I don’t think anything excites me quite as much as finding a small producer of wine that is off most people’s radar and discovering that they are making tremendous wines. I’m always in a tricky position when I do this, because by virtue of publicizing great winemaking on a small scale, I make the wine harder to get for everyone, including myself. I do occasionally also get some e-mails from ticked off wine lovers bemoaning the fact that I’ve divulged one of their secret sources for great wine.
But that’s all occupational hazard for me, and doesn’t outweigh the joy of being able to say things like this: Listen up people. There is some seriously amazing wine being made in a little out of the way place in the northernmost part of California’s Sierra Foothills AVA (American Viticultural Area). At the hands of soft-spoken resident winemaker Gideon Bienstock, Renaissance Vineyards is making small lots of Bordeaux and Northern Rhone style wines that are pretty much unlike any other wines being made in California — in a really good way.
Renaissance Vineyards is not some upstart young winery that is pioneering new things in a new region. Rather, they are more like a wild-eyed hermit, that disappeared into the mountains years ago to live in the valley that he believed was the promised land, showing up in town every once in a while for supplies. Some people have known about them for years, but for others, the winery elicits the scratching of heads. There are a few such wineries around, one of my favorite examples is Calera Vineyards, whose founder Josh Jensen staked out territory in what most people considered to be middle-of-nowhere, California and proceeded to make phenomenal Pinot Noir for decades.
Calera Vineyards found Mount Harlan, and Dr. Karl Werner discovered the steep hillsides of the North Yuba river valley in the upper reaches of what was not even yet the Sierra Foothills AVA. It was not until 1987 that the appellation of the Sierra Foothills came into existence, and by then Renaissance Vineyards had been making wine for 8 years.
Just how Renaissance Vineyards and Dr. Karl Werner starting making wine in North Yuba is quite a unique story for a California winery.
In 1971 an organization known as The Fellowship of Friends, already well established at that time, purchased nearly 1300 acres in North Yuba County in the Sierra Foothills. The Fellowship of Friends was, and continues to be, a religious organization that many regard as a cult, built around the charismatic founder Robert Earl Burton who serves as the spiritual teacher of the organization. Its members tithe 10% of their gross monthly income to the organization, which has used those funds since the mid Seventies to completely transform this land into a spiritual retreat for the organization. One that also happens to have a very large, very impressive vineyard.
The group didn’t set out to have a vineyard to begin with, but one of its early disciples was a man named Dr. Karl Werner, who in addition to being a devotee of the spiritual teachings of the organization, also happened to be a very accomplished winemaker back in his home country of Germany. Apparently on his first visit to the Fellowship’s property, he recognized the potential for grape growing, and his enthusiasm for the project, as well as the attraction of the craft itself, convinced the organization to undertake a vineyard development project that lasted several years — clearing, terracing, and planting the hillsides with vines. The first harvest took place in the fall of 1979.
Today the organization continues to own the vineyard, but is perhaps less involved than it was in the past. Dr. Werner passed away in 1989, just after the winery’s first commercial release, and after being run for a time by Dr. Werner’s wife Diana, winemaking operations were turned over in 1994 to Gideon Bienstock who has spent the last 13 years transforming Renaissance Winery from a broad, almost experimental winery, to a more focused winery with a clearer vision of what it wants to accomplish.
Dr. Werner’s vision was originally for a winery that combined the best of the Bordeaux and the German traditions, which meant that a lot of Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling were planted to start. Over time, Bienstock discovered that Rhone varietals performed particularly well, and now the winery focuses primarily on Bordeaux and Northern Rhone varietals. In addition to “learning the terroir” as he puts it, Bienstock has gradually increased the focus of the winery, reducing yields, reducing production, phasing out the use of commercial yeasts, pump-overs, fining, filtration, sulfur use, and cold stabilization. In addition he has moved the winery to 100% organic viticulture, and will introduce some Biodynamic farming techniques in the most recent vintages.
If you ask him, even after 13 years of winemaking, and nearly 20 years of experience in the Sierra Foothills Bienstock will tell you that he is still figuring out the terroir of the area, which he believes to be quite possibly the most remarkable of any in California, but if the current releases from the winery are any indication, he’s had it dialed in now for some time.
“Some time” means at least since 1995, only a year after he took over as full-time winemaker, and the year of one of the winery’s current releases. Not content to be the sole winery in what is now its own North Yuba AVA, under Bienstock’s leadership Renaissance is defying all the common sense of traditional winery marketing and release schedules. In the past six months, the winery has just released a 1995 Cabernet, a 2001 Syrah, and a 1991 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. The only other winery in California that I know of which approaches this sort of delayed release program is Kalin Cellars, whose current releases are typically aged about 10 to 12 years. To any normal winery, such delayed release dates would be financial suicide, but Renaissance vineyards has never operated like a normal commercial business.
Leaving aside the financial and operational considerations, such a move takes guts, and a particular vision for what your wines can be and ought to be. From Bienstock’s perspective, it’s a simple question — he lets the wines tell him when they’re ready. “We originally scheduled the release of the ’95 Cab to be around 2004 or 2005 but the wine was still completely “dormant” and did not cooperate with that idea, so we had to postpone it until this year,” he says.
This sort of intuition and old world thinking pervades Bienstock’s winemaking, resulting in wines that are strikingly unique in character and personality, not to mention long-lived. Such character may well be a holdover from Dr. Werner and his wife’s vision for the winery’s potential, something which Bienstock continues to draw on for inspiration. Werner was known as one of the Rhiengau’s top winemakers for long-aging sweet Riesling wines, and set out from the beginning to make long lived, late harvest wines at Renaissance.
Most wines undergo very long fermentations, the reds in open-top oak fermenters with frequent hand punchdowns, the whites in stainless steel. Oak aging, which some of the late harvest wines receive as well, is done primarily in a combination of French and American oak between 1 and 5 years old. The late harvest Sauvignon Blanc was aged in German oak barrels for about 4 months before being moved into bottles. Some of the top reds are aged for up to 30 months in barrel before bottling.
The winery currently has two sets of releases, those older wines that it has chosen this year to release, and more current vintages that follow a more traditional release schedule. Both are exceptional in quality, and worth the time and effort required to seek them out, as they are distinctive expressions of a unique place and a unique vision in the world of California wine.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2006 Renaissance Vineyards Viognier, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, CA
A bright yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of apricots and candied kumquats. In the mouth it has a classic oily texture that is often found with Viognier, and beautiful bright acidity that holds flavors of peaches in light syrup that persist through a long and satisfying finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. Where to Buy?
1991 Renaissance Vineyards Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, CA
A distinctive pale orange color in the glass, this wine has an astonishing nose of cloves, orange rind and fresh honey. In the mouth it is lightly sweet with no hint of syrupiness, and remarkable acidity given its age. Its primary flavors are of orange blossom and honey, both of which linger with herbal tones on a nice finish. This is quite a distinctive wine that may not have the depth and complexity of some of the world’s great dessert wines, but could compete with some of them on personality alone. Score: around 9. Cost: $50. Available from the winery’s web site.
2001 Renaissance Vineyards “Granite Crown” Red Blend, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, CA
Inky purple in color this wine has a beautifully savory nose of stewed prunes, black olives, licorice, and Worcestershire sauce. In the mouth it is gorgeously silky with flavors of cassis and damp, wet earth. Dusty tannins add to the complex, resonant flavors that are somewhere between burly and delicate. Let’s call it “burlesque” with a long finish that has just a hint of playful grapeyness to it at the very end. Quite a unique wine that throws an enormous amount of sediment in the aging process, something which I always take to be an excellent sign. This wine is still a baby and can go another decade at least. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40. Available from the winery’s web site.
2000 Renaissance Vineyards “Granite Crown” Red Blend, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, CA
Dark garnet in the glass, this blend of Syrah and Cabernet has an alluring nose of smoked meat and black fruits. In the mouth it is rich and complex, though without a hint of sweetness or jammyness as it unloads flavors of cassis, chocolate, and blackberries. Velvety, dusty tannins play counterpoint to great acidity to make this an extremely satisfying wine. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. Where to Buy?
2000 Renaissance Vineyards Merlot, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, CA
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of cedar, raisins, and cocoa powder. In the mouth it is soft and slippery on the tongue with flavors of plum and other red fruits buoyed by good acidity and a light tannic structure that persists into the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30. Where to Buy?
1995 Renaissance Vineyards “Estate Premiere Cuvee” Cabernet Sauvignon, North Yuba, Sierra Foothills, CA
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dates, candied plums, and something I can only describe as a light funk, perhaps in the key of George Clinton. In the mouth it astonishes with a lightness of step and clarity that is almost never found in California Cabernet. Tart cherry flavors play through silky textures to dance with velvety tannins all of which express a beautiful essence of fruit without a trace of oak, alcoholic heat, or sweetness. Lovely and ready to age for another 10 years without blinking. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. Available from the winery’s web site.