Robert Earl Burton founded The Fellowship of Friends in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1970. Burton modeled his own group after that of Alex Horn, loosely borrowing from the Fourth Way teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. In recent years, the Fellowship has cast its net more broadly, embracing any spiritual tradition that includes (or can be interpreted to include) the notion of "presence."

The Fellowship of Friends exhibits the hallmarks of a "doomsday religious cult," wherein Burton exercises absolute authority, and demands loyalty and obedience. He warns that his is the only path to consciousness and eternal life. Invoking his gift of prophecy, he has over the years prepared his flock for great calamities (e.g. a depression in 1984, the fall of California in 1998, nuclear holocaust in 2006, and most recently the October 2018 "Fall of California Redux.")

According to Burton, Armageddon still looms in our future and when it finally arrives, non-believers shall perish while, through the direct intervention and guidance from 44 angels (recently expanded to 81 angels, including himself and his divine father, Leonardo da Vinci), Burton and his followers shall be spared, founding a new and more perfect civilization. Read more about the blog.

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Wednesday, May 16, 1990

Wine Renaissance in Yuba County

Image from a Renaissance Vineyard & Winery brochure. Original photo by James Kline.
San Francisco Chronicle
May 16, 1990

Religious fellowship runs winery

by Gerald D. Boyd
Special to the Chronicle

Renaissance may be the most unusual winery in California, or even the world.

Isolated against the Sierras in the northeast corner of hilly Yuba County, Renaissance Vineyard and Winery is the centerpiece of a 1,400-acre retreat for the Fellowship of Friends, a non-denomiinational church that emphasizes the arts.

Renaissance is also an unincorporated private community posting a population of 347 at its controlled gate, although no one has a permanent residence on the grounds. Besides the winery and vineyards, which together employ a full-time staff of 75, the estate has its own shops, a community dining hall, a small cafe, and a town hall that doubles as a theater and a showpiece museum.

The Fellowship, founded in 1970 by former Bay Area resident Robert Burton, is based on the teachings of two early 20th century Russian philosophers, G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky. Works of the Renaissance and the German poet and scholar Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are also influential.

Contoured Vineyards

The only winery in Yuba County, Renaissance farms 365 acres of estate-grown grapes, 200 acres of which surround the winery on dramatic contoured stair-step terraces.

In 1975, members of the Fellowship first planted 10 varieties of wine grapes at the urging of one of the Fellowship's members - the late Karl Werner, a winemaker who saw wine as an expression of the arts and believed passionately iin the superiority of the German style of winemaking.

After eight years of trial and error, the plantings were reduced to about 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, plus some Sauvignon Blanc and Johannisberg Riesling. Renaissance President James Bryant says they are experimenting with Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Before the vines could be planted, a massive clearing project was launched to remove the dense ground cover of scrub oak, manzanita and digger pine. Then the terraces were carved out of the hillside.

Tradition of Grape Growing

"There is a history of grape growing in this area," says Hanns Heick, director of sales. "there was a large vineyard at nearby Collin Lake in the 1850s and the name of the county, Yuba, comes from the Spanish uva for grape."

In 1983, most of the major plantings were completed, including laying 200 miles of drip irrigation pipes along 100 miles of terraces and digging three deep wells to feed the system. Bryant estimates that the winery and vineyard investment thus far is in excess of $10 million. "when the Fellowship first developed this estate as a retreat in the early 70s, land was $185 an acre."

Before 1986, Werner and his crew made Renaissance wines under a huge white inflated air dome. Bryant recalls that the distinctive dome became a local landmark as well as a navigational aid  for U.S. Air force pilots landing at Beale Air Force Base outside nearby Marysville.

Today, the dome has been replaced by a monolithic winery, built entirely by members of the Fellowship. Although the main part of the winery building is complete, construction continues as funds become available. Because Renaissance is so far removed from sources of building supplies, the Fellowship operates its own cement pant. It also fabricated some of its first stainless-steel fermenting tanks.

The core of the winery is a hulking octagonal concrete building set on a broad concrete base that will eventually hold a spacious patio with lawns and an extensive garden. This building is in the middle of the vineyard and, thus, in an ideal position because grapes can arrive at the crusher within minutes of being picked.

Werner's design fro the winery, 60 percent of which is underground, employs the principle of gravity flow. He placed crushing, pressing and fermentation on the top level, barrel aging on the second level and storage, bottling and shipping on the bottom level.

All fermenting is done in stainless steel in an unusual circular fermentation room on the first level. Werner arranged the upright fermenters in three concentric circles. Grape must (unfermented juice) is fed from the crushers through a line that rotates around the room on an overhead track.

German oak is at the core of Werner's wine-aging philosophy. The hundreds of thick-steved barrels and casks on the second level are made from German oak.

Taking Up the Mantle

Werner died just after the harvest in 1988, but his winemaking beliefs are followed today by his widow, Diana Werner, who shares the winemaking duties with associate winemaker Edward Schulten.

Unlike other wineries that stack their barrels on racks for easy movement, Renaissance puts the heavy oak barrels in place and moves them only once a decade. Every nine years, each row of barrels is dismantled, the interior surfaces of the barrels shaved and the barrels reassembled and restacked. Renaissance has a fully equipped barrel cooperage operated and maintained by cellarmaster William Nordby.

When the wines are racked off for bottling, the barrels must be cleaned and prepared for the next aging cycle. The staff designed a portable Rube Goldberg-style machine that spray-cleans the interior of the barrel, then vacuums out the water and soda ash mixture. Werner says they are thinking of having the design patented.

Amid all the concrete, oak and stainless steel, a sense of the guiding philosophy of the Fellowship - a belief that art is an essential part of everyday life - can be seen in the reproductions of fine art, torn from magazines and taped or pinned to walls.

To date, all labeling is done by hand, although Werner says because of increased production and sales, it will soon go to automatic labeling. In 1989, the first sales year for Renaissance, it sold 5,000 cases. Werner says it expects to double that this year.

Renaissance winery has taken its time to come to market. And while the winery is still isolated from the North Coast mainstream, Renaissance wines are beginning to find their niche.

Gerald Boyd is beverage editor for Restaurant Hospitality magazine.

[ed. - Photo that originally ran with the article:]
Original photo by James Kline

Tasting the Wines

German-style Rieslings and, to a lesser extent, a light fruity Sauvignon Blanc are Renaissance's forte. They are available in several Bay Area liquor stores.

Although half the 365 acres of vines are Cabernet Sauvignon, no Cabernet has yet appeared under the Renaissance label. There is, however, a recently released Cabernet Sauvignon, $9.50, under its second label, Da Vinci Vineyards.

Renaissance white wines, all aged in German oak, are very accessible and have a characteristic softness, yet sufficient acidity and fresh fruit flavors. The 1987 Sauvignon Blanc, $10, is floral rather than grassy, with just a slight oak pungency, whereas the 1988, to be released this summer, is more stylized with a fruit-salad aroma and a mellow fruity flavor.

Renaissance 1988 Dry White Riesling, $8, is aromatic with a mellow tropical fruit flavor and an impeccably dry finish. The 1983 Late Harvest White Riesling, $9.50, has a mature nose of honied apricots with only 9.5 percent alcohol, but it is a bit low in acidity.

A sweeter 1985 Select Late Harvest White Riesling, $25, has greater depth and better fruit-acid balance, finishing with a slight pepperiness. Renaissance also makes Late Harvest Suavignon Blanc.

I also tasted barrel samples of two massive Cabernets that still need time to mellow. The 1988 Cabernet Sauvignon was very deep in color, with layers of berries and a firm tannic structure. The 1984 Cabernet Sauvignon was more dense and oaky, with some fruit hiding behind a heavy tannin cloak.