Every time I review a wine from some little producer whose wines I adore, I experience a pang of regret, because I know that by writing about these wineries and their wines, I only make them more expensive and harder to acquire for myself (and others). I do occasionally get 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 just an 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 idea of a winery out in the middle of nowhere, CA elicits the scratching of heads.
German winemaker Dr. Karl Werner discovered the vineyard potential of 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 has introduced 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 as someone who has been tasting the wines pretty regularly for the past few years, I can tell you 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. To wit: this 2001 wine is their current release, and several other of their current releases date back into the 1990s.
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 our '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 2008," 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. 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.
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. Some of the top reds are aged for up to 30 months in barrel before bottling.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cherries, lilacs, and cedar aromas. In the mouth it is incredibly aromatic, with soaring flavors of cherry, cedar, floral notes and hints of darker deeper earth and leather. Muscled, suede-soft tannins hug the palate and linger as the wine finishes in a resonant way. Excellent.
Relatively low in alcohol with wonderful acidity this wine will pair well with lots of things. I'd be utterly content drinking it with slow braised beef short ribs over polenta.
Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5
How Much?: $45
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.