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.

Friday, November 22, 2019

"How Natural Wine Became a Symbol of Virtuous Consumption"

[ed. - From The New Yorker, November 25, 2019. (Published in the print version under the title "On the Nose.")]

The New Yorker. Illustration by Greg Clarke
How Natural Wine Became a Symbol of Virtuous Consumption

The mainstreaming of natural wines has brought niche winemakers capital and celebrity, as well as questions about their personalities and politics.

By Rachel Monroe November 18, 2019


Rozman arranged to apprentice with one of the early natural-wine-makers in the U.S., a wiry, philosophical sixty-four-year-old French-Israeli man named Gideon Beinstock. Beinstock and his wife, Saron Rice, farmed eight acres of grapes in the western foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada. Clos Saron, their two-person operation, had proved that natural wines could please élite palates; at one point, Beinstock told me, their bottles were on the wine lists of a quarter of the San Francisco Chronicle’s top hundred restaurants.

Beinstock had studied to be a painter, but when, in his twenties, his paintings started to sell, he hated how even that small amount of success activated his ego. He had a seeker’s temperament and an appetite for discipline. Like many New Age dabblers in the nineteen-seventies, he was drawn to the Fourth Way—a brand of mysticism established by George Gurdjieff in the early twentieth century. The Fourth Way drew from, among other things, Zen Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and the occult; followers strove for unceasing self-awareness and self-mastery. In 1978, Beinstock came across a bookmark advertising a Fourth Way study group called the Fellowship of Friends, founded in the Bay Area a few years earlier. (The Fellowship recruited by strategically placing bookmarks in New Age texts in bookstores.) Beinstock attended a meeting and joined the group later that year. “The Fellowship was bursting with poets, writers, artists, musicians, actors—it was vibrating with an amazing energy,” he told me. The group’s founder, Robert Earl Burton, claimed to be in communication with forty-four angelic beings, including figures such as Plato, Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln. The Fellowship believed that humans spend their lives as if hypnotized, lulled into a trance by mental, physical, and emotional habits; in contrast, members of the Fellowship sought at all moments to awaken.

Beinstock began to spend time at the group’s headquarters, known as Apollo, in a rural community in the foothills of the Sierras called Oregon House. It was in one of California’s poorest counties, but the Fellowship worked to create an atmosphere of cultivation, planting rose gardens and erecting a central building in the style of a French château. The group, which had nearly three thousand members around the world, had its own orchestra and opera company, which performed in a classical amphitheatre called the Theatron; the Fellowship amassed a collection of Ming-dynasty furniture, which was later sold at Christie’s for more than eleven million dollars.

Wine fit in with the group’s commitment to spiritual work and high culture. Beinstock and other Fellowship members planted row after row of Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and other Old World varietals, the so-called noble grapes. The work was arduous—removing granite boulders, planting vines by hand—but the Fellowship prized the clarity and camaraderie that came from collective physical labor. Ultimately, the members planted three hundred and sixty-five acres of vineyard. “Then the spiritual leader said, ‘That’s a beautiful number. We can stop at that,’ ” Beinstock recalled. The Fellowship’s Renaissance Winery was soon producing thirty-five thousand cases a year, he said. “If there is a more remarkable vineyard in California, I did not see it,” James Halliday wrote, in the “Wine Atlas of California.” “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.” Beinstock moved to England, where he studied for the prestigious Master of Wine qualification. In 1991, he returned to California and later became the Fellowship’s winemaker.

At the time, Beinstock said, the Fellowship made wine “with a lot of technology and quote-unquote scientific attention to detail.” After the Second World War, the wine world had been transformed by the same forces of industrialization that were changing all sorts of farming. There were now technical solutions for every enological issue. At Renaissance, the soil was sprayed with herbicides; after the harvest, the crushed grapes were spun in a centrifuge, until a precise percentage of solids was attained. The liquid was fermented in temperature-controlled tanks, its sugar content was measured and plotted on a graph twice a day, and during bottling the wine underwent sterile filtration. “It was the age of science in winemaking,” Beinstock said. “It gave people the illusion they were in the driver’s seat, that they can control everything and make perfect wines.”

“Wine geeks”—men, mostly—discussed wines in terms of chemical compounds and quantifiable metrics: pH, total acidity, months of barrel aging. They celebrated the modernization of the notoriously finicky winemaking process; the developments allowed for greater consistency and precision. A year of difficult weather no longer had to mean a bad vintage. Wines being shipped across oceans could have longer shelf lives and more predictable tastes. The consolidation of the wine industry accelerated the trend, since a mass-produced wine couldn’t afford to have an off year.

Beinstock believed that these methods suffocated the terroir, the grapes’ natural expression of the land, and he disapproved of the hubris of those who considered themselves vineyard managers. Beinstock saw himself as a midwife, encouraging the birth of something beautiful by staying out of the way as much as possible. Once he took over at Renaissance, he stopped filtering and dismantled the centrifuges; he wanted the winemaking to be less intense, less worried.

A critic for the Times called the 1995 Renaissance Chardonnay “excellent” and its Sauvignon Blanc “even better.” Esther Mobley, the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine critic, declared the years between 1995 and 2001 the winery’s “golden age,” when Beinstock produced “some of the greatest wines ever made in California.”

Beinstock loved making wine, but he was increasingly disillusioned with the Fellowship. Burton, its leader, had begun making doomsday predictions. In 1998, Burton claimed that an earthquake would destroy most of the West Coast but spare Apollo. A group of Fellowship members was charged with preparing for the tremors. “As a winemaker, I couldn’t stand it,” Beinstock said. “I made a lot of enemies back then, because I was kicking them out of the winery, and they would come back and strap the barrels to the racks.” When the apocalypse didn’t come, many members left the group. Burton was also dogged by lawsuits from former members who claimed that he had sexually exploited them. (The president of the Fellowship said that no lawsuits about sexual misdeeds have been adjudicated in court.)

In the mid-nineties, Beinstock and Rice, his wife, began tending four hundred vines in a thicket down the road from Apollo, with the goal of making wine outside of their work at Renaissance. Clos Saron used no pesticides or herbicides and even less intervention in the winery. They built a small house, a pen for their sheep, and a winery sunk into the ground, to keep the temperature stable. Beinstock auctioned off his collection of grand-cru Burgundies and other well-aged wines to help finance the construction. In 2010, they cut ties with the Fellowship.

[ed. - This narrative suggests the degree to which Fellowship members are inured to, and minimize Burton's abuses and manipulation. The "Fall of California" prediction was hatched in 1971 and virtually every member who joined after that would be have been made aware of its role in the Fellowship's destiny, even if Burton's previous "predictions" had failed. By the mid-1980s, complaints of Burton's sexual abuse became public knowledge through lawsuits (settled out of court) and through the press Still, Beinstock remained in the Fellowship over 30 years.

See also: Wild, Wild Wine Country, A Guided Tour of Renaissance Vineyard, and
How Do I Love Yuba? Let Me Count the Ways, We Tried Wine Made By A Cult.]

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