The lost civilization of California wine

A California cult unwittingly created one of the country’s great wineries — and then lost it. The haunting story of a vineyard’s rise, collapse and refusal to die.

By Esther Mobley

California’s strangest vineyard is in the tiny Yuba County town of Oregon House, 70 miles northeast of Sacramento, at an elevation of 2,250 feet in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It is called Renaissance.

The view from Slope 19, the vineyard’s highest point, is so vast and varied that it feels as if you were looking down on all of California. The mountains of the coastal range sprawl to the west, guarding the Pacific. To the east, the Sierra tower, and the sparkling blue of Lake Tahoe peeks out in the distance.

But that’s not what makes Renaissance so singular. No: Look downhill from Slope 19. There, below the vineyard, sits a faux Roman amphitheater. Baroque bronze statues surrounding decorative fountains. Lavish gardens. Date palm trees. Replicas of Michelangelo’s “David,” herds of water buffalo, camels in a pen.

Is this a vineyard? Or the wreckage of a neoclassical theme park?

The vineyard’s caretakers, Aaron and Cara Mockrish, hike here each day from their home. Agile and athletic, the kind of people who seem destined to wear dirt-caked boots, the Mockrishes climb 450 vertical feet of forest on paths cleared through brush, stepping over freshly printed bear tracks, to the peak of this granite-girded slope. They proceed with a gravitas that almost feels solemn: This place, their determined gait seems to say, is important.

Here, it’s grapevines on all sides, seemingly for miles. They aren’t the symmetrical, manicured grids of Napa Valley. These vines twist and lean, sprawling out in wild, uneven succession, each contorted in its unique individual cragginess. Steep terraces have been etched into the hillsides below, vines boring into the extreme, rocky earth. Boulders of iron-red granite punctuate the plants.

“This whole place is varying states of decomposed granite,” Aaron Mockrish says. The rocks give the vineyard its character, but also make the land difficult to work. “If you wanted to find a convenient place to farm, this would not be it. Yields will never be high.”

And it isn’t made any more convenient by the amphitheater and the camels on the connected property. That is Apollo, the world headquarters of the Fellowship of Friends — legally classified as a religious group, known to many as a doomsday cult. Apollo is the sanctuary where, since 1970, the Fellowship’s members have sought enlightenment through the fine arts: ballet, opera, painting. And wine.

Apollo today is eerily quiet and nearly deserted, a remnant of what it once was. Where the Fellowship’s membership once exceeded 2,500, today it has just 585 members worldwide, according to member Grant Ramey. Arguably, in the Fellowship of Friends’ 48 years of existence, the Renaissance Winery has been its most successful venture. At least it was until the Fellowship shut the winery down three years ago.

Renaissance, at the end of the Apollo campus, now exists as ruins. The winery is no longer producing wine. But 33 acres of vines remain, now in the charge of Aaron and Cara Mockrish. They are not Fellowship members. They’re outsiders, earnest farmers who believe that the Renaissance vineyard, for all its complications, needs to speak.

As extreme as the vineyard looks, however, it’s nothing compared with the extremity of the Renaissance wines. The day after hiking Slope 19 with Aaron and Cara Mockrish, I return to Apollo to taste what remains. Though no longer making wine, the Fellowship continues to support a lone winery employee, John Brooks, tasked with selling off the remaining inventory.

Brooks, a man with kind eyes and a neatly trimmed white mustache, meets me at Apollo’s front gates — as a non-Fellowship member, I require an escort — and leads me in my car in caravan, through the winding pathways and bronze-laden roundabouts to the derelict winery.

“We’re going to taste some of the best wines Renaissance ever made,” Brooks says as he holds the winery door open.

The room where we sit is a shrine to the past, its walls covered in yellowing newsprint from 30 years ago and curling pages from old Wine Spectator issues.

Brooks pours a series of wines made between 1995 and 2001, the golden age of Renaissance. He seems exhilarated with pride for these wines, so eager to show them off that he fumbles, spilling some drops on the table. When I taste, he watches me expectantly.

I take my time, suddenly afraid to disappoint him. I expect the wines to taste competent — why else would I have come all this way? — but surely, I figure, they’ll taste advanced, on their last legs, yielding their fruit.

They don’t. These wines are alive. They’re young. They taste fresh, vibrant and, dare I say, ageless. Their belligerent tannins are only now beginning to disarm. The 1999 Premiere Cuvee, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend, is pulsing with energy, hinting at cherry and soy and earth. The 2001 Claret Prestige, a cuvee of Bordeaux varieties plus Syrah, is laser-focused, savory and lean, the rare red wine that implores me to use the word “mineral.”

These are special, age-worthy, one-of-a-kind wines, at the very top tier of what California can produce.

I say so, still processing my surprise. Brooks beams. He loves pouring the wines for people who appreciate them, he says. It doesn’t happen as often as he’d like. He tells me about events he’s poured at in small communities in nearby Marysville and Grass Valley (Nevada County) — winning customers one at a time. And he tells me about the email blasts he sends out to customers, offering flash deals. By the way, would I like to be on the list?

In other words: He’s hustling, desperate to make a sale. I’m confused. I’d think wines like these would sell themselves.

Then Brooks takes me to a back storeroom at Renaissance Winery.

There, thousands of cases of old, unsold wine are piled high, collecting dust. Stacked on wooden pallets, wrapped in plastic, the white cardboard boxes are beginning to fray around their corners. How is this possible? Not only are these wines beautiful but they are precisely the sorts of wines that are so in vogue today, high in acid, firm in structure, savory. And at $45 to $65 a bottle, they’re at prices that haven’t been seen for similarly ageworthy California wines, like Heitz Martha’s Vineyard or Ridge Monte Bello, for decades. And even so, Brooks can barely sell them?

Some of the greatest wines ever made in California, aged to perfection, costing a fraction of comparable Cabernets from Napa, are just sitting here?

The room, the dust and the forgotten bottles break my heart.

The story of Renaissance — how it came to produce such great wines, and how it fell this far — is a painful one. It’s a story about a guru and his followers, about scandals and schisms, about belief and unbelief. It’s a story about this curious, secretive community, the Fellowship of Friends, to which the fortune and folly of Renaissance Winery has always served as an obscure window.

But if the story of Renaissance Winery has always mirrored that of the Fellowship of Friends, its narrative may now be diverging. To the Fellowship, the Renaissance Winery is now only scraps to be salvaged, a dusty inventory that needs to be sold off quick. But Aaron and Cara Mockrish see it differently. In their hands Renaissance is primed, at last, for rebirth.

The Guru

The Renaissance vineyard was always an afterthought, a means to an end in a quest for enlightenment at Apollo. This land was not sought out for its wine-growing potential — not for its hills nor its granite-studded soils. It was sought for its seclusion.

The Fellowship of Friends begins with Robert Earl Burton, an East Bay schoolteacher who started preaching out of a Volkswagen van in Berkeley in the late 1960s. He officially founded the Fellowship in 1970, building a following around the world that at its height in the 1980s numbered 2,500 members. (Now 79, Burton remains the Fellowship’s leader and still lives at Apollo; he did not respond to Chronicle interview requests.)

Burton’s pedagogy was based loosely on the Fourth Way, a philosophy developed by Russian thinkers George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky in the early 20th century. The Fourth Way’s central tenet: We are in a state of semiconscious waking sleep, and we can gain true consciousness only through a radical self-awareness — the practice, familiar to today’s self-help parlance, of being present.

Under Burton’s interpretation, the Fourth Way was put into overdrive, weaving in prophetic apparitions and apocalyptic predictions. He was visited by angelic incarnations of Walt Whitman and Leonardo da Vinci. (“Leonardo and I are very different, but we are also very similar from the point of view of presence,” Burton wrote in a 2017 memoir.) He predicted an economic collapse in 1984, the destruction of California in 1998 and an Armageddon in 2006. He has prophesied another disaster for later in 2018.

The ’70s were a ripe time in California for new belief systems. Contemporary to Burton, elsewhere in the Golden State, the charismatic leaders Charles Manson, Jim Jones, Franklin Jones and Sun Myung Moon were finding their own fervent followings. As Saron Rice, a former member of the Fellowship of Friends, describes that period: “If you couldn’t afford to climb a mountain in Tibet, you found a guru in California.”

What distinguished Burton’s Fellowship of Friends was its insistence that consciousness — the Fourth Way’s ultimate goal — could be achieved through rigorous study of the fine arts. So when Burton bought this sprawling, remote property in Oregon House in 1971, he christened it Apollo, dedicating it to high culture. He attracted a congregation of intellectuals and creative types. “Everyone was an artist, a poet, a psychologist or a sculptor,” says Gideon Beinstock, another former member who was to become Renaissance’s winemaker.

Visit Apollo today and you can still tell how this place once thrived. Funded by its members’ monthly tithes — 10 percent of their income — the Fellowship was, at least for some time, flush. It had its own opera company, theater troupe and ballet. Its museum housed an elaborate art collection; years later, its set of antique Chinese furniture would fetch $11.2 million at a Christie’s auction. At one point it had its own proper zoo.

This Xanadu lacked just one essential stately pleasure dome: a vineyard.

There was only one problem. Nobody in the Fellowship in the early 1970s knew anything about planting vines or making wine. One young member, a UC Davis student named Diana Stefanini, took an interest. She sought the advice of a Germany-born winemaker of some repute, Dr. Karl Werner. Together the two directed the initial planting of the Renaissance vineyard in 1976, supplied by cuttings from Callaway Vineyards in Temecula (Riverside County), where Werner had consulted. Werner joined the Fellowship, and he and Stefanini married.

The Fellowship was soon fully, excessively committed to making wine. “That first year, 1976, we planted just 12 or 13 acres,” says Ramey, Renaissance’s longtime vineyard manager. “The next year, it was 27 more. Then the next three years we were planting 100 acres per year.”

By today’s standards that scope of development is staggering — and this for a winery that never even had a business plan. Although Renaissance would become a meaningful source of income for the Fellowship for a time, money was not the chief objective. “We were running 20 hours a day, each of us doing 12-hour shifts,” Ramey says. The Fellowship’s enormous supply of free labor carved 200 miles of terraces on Apollo’s steep slopes, a resource-intensive enterprise seldom attempted in California. Fellowship members planted more than a dozen different grape varieties, from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to Gewurztraminer and Chenin Blanc to Riesling and Semillon. In 1985, Renaissance single-handedly established the North Yuba AVA. It was the AVA’s only vineyard.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but starting a wine business anywhere in California, let alone in a place like Oregon House, was in this era still a gamble. The state’s first AVA, Napa Valley, wasn’t established until 1981. The effects of the 1976 Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in which California wines trounced their French counterparts, were only just beginning to be felt.

Yet Renaissance went all in, eventually planting 365 acres of vines and producing more than 40,000 cases of wine. The first vines, installed in 1976 on what’s known as Slope 1, were Cabernet Sauvignon on its own roots — that is, not grafted onto rootstocks, extremely rare for California Cab. Slope 1 is at the very center of Apollo, and seen from above it looks like a thumbprint, an idiosyncratic whorl. At the vineyard’s peak, Slope 19, warmth-loving varieties like Syrah went in. Slope 23, a cooler pocket at lower elevation, was planted to white grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Roussanne.

Renaissance at one point had its own cement plant, manufactured its own stainless-steel tanks and had its own barrel cooperage. Every fall, hundreds of Fellowship members who lived elsewhere in California would come to work harvest: a colony of indefatigable worker bees laboring in their hive. The investment in Renaissance would exceed $10 million, Renaissance president James Bryant told The Chronicle in 1990.

It reads now as a miracle of grandiose insanity — an accident of hubris — that this place was well suited to wine growing at all.

At first, this flurry of investment did not produce great wines. Werner’s approach to winemaking was precise and scientific, “meticulous in a Teutonic kind of way,” as Beinstock puts it. Werner did not believe in blending grape varieties. He followed the same strict, many-step protocol each year and put all wines through a centrifuge filter several times before bottling — a harsh, industrial technique used by few other wineries of Renaissance’s size. As a result, the red wines from his era are tight, tannic fossils, hard as the rocks in the soil where they grew.

Werner died unexpectedly in 1988. His widow took over the winemaking, but by 1993, remarried and pregnant, she wanted to step down. By then, a new successor was waiting in the wings. Gideon Beinstock would become the winemaker to realize Renaissance’s potential as one of California’s great uncharted terroirs.

A Golden Age

Gideon Beinstock was searching for something to believe in. In his mid-twenties and desperate to find a belief system that made sense to him, he hungrily read books about Zen Buddhism and Sufism until he stumbled upon the Fourth Way. That’s when he found, lodged in a Gurdjieff volume, a bookmark with a phone number for the Fellowship of Friends.

Beinstock was living in Paris at the time. He’d left his native Israel, where he’d begun to generate some fame as a painter. The famous-artist lifestyle was not making him happy, he says, subsuming him in an endless succession of sex and drugs.

“I’d come out of the Israeli army, and I felt scared,” he says. “I felt that the Western world was eating itself with cancer, and people were seemingly ignoring it.”

He called the number on the bookmark and ended up at a Fellowship meeting in Paris in 1978. To call it a discouraging experience would be an understatement. “Everybody looked weird,” Beinstock describes. Either they wouldn’t make eye contact with him, or they stared at him intently. Only later did he learn that their creepy countenances arose from Fellowship-prescribed mental exercises.

“I went home with the clear decision that I’m not joining this band of idiots,” he says.

But over the next several months, his existential angst only grew. “I was getting desperate,” he says: He needed something, anything, to ground him. Within six months he was thinking, “I’m either gonna kill myself or I’m gonna join this stupid thing and try it.”

Beinstock joined the Fellowship in 1978, promising himself he’d stay in it for a year. Before long he would relocate from Paris to Oregon House, a town with a population of fewer than 1,500. He would stay in the Fellowship for three decades.

Now 63, Beinstock is a compact man, with a trim gray beard and a mop of curly gray hair. He speaks softly and carefully, his accent still tinged by his native Hebrew. He has the awed, guileless smile of a child.

Soon after joining the Fellowship, Beinstock came to understand those mental exercises he’d witnessed at the Paris meetings, part of the deep web of indoctrination Burton wove. Every so often, for instance, Burton would instate a seemingly arbitrary rule: Members were forbidden from using a specific word, like “I” or “hi” or “thing,” or from placing their elbows on the arms of a chair, or from crossing their legs, until Burton lifted the ban. The rules extended to personal conduct, like premarital sex (forbidden) and mundane behavior, like pants-wearing (forbidden for women).

For those like Beinstock who had given themselves to the Fellowship, it was possible to find a logic in Burton’s controls. “It was about throwing a wrench into all your habitual behaviors to create awareness,” Beinstock says. He likens the exercises to walking meditation, which he continues to practice today. Although he “had misgivings from the beginning” about the Fellowship — that sense of creepiness he’d felt at the first Paris meeting never completely went away — Beinstock admits he was seduced. “The Fellowship is not an obvious scam,” he says coolly.

Throughout the 1980s, Beinstock moved back and forth between Europe and Apollo, where, like so many Fellowship members, he worked in the Renaissance vineyard.

Working in the vineyard had a special significance for Beinstock, who had become enamored with wine while living in Paris. “I started buying wine when I couldn’t afford hash,” he says. It didn’t take him long to graduate from 5-franc bottles of Bergerac to grand cru Burgundy. He befriended the famous wine merchant Steven Spurrier and visited France’s great wine estates — Comtes Lafon, Michel Lafarge, Beaucastel. “I developed a passion very quickly,” Beinstock says. “It was like a fire.”

Beinstock’s first important role with Renaissance began in 1987, when the Fellowship tasked him with establishing an import market for the wines in Europe. Although Werner had begun making wine as early as 1978, the Fellowship was only then preparing to release its first wines: some Rieslings and a nonvintage Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1978 through 1981 vintages.

It was a bizarre way for the winery to debut, with a solera-style wine whose youngest components were already 6 years old. That’s emblematic of how haphazard and poorly planned the Renaissance business was. “They were not managed by professionals, there was no marketing strategy,” Beinstock says. Despite the fact that the early Renaissance wines won impressive accolades at London wine competitions, no one was buying. Beinstock attributes this largely to the fact that anytime a wine received positive press, the Fellowship would raise the price.

The Fellowship gave up on the European market around 1991, and Beinstock returned to Oregon House, this time for good, to work as Stefanini’s winemaking apprentice. He idolized her. “To be a winemaker at Renaissance during the early years was like being part of the pantheon of the gods,” he says, “a kind of privileged thing.” But the longer he stayed, the more he realized that Stefanini didn’t really know what she was doing. Wines that tasted amazing in barrel — the raw, pure, unadulterated expression of these special slopes — would come out astringent, over-oaked, undrinkable.

Did Beinstock have a sense, even then, of how exceptional the Renaissance vineyard was? “It’s complicated, because as a Fellowship member I was indoctrinated in the notion that everything Fellowship is the best,” he says. But “the wines, while they were in barrel, were uniformly amazing. Clearly the grapes were special.”

When Stefanini stepped down, Beinstock jumped at the chance to take over.

He had joined the cult reluctantly and now here he was, accidentally in charge of a vineyard whose promise was uncharted in an area with no track record for wine. No one could have predicted it. But under Beinstock’s leadership the Renaissance wines were, for some period of time in the 1990s, among the best made in California. The Fellowship may have launched Renaissance as a tool in its exorbitant, Dionysian quest for enlightenment, but Beinstock saw Renaissance as the end in itself. His wines reflected that. They never reached Mondavi-level recognition, but they became something of an insider’s secret, celebrated by certain critics and enthusiasts in the know.

“There are no other wines like these in the Sierra Foothills,” Matt Kramer wrote in 1992 in “Making Sense of California Wine.” “To be sure, there are few wines like them anywhere in California.” He compared Renaissance’s 1986 Cabernet to the first-growth Bordeaux “Mouton-Rothschild in its structure, density and austerity.”

“If there is a more remarkable vineyard in California, I did not see it,” James Halliday wrote in 1993’s “Wine Atlas of California.” “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.”

Beinstock made wise, calculated changes, grafting over some of the Renaissance vines to grapes better suited to its warm climate and vertiginous slopes, especially Rhone varieties like Grenache and Roussanne. He tried new techniques, attempting to manage the wines’ considerable tannins by crafting a kind of wine fountain, which would spew wine in an upward projectile in order to expose it to oxygen.

“Basically, we lightened everything,” he says. He simplified the process: no more cold stabilizing, no more sterile filtering. He jackhammered the centrifuges out of the winery. Werner’s excessively complicated protocol went out the window. “It’s a difference between 40 steps of winemaking and three.”

But just as Beinstock was hitting his stride with the Renaissance wines, the Fellowship of Friends began to crumble.

The Fall

First came the allegations that Robert Earl Burton had sexually abused young boys. One ex-member, Troy Buzbee, filed a lawsuit in 1996 alleging that Burton had brainwashed him and had propositioned him for sex while he was a minor.

Asking for $5 million in damages, Buzbee’s suit claimed that Burton had used the Fellowship to satisfy his “voracious appetite for perverted sexual pleasure and elegant lifestyle.” An earlier suit, filed by ex-member Sam Sanders in 1985, had made similar allegations. Both suits were settled out of court. (Burton did not publicly deny the charges at the time, though Fellowship lawyer Abraham Goldman had filed an anonymous lawsuit in Oakland federal court in 1995, apparently anticipating the Buzbee lawsuit. The suit complained of libel and defamation, including “‘gaybashing’ attacks,” against a plaintiff that seems clearly to have been Burton. Burton did not respond to a request for an interview.)

Then there were the money issues. The Associated Press reported in 2002 that the Fellowship, at one point Yuba County’s third-largest taxpayer, owed the county over $2 million in unpaid taxes.

And 1998, the year that Burton predicted that California would fall into the ocean, came and went. Hundreds of members left, according to Beinstock — one of the Fellowship’s most significant mass exoduses.

Fewer members, less income. “In the heyday the Fellowship was pouring millions of dollars a year into Renaissance,” Beinstock says, “but that well dried up.”

The Fellowship’s growing notoriety tainted any renown that Renaissance Winery had begun to enjoy. One San Francisco wine buyer, Wilfred Wong, explained why he would not support the Renaissance wines. “While their quality is good, there are a lot of other wines out there and I just don’t want to work with a winery that has all that excess baggage,” he told Associated Press reporter Stefanie Frith in 2002, alluding to the scandals that had plagued the Fellowship.

With diminishing resources, Beinstock could no longer support Renaissance’s massive vineyard and winery. Even Ramey, who is still a Fellowship member, could see that Renaissance needed to shrink in order to stay alive. “It was too big, with too many rookies, too much turnover, not enough focus,” Ramey says.

The vineyard by now had bound Beinstock to it: He understood himself as its only true interpreter, and felt himself its protector. He knew that the only way he could continue to do the vineyard justice was to decrease wine production. For years he lobbied the winery’s board of directors to let him downsize. “I was basically ignored,” he says.

But after the fallout from the failed 1998 apocalypse prediction, the board finally agreed. The idea had been to remove most of the vines and convert the land to orchard or pasture. Even that proved too expensive, so they just left some blocks of vines as they were.

But many of the ripped-out vines persisted. One by one, they returned to life. Today, surrounding the semi-abandoned Renaissance Winery, rows and rows of disheveled grapevines languish, left unpruned and unpicked for 20 years but still standing.

“Rootstock that refuses to die,” in the words of the vineyard’s current caretaker, Aaron Mockrish.

Was the vineyard downsizing a concession, on some level, that Renaissance was doomed to fail? All Beinstock knows is that by the time he was reducing production at the winery, he had given up on the Fellowship in his heart. He was still, after all these years, searching.

There had always been a “stockpile of unresolved issues,” he says. “But gradually it became more of a certainty that the spiritual direction of the Fellowship was not mine.” Beinstock sought a new direction. In 1995 he and his wife, Saron Rice, began working with another vineyard on the side, separate from the Fellowship. Newly married, the couple helped a friend graft and plant vines on a small, half-acre parcel nearby, down Renaissance’s slopes, past the amphitheater and the camels, scarcely a mile northeast from Apollo’s grandiose gates. When they made their first wines from this new plot, three years later, they called the wine Clos Saron.

Beinstock saw how dramatically different the Clos Saron property was from Renaissance. At Renaissance, warmth-loving grape varieties like Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah thrived, but this new property — at a lower elevation, with cooler temperatures, less sun exposure and soils full of red clay and volcanic ash — made Pinot Noir a star. A testament to North Yuba’s viticultural diversity, yes, but also to the singularity of Renaissance, a unicorn vineyard.

There was a moment there that Beinstock could have passed for the prototypical California winemaker: He had a day job, at Renaissance, and a personal passion project, at Clos Saron. Ironically, though, the personal project shackled him more than it freed him. The more Clos Saron grew, the harder it became for Beinstock to extricate himself from the Fellowship. He made his wines at the Renaissance facility, and he bought fruit from the vineyard. It was during these years, while building his own business but still dependent on the Renaissance grapes, that Beinstock made vintages of what may have been the best Clos Saron wine ever, a blend of Cabernet, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Roussanne called Black Pearl.

“We were so enmeshed,” Rice says. “That’s why it took us so long to leave.”

Rice officially left the Fellowship about a year before her husband did — an exodus that can be accomplished, she says, simply by ceasing to pay the 10 percent tithe. The simplicity of that gesture belies its significance for Rice, who had grown up in the Fellowship and whose parents remain devoted members. To this day, her parents, whom Rice sees regularly, have never openly acknowledged that she and Beinstock left.

Furtively, the couple plotted their departure. They built a small wine cave next to their house to serve as the Clos Saron winery. By the time Beinstock formally quit his job and the Fellowship in 2010, he was more than ready to exit — even though leaving the Fellowship meant saying goodbye to Renaissance grapes, and to wines like Black Pearl, forever.

A deserter, Beinstock was no longer welcome on the grounds of Apollo. The Fellowship promoted another longtime member, Eddie Schulten, to head winemaker at Renaissance.

But Black Pearl, and the uncanny terroir of the Renaissance vineyard, would not be silenced.


Aaron and Cara Mockrish were searching for something, too, when they tasted a bottle of 2008 Clos Saron Black Pearl at a friend’s home in El Cerrito.

The couple — he now 36, she 30 — were between careers and between places to call home. They had met on a trip to Jamaica years earlier, while Cara Mockrish had been working in Washington, D.C., public schools and Aaron was trying to start a cannabis business in California. They dated long-distance until she found a job in Sacramento.

They shared a love of nature and a love of wine, first as casual enthusiasts. At the time they tasted Black Pearl, there was no plan to get into the wine business. But it was a revelation. “That bottle was the most expressive wine we’d ever tasted,” Aaron Mockrish says. “It was dark and extracted, but had fresh, clean acidity. Primarily, there was a complex deliciousness, almost like umami, that we now associate with living wines. It is more of a feeling than a taste.”

Could they make something like that? Aaron Mockrish was thinking of abandoning cannabis for a different form of agriculture. Cara Mockrish had been scheming of ways to quit her office job in order to farm. More than anything, they were ready for a change.

So it did not feel like a big leap of faith to cold-call Gideon Beinstock, ask if they could work as his apprentices in the upcoming harvest season, then uproot their lives and move to Oregon House for the fall.

The year was 2015. Beinstock had been fully extracted from the Fellowship and from Renaissance for five years. The Mockrishes had just begun working for him, preparing for the harvest. Then came an unexpected call. The Fellowship’s board of directors had made a last-minute decision to cease all production at Renaissance Winery. They needed to sell off the fruit, and fast.

Would Aaron and Cara Mockrish be interested?

They’d been working in the wine industry for a matter of weeks and suddenly were being offered the chance to make wine from one of California’s greatest vineyards. “I don’t think we fully realized the gravity of what was happening,” Cara Mockrish says.

Why had the Fellowship called them? “Obviously the best wines from Renaissance were made by Gideon,” Aaron Mockrish says. “My theory is the Fellowship knew it, and they couldn’t call Gideon, but they knew we were his proxy.”

Beinstock, for one, was shocked. His first thought: “The Fellowship must really need money.”

Aaron and Cara Mockrish said yes, of course. The Renaissance grapes were the reason they’d come to Oregon House in the first place, and, they figured, who better to help them make this wine than the master himself? That harvest season, while working at Clos Saron, they made four barrels of their own wine. Suddenly, they were starting a new business. They called it Frenchtown Farms.

Still, they assumed that getting those Renaissance grapes was a fluke. So they were doubly shocked when, after harvest ended, the Fellowship offered the couple a lease on the Renaissance vineyard. They would have to farm it themselves, and they could then use the fruit to make their own wine — or could sell the grapes to other winemakers.

After all, Renaissance Winery had ceased operations, and Apollo was turning into a ghost town. “There was nobody there to farm it,” Aaron Mockrish says, “and we were fresh blood.”

It was a milestone moment for the Mockrishes and their nascent business. But so too for Beinstock. The couple sold some of the Renaissance fruit to their teacher. After a five-year hiatus, he was able to make Black Pearl once again.

This is Renaissance today: abandoned by its owners, revived by outsiders — and returned, if in the most circuitous way, to its longtime interpreter. Out of the ruins of Renaissance has risen a dynamic, if tiny, wine community. Another young winemaker, Dani Rozman, joined the group. He had worked at wineries in South America and at California’s Scholium Project and was Beinstock’s harvest intern in 2013. Rozman was starting his own wine brand, La Onda, when Aaron and Cara Mockrish took on the Renaissance lease. He eagerly returned to Oregon House to help them farm.

Visit Clos Saron’s diminutive wine cave, where they all make their wine, and it feels like the messy garage workshop of an eccentric family. The winemakers affectionately climb over each other’s barrels in the cramped space. The younger ones tease Beinstock with the familiarity of children with a parent. They feign annoyance with him for not installing air conditioning. But behind it, their reverence for him is clear.

“Gideon is a wizard,” Aaron Mockrish says at one point, his eyes serious. The way he says it, I almost hear “guru.”

The Renaissance vineyard and its singular terroir is this group’s center, but they have extrapolated the North Yuba AVA beyond the gates of Apollo. In addition to the original Clos Saron vineyard, Beinstock farms Syrah at an Oregon House property he calls Stone Soup, and Aaron and Cara Mockrish are planting more vines near their home, down the hill from Renaissance.

Just 33 acres of Renaissance’s original 365 remain, but under the care of the Mockrishes and Rozman the vines are finally getting the treatment they deserve. The winemakers farm organically, leaving all the weeding and suckering to the Mockrishes’ flock of sheep. They focus on the higher sections of the vineyard, while Rozman has taken on many of the lower blocks, especially the old-vine Riesling. They share, with Beinstock, fruit from the most coveted block of Renaissance, Slope 1.

In Renaissance’s golden age, Slope 1 was the source of its great Vin de Terroir cuvee. Those grapes now go into Frenchtown Farms’ Indigeaux blend, La Onda’s Blanco de Tinto — a blanc de noirs-style still wine — and, once again, Clos Saron’s Black Pearl.

But they all know this is not the end of the story. “I don’t believe the Fellowship will last very long,” Beinstock says. “When Mr. Burton dies, which will happen sometime in the next 10 years most likely, who knows what will happen?” It seems improbable that the Fellowship can support Apollo for long. Will there be some sort of an inheritance war? Will Apollo go up for auction, at which point the standard possibilities of California real estate set in?

Will new gurus replace the old guru?

Is this band of young and old winemakers just keeping the Fellowship on life support, so to speak? Maybe. But their conviction in the hilltop’s power outweighs that. “Someone needs to take care of the old vines,” Cara Mockrish says.

The Mockrishes, Rozman, Rice and Beinstock are now the only ones who know how. The younger winemakers have the unspoiled naivete to chart a new course for this place. They could be anywhere in California, but they all have faith that to be here is to be doing something more than just making wine. To be in the wilderness of Oregon House, and to work the complicated Renaissance vineyard, is to keep alive a crucial and undervalued slice of California terroir — a place whose voice needs to be heard. Even if the Mockrishes’ current arrangement can’t last forever.

And will any of it matter for the craggy, hardy Renaissance vines, whose rootstocks have refused to die once before? To the vines and the granitic earth that defines them, it’s all transitory: gurus, farmers, wineries, amphitheaters. They may come and go, but unless Robert Burton’s promised Armageddon materializes, Renaissance’s steep masses of granite will endure, waiting for their turn to speak. Waiting again to answer someone who is searching.

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