Renaissance Vineyard & Winery
With 365 acres of vines, Renaissanc's Vineyard is the largest mountain winery in North America.
Located in the rugged countryside of North Yuba County, California, Renaissance Vineyard stands alone in many respects. Firstly, 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. Basically, the Fellowship believes that individuals achieve spiritual potential only through continual self-awareness and discipline, and that art is essential to the pursuit of higher consciousness. In pursuit of that potential, the group undertook an impossible challenge of carving a vineyard out of an unforgiving mountainside on their 1,400 acre property and delving into the art of winemaking.
Two prominent figures, Karl Werner and Grant Ramey, helped turn the Fellowship’s vision into a reality. 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 demonstrated to Ramey the achievements of other notable mountain vineyards such as those on the steep mountainsides of the Mosel in Germany.
It took tremendous 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 they 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 1985 Late Harvest Riesling proclaimed the Finest Riesling in the World, at a prestigious international competition.
The joy of Werner’s early Renaissance success 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.
By the time Gideon Beinstock was officially named winemaker in 1994, the winery was well on the way to international notoriety. Since then, Beinstock has continued to mold and shape Renaissance wines, winning scores of accolades with each successive vintage.
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 are still hand picked, even to the point of selecting individual clusters, and the grapes arrive at the winery just minutes after picking. The vineyard is pesticide-free and all the wines are produced with estate grown grapes 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.
About the Fellowship of Friends
What would you call an eclectic group of people 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 sharing a common philosophical view of life. The Fellowship was originally inspired by two Russian philosophers, G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, who developed their following in the early years of this century. At the root of their beliefs lies the assumption that man is not a ‘completed” being. Through a meditative or thought process they call ‘self-remembering,” man can help themselves become more ‘whole.”
As a manifestation of their beliefs, the Fellowship indulges in the theater and arts and they 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. Like the Mormons, the 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 (approximately 600 ) 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 more that 25,000 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. We hope you enjoy the fruits of their labor and explore the other fine wines that bear the Renaissance and DaVinci labels.