The original ‘cult’ wine: How I discovered California’s strangest vineyard

Renaissance, a winery deep in the Sierra foothills, has remarkable wines — and a history almost too outlandish to believe

Esther Mobley Aug. 23, 2018 Updated: Aug. 23, 2018 11:11 a.m.

Food // Wine

This morning we published a project that I’ve been working on for many months, a #longread about what I believe is without question California’s strangest vineyard: Renaissance. It is not a typical wine story. It features a doomsday cult, an Israeli painter-turned-natural-winemaker, vines that don’t die, even camels in a pen. Oh, and some of the greatest Cabernets that California ever produced.

Renaissance Winery, which ceased operations in 2015, will be familiar to some of you. Its wines, especially from the 1990s, when Gideon Beinstock was winemaker, are legendary and extraordinarily long-lived. They come from Oregon House (Yuba County), a remote town in the Sierra foothills, on a property owned by the Fellowship of Friends — an organization centered around alternative philosophical beliefs that many have called a cult.

The story of the Fellowship of Friends has all the trappings of a great cult story: a charismatic leader, sex scandals, mind control, Armageddon prophecies. On its own, the 40-year history of this organization’s rise and demise is a remarkable tale.

But what most compelled me was how, over the last few years, a small group of winemakers has transformed the Renaissance vineyard into something altogether different from the Fellowship of Friends. Beinstock, who left the Fellowship and founded his own small winery nearby, Clos Saron, has now mentored three young winemakers — Aaron and Cara Mockrish and Dani Rozman. By a completely serendipitous set of circumstances, these young people became the caretakers of the Renaissance vineyard after the Fellowship shut down the winery in 2015.

I’d had Renaissance wines before, though not extensively. I recall one bottle from the mid-1990s, tasted on the eve of my move to California. A friend brought it to my going-away party. It stood out alongside an old bottle of Ridge Monte Bello. It seemed like an anomaly: beautifully aged Cabernet Sauvignon from Yuba County?

But I never dug into the Renaissance story until I happened upon it through Aaron and Cara Mockrish. Last year they sent me samples from their new wine label, Frenchtown Farms. The wines made an impression on me, especially a tangy white blend called the Pearl Thief. During our email correspondence, they mentioned that they were now in charge of farming the Renaissance vineyard. The story began to click …

Well, I won’t give away anything more. I hope you’ll read the story.

What I’m drinking

Among the many wonderful discoveries from reporting the Renaissance story (and there were many; I bought a case of Renaissance wine from the 1990s, for instance) were the Frenchtown Farms and La Onda wines.

The aforementioned Frenchtown Farms Pearl Thief 2016 ($28) is 60 percent Sauvignon Blanc from Renaissance vineyard, plus 40 percent Viognier from Lodi. (The 2017 version, to be released in September, will be entirely Renaissance fruit.) It’s a golden wine that pulls off funk beautifully, honeyed and herbal and citrusy. It reminds me of the sensation of kneading bread dough.

From Dani Rozman (who deserves his own story at some point), I loved the La Onda Blanco de Tinto 2016 ($30), a still blanc de noirs of Cabernet Sauvignon from Renaissance’s vaunted Slope 1. It is the epitome of a fun wine: juicy, bursting with fresh strawberry flavor, lightly creamy, a little bit floral. Both Frenchtown Farms and La Onda, like Clos Saron, follow very minimalistic practices in the cellar.

Where I’m drinking

On a completely separate subject that has nothing to do with cults: Dyafa, the new Arabic restaurant in Oakland from chef Reem Assil, is worth visiting for more than just the ethereal, irresistible mana’eesh flatbread. The cocktails are also stunning and just as colorful as Assil’s dishes. Throughout my dinner I sipped a Bint Al Shalabeeya ($13), which resembles a generously milked iced coffee but is infinitely more satisfying. Brandy, fig and cinnamon provide rich, almost-sweet flavors without presenting as sugary, countered by pistachio and the sharp, sour tang of Greek yogurt. You could save it for dessert, but why would you?

What I’m reading

Did you see this beautiful spread about the Bay Area’s frozen drink boom in last Sunday’s paper? Check out Lou Bustamante’s story, plus gorgeously icy photos by Gabrielle Lurie, and get ready to feel thirsty.

Elsewhere in The Chronicle, Maggie Hoffman unearths the lost art of great bartending at the Brazen Head in the Marina. (Bonus for wine geeks: She has some great quotes from vintner David Hirsch!)

Ninety-three percent of grape acreage in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is devoted to just three grape varieties, and a full 72 percent is Pinot Noir. Alder Yarrow tastes some of the “secret” wines from Oregon’s premier wine region.

Do wine and cannabis have to be “frenemies”? Reporting from the Wine & Weed Symposium, David Downs (The Chronicle’s former cannabis editor!) has some hard truths to share about the two substance’s likely incompatibility in the consumer marketplace.

I loved this meditative piece from R.H. Drexel about Paso Robles winemaker Kevin Jussila and the difficulties of staying true to what one believes in.

Canned wine sales are up, again. (Does that surprise anyone?) While overall wine sales are flat, reports the Drinks Business, canned wine has risen 7 percent. In case you were wondering what I think about wine in a can, here’s some further reading.

Are you rich and unimaginative? Sotheby’s will now deliver a pre-made “instant” cellar of thousands of bottles of collectible wine to your doorstep, for only $5,000 to $25,000, says Bloomberg’s Elin McCoy.

Drinking with Esther is a weekly newsletter from The Chronicle’s wine critic. Follow along on Twitter: @Esther_Mobley and Instagram: @esthermob

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