Oregon House, California.
I first heard about Renaissance winery a few weeks before visiting the region when I went across an article lauding several of these wines made out of the main California wine regions, from vineyards growing on the California foothills between Nevada City and Yuba City, north of Interstate 80. The region is hilly, with small narrow roads winding across beautiful woods and sparsely inhabited communities. The Renaissance vineyards (click on Terroir) make a contrasting patch in this otherwise mostly forested landscape, with the closest meeting point being the Oregon house Grocery and Deli. The winery is located in a scenic setting of wooded hills, this is eastern California as you dream it, untouched by the crowds and suburban sprawl. It sits in its own AVA (American Viticulture Area), the North Yuba AVA, created just for this pioneer winery. From what I read, their wines seem to have been somehow shunned by many critics for non wine-related reasons, one of which being the history of the estate, which was started as a new age spiritual group (the Fellowship of Friends) in the early 70's, attracting many followers from here and abroad. Wine critics are not exempt from out-of-place bias and French wines have been for example recently the target of bullying rooted in other reasons than their inherent vinous qualities...
So, having called the Renaissance winery in advance and explained who I was and my interest in the winery, I could make an appointment for a visit. When we stopped at the gate booth, bordered with palm trees, the US and California flags, and a golden statue [picture on left], the person I had spoken to on the phone happened not to be in the winery that day, but a friendly lady told me on the phone someone would come to guide us. Soon came the winemaker himself, Gideon Beinstock, a pleasant and friendly man in his 40's. He tells us about the beginnings of the winery, set inside the 1400 acres of the compound which is the property of the Fellowship of Friends. The vineyard was planted between 1976 and 1981 with vines on their own roots (no rootstock) which is not common in California. The isolation of the vineyard allowed this unusual move. The elevation (1700-2300 feet) coupled with the continental climate brings high temperature differences between night and day, and optimal fall weather. Initial surface of the vineyards was 365 acres. Gideon Beinstock arrived here in 1979 and took part in the massive planting which involved a lot of work and terracing (They even had to drill through the volcanic sub-layer to plant the vines).
Gideon Beinstock is the winemaker since 1994. He is the one who pushed for downsizing the surface of the vineyard and keep the most adapted plots and compatible vineyards/terroirs. From the initial 365 acres, the surface went down to about 65 acres in production now after they understood which plots were doing the best, and with which variety. They started shrinking the surface 5-6 years ago. His philosophy is very close to natural wine's, opting for minimal intervention, respecting long elevages and refusing any cosmetic making-up of the wine through chemical additives. His training included work with vignerons in France in the 80's and one of his closest friend is Eloi Durbach of Trevallon in Provence. His mentor was Bernard Faurie of Tournon in the Rhone, with his St Joseph and Hermitage wines.
We tour the vineyards in his car, leaving our car at the gate because of potential risk for the non-grafted vines. They have basically two families of varieties, the Bordeaux and the Rhone blends. We pass a Petit Verdot plot, then a 30-year old Cabernet Sauvignon plot. He says that in the early 90's, when he began to make wine, there was 85 variations of C.S. with very small cuvées. That was a lot of work but was very important to see and later select the different styles and expressions from soil to soil. Viognier plot, then, close to the top of the hill, Syrah. He says Syrah is at its best here. Showing a slope far away on the next hill, he says this is where they discovered the best terroir for the whites, on eastern exposure and less rocky soil, making the most delicate and fine whites. They don't till nor plow for 2 reasons : __The soil is too rocky in general and they would often break the tools.__it would cause massive erosion in the long run. The soil in general is clay with granitic debris. The top soil is not deep, that's why they keep the weeds between the rows. The landscape has been carved for the vineyard : In addition to the terraces, several ponds have been created to retain some humidity. They also worked on botrytis at the beginning. The rain is scarce in this part of northern California : 50 inches/year. So the vines never grow that big even after 25-30 years, also because the soil is very lean. They have a drip system, that they use only when really necessary and add organic supplements.
They make wines that are very different in style from the ones of Napa. They are not fruit driven, they are relatively low in alcohol. Their wines, which receive no cosmetic additions, need very a long time to behave and come to maturity. They only introduced some micro oxygenation for their most tannic wines, but with their very austere wines, the result is very different from what you find in Napa.
The malolactic fermentation is not inoculated, it goes at the wine's rythm, sometimes it doesn't. The reds are never fined nor filtered. They have some filtration on the whites. The first millesimes were kept several years (from 1978 to 1988 !) in the cellar before the first releases, which is unusual. The estate's wines were first noticed in 1989 when he went to Bordeaux's Vinexpo : Someone asked him to present a sample of their 1985 late harvest Riesling and the wine was at his own delight rated as the best by Gault et Millau.
They use open-top wood fermentation (OTWF) for the reds. With OTWF, he gets better texture and more a complexity even though he looses some fruit in the process. Cap-punching during fermentation, up to 6 times a day. He started his first experimentations with non-inoculated fermentation in 1993. By 1995-96, he stopped all external yeast- and bacteria adding.
We walk into the facilities with side by side, the offices, the chai, packaging room and cask cellar. 15 people work in the facility and in the vineyard. We walk past foudres and also the stainless steel vats which were made by the members. He says the foudres are hard to find because of a high demand now in the US. The foudres and older casks (oldest are from 1999) allow them to minimize the wood imprint on the wine.
Speaking of the cuvées, he says they have 10 different products now, and as much as possible, they try to have the blends done early so as to have an homogenous wine. We taste the wines, first in the cask room, then in the tasting room, set in a separate building, a former book-binding workshop built by the members where they made hand copies like in the middle ages. They also use the place (which is decorated with paintings and sculptures) for concerts.
__2 Syrah 2005 (west-facing slopes). Both of them have a small % of Viognier (5 to 10%). Nose more floral here. Nice, soft mouth.
__3 Claret Prestige 2004 (bordeaux blend). Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot. Fine nose. Superb in the mouth. But this wine will be sold in 8 to 10 years...They sell now the 1997 millesime.
__4 Le Provencal 2004. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Viognier. Very round and rich. Onctuosity. The 1999 is for sale now. Speaking of the casks, he says that Renaissance used to have its own cooperage and at one point even sent a member to Germany to train and learn the trade.
__5 Roussane 2003. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in casks. Rich mouth.
__6 Cabernet Sauvignon (75%) 1997. With Merlot and Cabernet Franc. 12,6° only. He says this wine was hard in the beginning, not opening much. Then, after 2 years it began to change and open. The best for drinking now are the 91 and 93 millesimes.
__7 Claret Prestige 1997. 12,6°. Cabernet Sauvignon (43%), Merlot (30%), Cabernet Franc (12%),Syrah (6%), Sangiovese (3%). Another 3 years and it will be ready, he says. Powerful nose. Animal. Great wine. 430 cases. Harvest here is btw september and october for C.S. and btw end of august and mid-september for Syrah. He had his time of over-maturity but backed-off because he realized he lost the terroir, the minerality and the refined aromas.
This was a nice visit.
Gideon Beinstock also created his own small winery, Clos Saron and works with his wife on a 2,5 hectare vineyard not far from here with organic and biodynamic principles and very low yields (o,5-1,2 ton/acre). I'll visit them some day for sure...