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.

Presented in a reverse chronology, the Fellowship's history may be navigated via the "Blog Archive" located in the sidebar below.

Wednesday, February 26, 1997

Where Vines Stair-Step Up the Hills

From a Renaissance Vineyard and Winery brochure. Original photo by James Kline.

From the New York Times Archives:

Published: February 26, 1997

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."

Mr. 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 1960's, 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 Mr. Halliday's enthusiasm 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.

Mr. 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 1970's, 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. Mr. Beinstock is also experimenting with Portuguese varieties used in making Port.

Renaissance's first winemaker was Karl Werner, who had once made wine at Schloss Vollrads in Germany and later at Callaway Vineyard and Winery at Temecula, south of Los Angeles. The importance of riesling at Renaissance is traceable to Mr. Werner's influence. For a time after his death in 1988, his wife, Diana, served as winemaker.

Mr. Beinstock, who is 41 and describes himself as French-Israeli, took over in 1993. He had arrived at Renaissance in the 1970's and helped clear the land. After spending most of the 1980's in France, he returned to Renaissance as an assistant winemaker. He took over in time to make the 1993 vintage and was given the title of winemaker in January 1994.

He soon shifted the winery's focus from German-style white wines to Bordeaux-style reds and quickly won critical acclaim for both the 1993 and 1994 cabernet sauvignons.

The current Renaissance lineup includes the 1994 cabernet sauvignon (about $16), a 1994 merlot ($18) with a strong cabernet sauvignon component, an excellent chardonnay ($18) and an even better sauvignon blanc ($10), both from the 1995 vintage. There is a 1994 riesling ($10), completely dry, and from 1993, two late-harvest wines, both in half bottles, a riesling ($18) and a sauvignon blanc ($21). In some markets it is still possible to find the 1987 late-harvest riesling under Renaissance's second label, Da Vinci. It's usually quite inexpensive.

The first commercial vintage at Renaissance was in 1988. In a departure from normal marketing strategy, the winery worked to develop an overseas market first. "The American market was weak in the late 1980's, and we weren't known," said Mr. Granados, the vice president. "We decided to go where we would be on a more even playing field." Today, Renaissance wines can be found in Europe and the Far East. "There is some in Israel and even a bit in Russia," Mr. Granados said.

Perched strikingly on a hill amid the vineyards is the Renaissance winery, which, as Mr. Halliday said, is "functionally complete." Inside, it's a spotless, state-of-the-art winery; outside, it's a raw concrete structure, its only decoration the rusted steel reinforcement rods jutting from the walls. One day it will be finished, Renaissance people said, but since there are already a reception center and tasting room, an attractive small restaurant and a gift shop on the grounds, there seems to be no sense of urgency about making the winery more attractive.

Besides, the money is needed elsewhere. Renaissance produces about 35,000 cases of wine annually, and is only beginning to show a profit, Mr. Granados said. "Last year, we broke even," he added.

Although Renaissance is a Fellowship of Friends project, it is a separate for-profit entity with its own board. The fellowship was viewed with some concern locally when its members first arrived in Oregon House, but they have come to be regarded as good neighbors. Although the fellowship itself is tax-exempt, the Renaissance winery is Yuba County's third-largest taxpayer, according to the county assessor's office.

The fellowship claims about 1,900 members worldwide, some 600 of whom live at or near the Apollo property. Others live and work at some 65 teaching centers around the world. They believe that intense self-awareness, a positive outlook and a commitment to art and high culture lead the way to a higher consciousness. And they see wine as part of that commitment.

"Wine symbolizes our art of living," a fellowship brochure says, "and is our labor of love."