The Road to Vintage Santa Clara

When he established the Society of Jesus in 1540, St. Ignatius told early Jesuits to go out and “find God in all things.” Heeding that advice, the Jesuit founders at Santa Clara University discovered Him in grapes. 

Priest At Testarossa
A young jesuit in the barrel room of what is Testarossa today and was once SCU’s winery. / Image courtesy Testarossa

 When Santa Clara College started in 1851, a tiny vineyard already existed on the Mission campus, left by Franciscan monks who harvested the grapes for altar wine. By the 1870s, the College had purchased a large swath of land in the foothills of the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains to produce sacramental wines for local parishes. The Jesuits made their longest-term investment en vino in 1888 when they founded the Novitiate Winery in Los Gatos as a way to help fund the education of seminary students housed at the adjacent novitiate, meaning “house of novices.” 

Here, monastics-in-training lived, prayed, and proved themselves skilled vintners for nearly 100 years. In each of their most fruitful years, the novices reportedly harvested enough grapes to produce 150,000 gallons of wine (used mostly for altar wine, even during Prohibition). Commercially, the Jesuits were best known for their loganberry-red, syrupy sweet Black Muscat dessert wine—a perennial gold medal winner at the California State Fair. In the late ’60s, the winery stopped producing its own grapes and the seminary moved south, but the Novitiate brand continued production until 1986. 

Fittingly, the historic site was bought in 1997 by a pair of Santa Clara alumni, Rob ’86 and Diana ’88 Jensen, who traded careers in engineering to open Testarossa Winery. Like the 100 or so other Bronco alumni involved in the wine business, the Jensens are proud of their Jesuit roots, as witnessed on the framed promotional poster in their tasting room featuring Brother Norbert Korte, S.J. ’51, who started working at the winery in 1969 and quickly became its public face. Hands clasped in prayer, Korte grins at the bold text, “Novitiate: Heavenly Wines, Devilishly Good.”

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