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Renaissance Vineyard - North Yuba County


‘If there is a more remarkable vineyard in California, I did not see it.”

“If there is a more remarkable vineyard in California, I did not see it.” Those were the words carefully chosen by James Halliday the author of Wine Atlas of California, to describe the Renaissance Vineyard. Located in the rugged countryside of North Yuba County, California, Renaissance Vineyard indeed stands alone in many respects. Its first distinction is that there are no other vineyards in the very small North Yuba appellation. Secondly, with 365 acres of vines, it is the largest mountain winery in North America. And, as if its unusual location and size were not enough, there is another unique aspect to the Renaissance tale—it is owned and operated not by a single family or by a traditional corporation. Rather it was founded by a philosophical group called the Fellowship of Friends. It is the Fellowship’s aesthetic ideals and beliefs that led to the creation of the vineyard in 1974 and continues to guide its direction today.

Commitment to the traditional artistry of winemaking fueled the vision of Renaissance, and two prominent figures, Karl Werner and Grant Ramey, helped turn that vision into a reality. Werner, who came from a prominent winemaking family in Germany, took the role of winemaker. Ramey, born and raised in nearby Yuba City became the vineyard manager. In the very beginning Ramey had serious doubts that viticulture was even possible at the Renaissance site. It was an understandable concern given the property’s 500-foot change in elevation, with 40-degree slopes reaching altitudes of 2,300 feet. But during several trips to famous mountain wine regions of Europe, Werner showed Ramey the remarkable achievements of other notable high-altitude vineyards such as those on the steep mountainsides of the Mosel in Germany. “Karl showed us what could be done—with ‘blood, sweat and tear’ as he used to chime—on steep land with marginal climates,” Ramey recalls.

Indeed it took great perseverance and dedication to transform the rocky mountainsides into a world-class vineyard. To begin, the fellowship members cleared the original oak, pine and dense manzanita by hand. Clearing was followed by ripping and raking with caterpillars, dynamiting and constructing over 100 miles of horizontal terraces with pipelines every 500 feet. Then Fellowship members then drilled holes into the hard ground for trellis posts and rootings, added composting and planted 135,000 vines. Planting was completed in 1983 and the first releases came in 1988. At that time Renaissance focused on just three estate grown varietals: Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Under Karl’s experienced hand their first efforts captured instant acclaim with the vintage 1985 Late Harvest Riesling being ranked as the finest Riesling in the world, in a prestigious international competition.

The joy of Werner’s early Renaissance success unfortunately ended abruptly with his death in 1988 and the winemaking torch was passed to his wife Diana. For the next five years with help from Ramey and assistant Gideon Beinstock, Diana continued the success that Karl had set in motion. Development in the vineyard and winery continued as did construction of a restaurant, museum, and beautifully manicured gardens and rolling meadows, making the grounds a showcase for the thousands of guests and members who visit each year.

Distinguished by its gleaming white exterior, the winery was designed to sit like a jewel on its hilltop, vines above and below. Circular in shape, it was built on three levels, relying largely on gravity flow. The crushing and fermentation area is on the upper level, serving three concentric rings of gleaming stainless steel fermenters. The 2,800+ barrels, principally of white German oak, are on the next level, while the bottom level houses the bottling line and vast bottle storage facilities.

In 1993, Gideon Beinstock was already starting to help steer the winery in an exciting new direction. He began by “finishing” the 1991 Cabernet, blending Renaissance’s traditionally 100% Cabernet with 4 percent Merlot and making other minor production changes. The result was a Gold Medal at the 1995 VINEXPO wine competition. Wine author and columnist Matt Kramer called it one of the year’s best Cabernets.

By the time Beinstock was officially named winemaker in 1994, the winery was well on the way to international notoriety. Since 1994, Beinstock has continued to mold and shape Renaissance wines in a European fashion. It was a style he learned during the 1980’s when he journeyed to many of France’s prominent wineries.

With all the progress and positive changes over the years, there are still some Renaissance traditions that seem as set in stone as their vines. According to Ramey and Beinstock the grapes will continue to be hand picked and arrive at the winery minutes after picking. They will also keep the vineyard pesticide-free and all grapes will continue to be estate grown with yields remaining low to insure the highest quality fruit.

There is perhaps no other vineyard in North America as unique and stunning as Renaissance. The enormity of the project, the undaunted level of commitment and energy brought to the task, let alone the sheer expense to build it is unparalleled. Indeed it is safe to say that no commercially motivated group would have deemed the project feasible. But at Renaissance, money was never an issue. Entirely funded by the Fellowship members, the entire project is paid for and the contributors expect no monetary pay back. It is that rare commitment and focus to achieve that transcends into the quality of Renaissance wines.



Fellowship of Friends

What would you call an eclectic group of individuals drawn from the distant corners of the earth to Northern California to grow grapes, make wine and nurture a love of the arts’ Dreamers’ Artists’ Entrepreneurs’ How about all of the above’ They call themselves the Fellowship of Friends and they are the force behind the tremendous success of Renaissance Winery and Vineyard.

Founded in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960’s by Robert Burton, the group is made up of approximately two thousand individuals from all over the globe (about a third live near the winery), who share a common philosophical view of life. The Fellowship was originally inspired by two early-twentieth century Russian philosophers, G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky,. At the root of their beliefs lies the assumption that man achieves his spiritual potential only through continual self-awareness and discipline, and that art is essential to the pursuit of higher consciousness.

As a manifestation of their beliefs, the Fellowship indulges in the theater and arts, which are an integral part of life. All of us have talents and abilities that our normal life patterns and occupations suppress but which should be developed. Exercising these talents and abilities contribute to a person’s whole being. Each year at the winery, members of the Fellowship put on numerous voice recitals, several classical theater productions, and one major opera. They even have a complete orchestra and full time conductor comprised entirely of Fellowship members. This collective undertaking in the theater and arts creates a practical expression of their Fellowship-of-Friends philosophy.

Again, the Fellowship is a practical philosophy, not a religion, for in fact, its members are from all different kinds of traditional religious denominations. Members come from all walks of life and all kinds of careers including, lawyers, doctors and other professions. The appeal is a little bit different for everyone but the philosophy is the common link.

While the original group had a uniquely Eastern outlook and cultural bent, the modern Fellowship of Friends as it exists today is decidedly Western in nature. In 1970 the Fellowship decided to create a winery. To them growing vineyards and making wine symbolizes a way of life, yet another collective undertaking and expression of their ideals and beliefs.

Fellowship members contribute 10% of their gross incomes to the group. But the Fellowship is not simply a sponge soaking up income. There is an expectation, though not an absolute obligation that members will spend up to one month a year in the active service of the Fellowship. For many members that service in large part has been targeted at creating a world class vineyard and winery.

One of the early driving forces behind the vineyard and winery project was Karl Werner. Karl was a former Winemaster at Schloss Vollrads, consultant to Mondavi Winery and founding winemaker at Callaway Winery. He was retained from the outset to guide and shape the style of the wines and at his side was Grant Ramey who managed the vineyard. Between the two men, Renaissance got off to a fast start, winning its share of domestic and international Gold Medals and other prestigious awards.

Today winemaker Gideon Beinstock is carrying on the Gold Medal tradition. Under Gideon the winery currently produces about 35,000 cases a year and the Renaissance team has plans to eventually increase production to 50,000 cases.In addition to their dedication to winemaking the Friends also use the winery and vineyard estate for pursuing and highlighting other artistic and culinary talents. They have completed a 300-seat auditorium in which members participate in regularly held concerts, dramatic presentations and operas. Also, on-site visitors can enjoy the tasting room, a restaurant and a museum which up until recently housed one of the world’s finest collections of Ming dynasty art, artifacts and furniture said to be worth $6-$8 million.

When members aren’t honing their artistic skills, many come to participate in the grape harvest. In most years the entire crop is picked by Fellowship members who journey from around the world to participate in the ritual. It is a lifestyle that seems to breed great contentment among the members and certainly generates great results from their wines.

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