my calendar for several years for a very few days that I could devote to a trip to Vina and the Abby. I went alone without Shirley, which is very unusual in our busy household.
I called the Abby several weeks before my anticipated trip and spoke to one of the 22 brothers who reside at the Abby. Upon learning of my connection to Ernie he was gracious as to my upcoming visit. I then called just a few days before my visit and spoke to the employed office manager Micheele. She guided me on the times to arrive and how to tour the entire Abby, (with the exception of the home of the Monks referred to as the cloistered area). Michelle gave me the name of the winemaker, and the time that the winery and tasting room opened. And informed the winery personnel of my connection and pending visit.
Daily Prayer starts in the Abby at 3:30 am. Micheele suggested that I arrive at 6:30 for mass. This triggered a long discussion whether I could partake of communion at the Abby. The Abby being Roman Catholic where generally only Roman Catholics can take communion. However the discussion went on to say that I had previously taken communion in the Vatican at the tomb of St. Peter. I had no personal problem taking communion at a Roman Catholic Church. The whole conversation turned out to be unnecessary,
I did not arrive until 9:00am on a Monday morning. I attended a sung (chanted) service referred to as Terce. This service ended around 9:30. I had an hour and one half to stroll around the Abby grounds by myself before meeting the winery personnel.
But this was not to happen. One of the other worshippers, a very nice woman (there was only myself and 2 other ladies) graciously pointed me south to the welcome center complex. This housed the office, complete with a bookstore, meeting rooms, another chapel, and a stone courtyard with a fountain. This is where Micheele has her office. Michelle turns out to be a delightful person. I had hoped to spend this time in the second chapel known as St. Cecilia’s in meditation. However the heating system was broken and St. Cecilia’s stone chapel was cold. I was invited to sit in the very comfortable reception area. I had a chance to look around the bookstore.
At some time nice lady number two appeared. She had come to the Abby on a retreat. The Abby has several Guesthouses. Some of the guesthouses are for one person and a couple for two people. This lady had come alone. She asked if I had toured the new stone chapel being built out of stones from Spain. The stones had been stored in San Francisco for many years. The story is the William Randolph Hearst had the stones shipped from Spain in the 1930’s. Hearst had meant to have the stones rebuilt in San Francisco as they were in Spain in the 1600’s .The stones sat in San Francisco for many years and then offered to the Abby for one dollar. As the story goes as I am to learn time took a toll on the stones. Some of the stones were stolen, some vandalized, and some just missing. The remaining stones were shipped to the Abby.
Ten years ago the Abby began task of reassembling the stones into a chapel identical as it had been is Spain in the 1600s. For the missing stones new stones were recut so the building now is identical as it was in the 1600’s in Spain. Nice lady number two guided me down a long path north to the site of the new chapel right next to the chapel I had attended at the earlier service. Nice lady number two and I encountered a workman and gained permission to step around materials to enter the chapel. I would guess that 90 percent of the stonework was complete. The next process would be all of the woodwork that would be the windows and doors. I could sense that the workman was uneasy about us stepping around all of the construction materials. We did not stay long. Nice lady number two walked me back to the welcome center building, along the way she pointed out the building where I would eat lunch. ($30). Once back to the welcome center building nice lady number two disappeared as fast as she earlier appeared
By this time it was 11:00 am. I walked back to winery building. This building is only one of two structures still standing that was from the Stanford ownership in the late 1800’s On the north side of the large old building was the winery tasting room. The room is slightly narrow and extended the entire width of the building. The walls were the original brick. A counter divided almost half if the room where people could taste wines. The usual tasting room items were for sale. I was greeted friendly, and I asked for Aimee and gave my full name.
Soon a young lady appeared. A recent graduate of UC Davis (2000), Aimee was the winemaker and her family heritage extends back into the Napa Valley. Nichelini, is one of the oldest (if not the) oldest winery in Napa Valley. I had done business with the Nichelini family back in the 1980s. I cannot remember just what I did for them.
Aimee gave me a tour of the production facility housed in an adjacent part of the old winery building. The Abby has 20 acres of producing vineyard. Production of the winery is a respectable 10,000 cases. That quickly relates to approximately 150 tons of grapes, slightly more than is produced on the Abby. Aimee continued that additional grapes were purchased from her Nichelini family vineyards in the Childs Valley area of Napa County.
Having taken up almost an hour of Aimee’s time. I closed by indicating that I was staying for lunch there at the Abby. With gracious appreciation Aimee offered me a large poster showing the Abby as it was in the 1880’s and operated as the largest winery in the world. The great thing is that the poster is copyrighted in 2001 by my friend Ernest P. Peninou
After lunch I again walked up the path along west side of the old winery building to the parking lot by the chapel and my car. I was expected in Marysville that night. I could not help of thinking of my old friend Ernie Peninou and the joy he must have had in writing the story of Leland Stanford’s Great Vina Ranch. Arriving home a couple of days later I found a place in my office to hang the poster. I think of Ernie every time I look at the poster.