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Renaissance Winery and Vineyard - North Yuba Count


With 365 acres of vines, it is the largest mountain winery in North America

“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.

If a commitment to the traditional artistry of winemaking fueled the vision of Renaissance, two prominent figures, Karl Werner and Grant Ramey, helped turn the vision into a reality. Werner who came from a prominent winemaking family in Germany, took the reins as 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 changes in elevation, with 40 degree slopes reaching altitudes of 2,300 feet. But during several trips to famous mountain wine regions of Europe, Werner (who helped rebuild Schloss Vollrads after World War II, and was a consultant for wineries around the world before devoting himself to the Renaissance project), educated Ramey about the achievements of other notable mountain 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 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.

Their early success was not only a tribute to the quality of the grapes and Karl’s prowess as a winemaker, but it validated some of the pioneering methods used by the Renaissance team. For example, Renaissance was among the first California vineyards to install a drip irrigation system which is now standard for premium producers.
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 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 (a French-Israeli winemaker), was already starting to help steer the winery in an exciting new direction. He began by “finishing” the 1991 Cabernet, blending Renaissance’s traditionally single varietal Cabernet with 4 percent Merlot and making other minor alterations. 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 roamed the vineyards of France and was influenced by wine experts such as Stephen Spurrier (Academie du Vin, Paris) and Maggie McNie, MW (Masters of Wine Program, London). “My first love was definitely French wines” ,says Beinstock.

As the vineyard has matured and changed, Renaissance has continued to broaden its selection of wines. Today in addition to offering their original varietals, they are increasingly emphasizing Chardonnay and Merlot. Some wines are bottled under the Renaissance label while others are part of their second label called “DaVinci.” Plans are also under way to add other varietals as early as 1998, including Viognier, Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Sangiovese.

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, with the picking often cluster-selective, and the grapes arriving at the winery minutes after picking. They will also continue the vineyard as 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.



The 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 which our normal life patterns and occupations suppress, they believe 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. Their commitment to Renaissance (meaning rebirth) took the form of both hard labor and great financial support. So far, the vineyard and winery development has cost a whopping $16 million dollars. Members of the group contribute 10% of their gross incomes to the Fellowship. 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 aims of the Fellowship. For most Fellowship members those aims in large part have been targeted at creating a world class vineyard and winery. Working together they have accomplished much. They began by hand clearing 1,400 acres of forested mountain property in northern Yuba County, California near the small town of Oregon House. It took four years for the terraces to start to take shape, with granite boulders blocking the path at every turn. Planting commenced in 1975, and today there are 365 acres of vines planted, yielding about two tons or less per acre. While the terraces were being built the Friends were allowed to stay on the estate, principally in an up-scale caravan park. As the work was completed many of the members stayed on and purchased homes and created businesses in the area.

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 the Gold Medal tradition is being carried on by winemaker Gideon Beinstock. Under Gideon the winery currently produces about 30,000 cases a year and the Renaissance team has plans to increase production to 50,000 cases by the end of the century.

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 (available to all visitors and run by a noted professional restaurateur) 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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