I was privileged to be the only writer at an all-day tasting of the wines of Renaissance Vineyard and Winery last month, along with Darrell Corti, the esteemed retailer in Sacramento whose knowledge of the state’s wine industry and memory for wines and vintages is phenomenal; winemakers and owners of other properties in Sierra Foothills; and personnel from RVW. The occasion was a comprehensive look at the library wines in the cellar. When Oklahoma oilman Greg Holman became president of RVW in 2011 (he was already president of its parent entity, the Fellowship of Friends), he found back rooms in the winery that held bottles going back to the 1980s, ranging in size from half-bottles to double and triple magnums, not only of the cabernet sauvignon-based wines for which Renaissance is known but Rhone-style wines and dessert wines made from riesling, semillon and sauvignon blanc. The day of the tasting, Holman walked me through these storage areas; it was astonishing to see boxes and boxes of well-aged wines still on hand, but as Holman said, it was never RVW’s business plan to make a profit, if such a practice can be called a plan.
The question for the winery is what to do with this trove. The purpose of the tasting was to determine the quality of the wines and to have a discussion about their fate. (More about that later.)
Renaissance became noted, under the tutelage of Gideon Beinstock, winemaker there since 1994, for its hands-off approach that produced wines of admirable spareness and elegance, low alcohol, an almost fanatic resistance to new oak and an unheard of delay in releasing wines, as in sometimes 10 or 12 years after harvest. The winery and vineyard occupy a large estate on land purchased by the Fellowship of Friends in 1971; the group is controversial in its beliefs or at least its former leadership and founder Robert Earl Burton, and as a business entity (separate from but owned by the Fellowship) Renaissance has had to shake off the perception that the Fellowship is a cult.
The inspiration for creating a vineyard came from German-born Karl Werner, the founding winemaker at Callaway Vineyards, way south in Temecula. Under his guidance, members of the Fellowship chiseled terraces from the steep slopes at altitudes of 1700 to 2300 feet and drilled 150,000 holes to plant vines. The first harvest, in 1979, took 20 minutes and produced one barrel of cabernet sauvignon. Werner died in 1988, and his wife, Diana, took over winemaking duties. When Beinstock became winemaker early in ’94, he turned the winery away from its former goals of deep extraction and heavy, densely tannic wines to minimal manipulation, gentle extraction, no yeast inoculation and, gradually, to organic methods in the vineyards. Due to Beinstock’s efforts, Renaissance has produced a series of remarkable, authentic and largely age-worthy wines (in minute quantities) that are like nothing else in a California besotted by super-ripeness, toasty new oak and sweet alcohol.
Beinstock left the winery in May 2011 to concentrate on his own project, Clos Saron. Present winemaker is RVW’s former vineyard manager Edward Schulter, also a principal in the Grant Eddie winery. I will have more to say about Clos Saron and Grant Eddie in subsequent posts.
The Estate Cabernets:
>2012. 85% cabernet sauvignon, with merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc the remainder. Deep purple, very young, spicy, vigorous; steeply tannic, packed with graphite and dusty oak, bright acidity. Needs four to six years.
>2005. 75% cabernet sauvignon, 19% merlot, 3% cabernet franc, 2% petit verdot, 1% syrah. Dark ruby; ripe but tightly wound, very spicy, cloves and caraway; bastions of tannin and oak. Needs five to seven years.
>2002, the current release. 87% cabernet sauvignon, 10% merlot, 2% petit verdot, 1% syrah. Dark ruby color; still young, highly structured, with leathery tannins and mineral-laced oak, but encouraging notes of plum and cherry compote. Give it three or four more years.
>1999. (Blend not available.) Dark ruby-garnet; a touch musty and vegetal? A second bottle was fresher and cleaner; while dense, chewy and tannic, it felt like the embodiment of vineyard, geography and fruit, earthy, scintillating, almost elegant, but not exactly drinkable yet. Three or four years.
>1994. Gideon Beinstock’s first cabernet as winemaker. (Blend not available.) Dark ruby-garnet hue; still tannic, solid, tight and well-knit; muscle and sinew, lithe and deeply spicy, glittering minerality, vibrant and resonant. Needs three to five years aging. Terrific potential.
>1993. 90 percent cabenrnet sauvignon, 9% merlot, 1% cabernet franc. Dark ruby-garnet color; woody spice, as cloves and sandalwood; dusty graphite; spiced and macerated currants and plums; a little leafy, notes of cedar and dried rosemary, a little resiny; oolong tea and leather; still tannic. A favorite of this flight. Now through 2020 to 2025.
>1991. (Blend not available.) The first of this group that feels immediately drinkable; soft, mellow, tannin and acid for backbone and flesh; notes of bell pepper and ancho chile; black and red fruit both ripe and dried; elements of dried spice and flowers; black tea and orange zest. Almost lovely. Now through 2018 to 2022.
The next series, 1986, ’84 and ’83, were made by Karl Werner and are 100 percent cabernet sauvignon.
>Reserve 1986. Dark ruby-garnet color; remarkably youthful, vigorous and lively; but very dry, austere, deeply rooty, the essence of wood, iron, iodine and earth. Drink through 2020 to 2026.
>1984 Reserve. This was released before the ’83. Dark ruby-garnet hue; quite dry, lively, dense and chewy but with beautifully shaped structure and fruit and possessing a sense of completeness and confidence. Now through 2020 to 2024. Another favorite; my second encounter with this wine.
>1983. Coming around now; still very dry, dense, tannic and austere but with flavors of stewed fruit compote, notes of resin and almond skin, briers and leather, allspice and dried rosemary. Now through 2018 or ’19 through 2023.
Premier Cuvee, Vin de Terroir, Claret Prestige with some Estate for Comparison:
>Claret Prestige 2012. 40% petit verdot, 27% cabernet sauvignon, 31% cabernet franc, 2% merlot. Very dark ruby-purple; drenched with currant-cherry-plum fruit and baking spices; graphite and lead pencil, cedar and thyme; spiced and macerated; plenty of vibrant acidity and dusty tannins. Try from 2016 or ’17 through 2027 or ’30.
>Claret Prestige 2002. 41% merlot, 40% cabernet sauvignon, 11% syrah, 7% petit verdot, 1% sauvignon blanc (yes). Leaping back a decade, here’s a Claret Prestige that offers lovely, almost ineffable spicy black and red fruit scents and flavors but a huge, dense dusty structure and scorching tannins. Don’t touch until 2018 or ’20 and then give it another 10 years.
>Premier Cuvee 1997. 79% cabernet sauvignon 13% merlot 6% cabernet franc. Dark ruby color; rich, warm and spicy, notes of black cherry, fruit cake, graphite, dried thyme and black olive; still quite tannic with lots of woody spice, yet oddly attractive and drinkable. Best, though, from 2017 or ’20 through 2027 to 2030.
>Vin de Terroir 1997. 100% cabernet sauvignon. Opaque ruby-purple hue; very dark, dense, dusty, chewy, minerally, oaky, tannic and needs another decade (or at least five years) to soften its grip.
>Claret Prestige 1997. (Poured from a magnum.) 43% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 12% cabernet franc, 6% syrah, 6% sangiovese (yes), 3% malbec. Very backward, very dry and tannic, but paradoxically, after 15 or 20 minutes, it opens quite nicely, relaxes a bit, unfurls hints of fruit, spice, even a floral note. 2017 through 2025 to ’30.
>Estate 1997. 91% cabernet sauvignon, 7% merlot, 2% cabernet franc. Opaque ruby-purple with a garnet rim; reticent, almost truculent, spicy but tight, dry, austere; leafy and autumnal. Might as well wait until 2017.
>Premier Cuvee 1995. 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot. (Poured from a double magnum.) 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot. Opaque ruby-purple with a garnet rim; cedar, cigar and tobacco, dried rosemary and pine resin, graphite, leather and briers; bouquet unfolds seductively but this is a big, tannic austere wine, nonetheless with great potential. Try 2017 or ’20 through 2028 to ’30.
>Vin de Terroir 1995. 100% cabernet sauvignon. (Poured from a double magnum.) Don’t touch this until 2020.
>Claret Prestige 1995. 53% cabernet sauvignon, 37% merlot, 10 cabernet franc. Don’t touch until 2018 to ’20 or even 2025.
>Estate 1995. 86% cabernet sauvignon, 14% merlot. Very solid, dark, dense; dusty, tannic; graphite and granitic minerality, leather, briers, yet finally rich, warm and spicy, close to seductive and with sleek, elegant structure. Try 2020 through 2030.