Thousands of cases of unsold wine gather dust in the back room of the Renaissance Winery in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, northeast of Sacramento. These reds are some of the best the state ever produced, so why are they wallowing in boxes? For The San Francisco Chronicle, wine critic Esther Mobley visits Renaissance to examine the winery’s rise and fall, what distinguished its glory days from its early days, and to tell the story of the Fellowship of Friends cult, who settled on this land not for its fertility, but its isolation.
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.