Renaissance: Where Vines Stair-Step Up the Hills

By Frank J. Prial N. Y. Times News Service | THE JOURNAL RECORD, March 5, 1997 | Go to article overview

Renaissance: Where Vines Stair-Step Up the Hills


Frank J. Prial N. Y. Times News Service, THE JOURNAL RECORD


OREGON HOUSE, Calif. -- Over the years, I'd tasted and enjoyed a few bottles from a California winery called Renaissance. I'd even noticed the odd appellation: North Yuba County. But I never bothered to look it up. Then I read James Halliday's comments on Renaissance in his excellent Wine Atlas of California (Viking, 1993).

"If there is a more remarkable vineyard in California," he wrote, "I did not see it. Those who have visited the Douro in Portugal or gazed upon the hill of Hermitage in the Rhone Valley will understand the impact Renaissance has on the first-time visitor."

He continues: "How did those Portuguese construct those endless terraces, so far above the River Douro, so far from summer water and so far from civilization as we know it today, let alone 300 years ago? The same sense of the improbable, accentuated by the grandeur of the sweeping vistas, confronts one at Renaissance." Halliday explained that the vineyard and the winery are owned by a group -- some people would say a cult -- called the Fellowship of Friends, founded in Berkeley, Calif., in the early 1960s, and he concluded, a bit breathlessly, with these two sentences: "Renaissance Winery is open to visits by appointment only. I can only suggest you move heaven and earth to make an appointment, for you will see both when you arrive." So, intrigued by Halliday's enthusiam and armed with a map faxed to me by Joseph Granados, the Renaissance sales and marketing vice president, I set out from Sacramento on the 85-mile drive to Oregon House, a village in the remote foothills of the Sierra Nevada, home to the winery and vineyard as well as the fellowship's headquarters. Halliday had not exaggerated. The Fellowship of Friends owns 1,400 acres of what is mostly wilderness, but 365 of those acres have been converted into a spectacular vineyard. At an elevation of 2,300 feet, it is probably the largest mountain vineyard in North America. More than anything else, it resembles an immense bowl formed by the surrounding hills. The vines are planted on terraces -- almost 100 miles of them -- lining the inner walls of the bowl. So steep are some of the slopes that almost all planting, pruning and harvesting must be done by hand. Grant Ramey, the vineyard manager, said that temperatures can vary 10 degrees between the tops and bottoms of the more precipitous inclines. In most large vineyards, grapes are planted in blocks of several acres, delineated by soil types, drainage and exposure, among other things. At Renaissance, when the winemaker, Gideon Beinstock, makes his blends, he talks of wines from slopes. And the slopes are numbered, from 1 to 27. The Fellowship of Friends calls the entire property Apollo. They bought it in 1971, mostly because Yuba is among California's poorest counties and the land was cheap. But also because their leader, a former schoolteacher named Robert Earl Burton, had said that only Apollo would survive the nuclear holocaust he has predicted for 2006. Beginning in the early 1970s, members of the Fellowship of Friends, who must devote at least a month a year to the group's activities, assembled from all over the world and carved the vineyard out of the rocky soil, literally by hand. They pulled out pine, cedar, scrub oak and manzanita. They dynamited and hauled away hundreds of tons of granite boulders, then spent four years building the terraces. The first vines were planted in 1975, but not until 175,000 holes had been drilled into the granite base and filled with compost. Planting continued until 1983, and additional vineyard sites have been selected for future development. About 50 percent of the vines are cabernet sauvignon. Much of the rest of the vineyard is planted with riesling and sauvignon blanc, but there are substantial blocks of chardonnay and merlot, and smaller quantities of syrah, sangiovese, mourvedre, grenache, pinot noir, petit verdot and viognier. …

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