How the Failed Dreams of Cloistered Nuns Gave Birth to

Santa Barbara Wine Country

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Perched high above the Santa Ynez River and dressed in faded clumps of wispy lichen, two wind-whipped white crosses enjoy what may be the prettiest view in all of Santa Barbara County. Soaring red-tailed hawks and countryside tranquility can always be found on this stretch of rolling foothills between Buellton and Lompoc, but it’s most magical in fall, when the green grass returns and autumnal shades of gold and red ripple across vineyards as far as the eye can see.

The crosses rise above the geographic heart of the grape-growing region now known to wine aficionados everywhere as the Sta. Rita Hills, today considered one of the best places to grow pinot noir and chardonnay on the planet. But it hasn’t been that way for very long. In fact, when these crosses were first erected in the early 1990s, beans and walnuts were a better farming bet than wine grapes, and most people merely snickered at the notion that any part of Santa Barbara could become a world-class wine region.

That’s no longer a laughing matter, for wine is quite possibly our wealthy county’s most lucrative industry. The seed of that reality was first planted in 1971 on land across from the crosses at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard, which provided the first evidence that quality wine was possible here.

By Paul WellmanLichen-covered crosses stand above the dilapidated monastery.

The crosses were front row observers to seeing that potential blossom: On the same property and literally in the crosses’ shadow today, the Mt. Carmel Vineyard, planted in 1990, further solidified the reputation of the region — which was federally recognized as an appellation in 2001 — and fostered wineries that are now considered iconic, such as Brewer-Clifton, whose 2012 Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir was just named eighth best wine in the world byWine Spectator. Real estate prices have skyrocketed accordingly, with a nearby ranch down the road selling last summer for nearly $25 million.

But the crosses also bear witness to plenty of melancholy. In fact, the very structure that they rest upon — a nearly 40,000-square-foot building designed to be a monastery for about 20 cloistered nuns — is an utterly dilapidated landmark of failed dreams. Construction crews walked away from the problem-riddled project when the nuns’ money ran out more than 20 years ago, so the half-finished monastery sits in perpetual purgatory.

Inside the exposed plywood walls and perfectly intact glass windows are unattached toilet bowls and kitchen sinks, cans of paint thinner, piles of drywall, and leftover hammers. Red tiles sit in stacks on the roof, tumbleweeds grow in alcoves, and reams of wallpaper, shredded wood, chunk of cement, and other detritus are piled up out back. Yet the dead building is eerily alive — songbirds scamper in the towering chapel’s shade amid rumors of resident coyotes and cougars — and, from a short distance away, it looks like an ongoing project, as if construction crews are merely on lunch break.

The crews aren’t coming back, though, and the building will never be finished. Today, along with the 24-acre Mt. Carmel Vineyard, which is still leased by the man who first planted it, the half-finished monastery and the surrounding 201 acres (including 61 acres of new vineyard) are known as Rita’s Crown, which the state’s public employee benefit firm CalPERS owns as an investment property. Last summer, CalPERS sold the nearby Rancho Salsipuedes for nearly $25 million, so many believe Rita’s Crown, monastery and all, will hit the market sometime neat year, as the retirement fund seeks to exit the risky real estate game.

<b>HOME DOWN THE HILL:</b> Sister Jean Marie walks through freshly sprouted clover around the mobile homes that she lives in with Sister Patricia and Sister Mary Anne. This is where they've resided since the monastery project went belly up.

Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman

HOME DOWN THE HILL:Sister Jean Marie walks through freshly sprouted clover around the mobile homes that she lives in with Sister Patricia and Sister Mary Anne. This is where they’ve resided since the monastery project went belly up.

The nuns, meanwhile, never left. The Carmel of St. Joseph order lost the building, the vineyard, and about 300 acres of land in the ensuing lawsuits and bankruptcy, but Sister Jean Marie, Sister Patricia, and Sister Mary Anne, all in their eighties, still live just down the hill in a collection of manufactured homes and trailers propped up on cinder blocks. They see their failed dream on the way to 8 a.m. mass at Mission Santa Inés every day of the week — when they also drive through now-famous vineyards, such as Sea Smoke, that their former land inspired — yet rise above what must at times feel like a cruel penance.

“I’ve been at peace about it because no matter what happened, I didn’t enter this for the property,” said Sister Jean Marie last week in the mobile home they use as a living room, the monastery’s crosses staring in through the kitchen window. “I entered this for the Lord, and no one can take Him away.”

By Courtesy PhotoCarmel of St. Joseph’s monastery construction (seen shortly before work halted).

The Big Moves

By 1986, Sister Jean Marie Kirby was 40 years into a cloistered life. Born in Los Angeles and raised the middle of five Irish-Catholic kids near the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Western Avenue, she learned about God from her devout mother, who’d met her attorney father when he taught at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Mom encouraged college, but in 1946, Jean Marie joined the Carmel of St. Joseph order in Alhambra, donned a habit a year later, and, in 1949, moved with the order to a monastery in the middle of Long Beach.

Four decades later, the city grew to be one of the biggest in California, and the monastery was amid the madness of a metropolis. “We no longer had solitude,” recalled the rosy-cheeked Sister Jean Marie, who I first met earlier this year when she greeted me with a soft, lingering handshake through her car window at the property’s gate at the end of Mail Road. She was small in stature and dressed in various shades of brown, which I expected from seeing videos of The Open Book, her fire-and-brimstone-focused cable access show. Upon leaving two hours later, I was surprised to learn that it was her 86th birthday and she was off to shake the Pope’s hand in Rome a few days later.

Their mid-1980s real estate search, which included near misses in Orange County and Ojai, was aided by inheritance money that was trickling in from the estate of Sister Jean Marie’s grandfather, who left Ireland during the Famine, became a banker in Iowa, and then founded the Western Surety Company in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Upon seeing a listed ranch nearing foreclosure with views of the Santa Ynez River, the nuns jumped at the deal, believing it was the perfect place to erect a new monastery where the order could escape modernity and return to serenity.

<b>Living the Dream:</b> Sister Patricia and the other nuns farmed their property while living in a rented house near Solvang.

Click to enlarge photo

Courtesy Photo

Living the Dream: Sister Patricia and the other nuns farmed their property while living in a rented house near Solvang.

Since the nuns’ Long Beach property was such a prominent building, their move was covered by the Long Beach Press-Telegram, which is where Seal Beach fishing buddies Walter Babcock, Ron Piazza, and Paul Albrecht read that the sisters would be moving to a prime slice of Santa Barbara’s budding wine country. A dentist and restaurateur, Babcock already owned property west of Buellton on Highway 246 and was planting grapes that his son, Bryan, was turning into wine. Albrecht, a yacht salesman, was doing the same on Eleven Oaks Ranch near Solvang. Piazza, who’d worked his way up from flipping burgers to owning a bunch of McDonald’s restaurants, wanted to get in, too, so he and Albrecht would occasionally explore the Santa Rosa Road and Sweeney Canyon areas for available properties in a four-by-four. “It was impossible to find anything for sale,” Piazza told me over the phone recently.

Realizing that the nuns’ new property was a south-facing slope that overlooked Sanford & Benedict, Albrecht and Piazza — who was already a big benefactor for the Catholic Church — asked the bishop for an introduction to the nuns. Speaking to Sister Jean Marie through a protective screen, the men pitched the idea of a vineyard as a small revenue stream for the order. “Frankly, we thought this deal was, no pun intended, made in heaven,” said Piazza, who today serves on the Lakewood City Council. “It was good for them, and it was good for us.” Convinced, the nuns gave a 30-year lease on that part of their property to Piazza and Albrecht, who died in November 2013 after 80 years of life.

By the time the nuns sold the Long Beach property for $3 million and purchased the new land for about $900,000 in 1988, the deal — which included many complicated hiccups — had grown to 400 acres and involved Sister Jean Marie’s brother, Joe, who was an oral surgeon. The nuns moved to a temporary home in Solvang; most spent the days tending to various gardening and livestock duties on their new ranch, but Sister Jean Marie diligently plodded through the County of Santa Barbara’s development process, already then notorious for onerous restrictions.

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