Oregon House, Calif. -- Tucked away in the Yuba County countryside lies a winery that produces award-winning wines that have been served at a birthday party for Ronald Reagan and at numerous restaurants, such as the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.
Admirers of the Renaissance Winery and Vineyards praise its ability to make what one critic called wines that "belong in every cellar" in the sometimes cold, sometimes brutally hot climate of Oregon House, where no other winery operates. But Renaissance, part of a community called the Fellowship of Friends, has problems beyond growing grapes.
Called a cult by ex-members, neighbors and cult experts, the Fellowship has fought with county officials over taxes and been sued by former members. That, wine sellers said, makes it hard for Renaissance to promote its wines, because part of the art of selling wine means playing up a winery's history.
Renaissance's story, however, is "too bizarre," said Wilfred Wong, a San Francisco-based wine buyer. "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."
Winery officials, who agreed only to a telephone interview and would not speak about the Fellowship, said they are trying to drop that "baggage" by experimenting with new wines and new labels.
With 365 acres of vines in a 1,300-acre compound called Apollo that covers the rocky hillsides of the Sierra foothills as well as the plateaus below, it has been a challenge learning which grapes grow best in the rugged terrain, said Tim Quartly-Watson, general manager of Renaissance Winery and Vineyards.
"We are still learning and we are going to be learning 100 years from now," said Quartly-Watson, a Fellowship member who moved from England to California six years ago.
Renaissance produces 25,000 cases of wine a year, part of what a winery brochure calls its "art of living ... and labor of love."
With about 2,000 members, one third of which live in or near Apollo, the Fellowship follows the Fourth Way tradition of spiritual development that was developed by turn-of-the-century Russian philosophers George Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky, said Steven Hassan, a Boston-based cult expert who has counseled former members of the Fellowship. The Fourth Way teaches that humans are asleep and can only wake up through a series of extreme exercises and observations that break down the old personality and develop a higher consciousness.
Apollo was designed to aid this process. It was started in 1974 by former Bay Area elementary school teacher Robert Burton, a follower of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. They have their own school, restaurant, cemetery and museum, insulating them from the rest of Yuba County, a mostly rural area about 90 minutes north of Sacramento.
They are virtually unknown to their neighbors in Oregon House, a community of about 2,000 people hidden among thick trees and narrow roads. The winery sticks out in this area of mobile homes, deserted shacks and old pickup trucks, its entrance protected by a guard and lined with potted palm trees.
"They are unlike you and me," said Sandy Gaggero, a retiree who lives near the winery, one of the few neighbors who were willing to speak about the Fellowship. "They are low key and are almost brain-dead. They are really on another level. It's a cult. They don't make decisions for themselves."
Yuba County officials have had disputes with the Fellowship, said county tax assessor David Brown. The group once sued the county unsuccessfully to get a tax exemption for its museum. They have also claimed they were a nonprofit organization, but the county proved them wrong and denied that request as well, Brown said.
Until recently, the Fellowship also owed the county about $2 million in taxes, but they are currently on a payment plan to pay it back, said county supervisor Hal Stocker.
Former members have sued Burton, claiming brainwashing and even sexual abuse, according to court records. In 1996, a former member sued for $5 million, claiming Burton had sexually exploited him at age 17. That suit was settled months later.
The suit claimed the Fellowship was being used to further Burton's "voracious appetite for perverted sexual pleasure and elegant lifestyle." Burton is portrayed as a leader who considers himself "an angel in a man's body" who communicates with up to 44 angels, including Benjamin Franklin and is second in spiritual power only to Jesus Christ, said former members and experts.
Part of the Fellowship's appeal, Hassan said, is that it presents an illusion of intellectuality to those who believe that Gurdjieff was an enlightened being.
"Many people who he entranced thought he was incredible and magnetic and started their own groups, like Burton," said Hassan. "And I have yet to find (a group) that is healthy."
Renaissance officials dispute the characterization of their community as a cult. "We are a cultivated winery, Quartly-Watson said.
Matt Kramer, a columnist for Wine Spectator magazine and author of "Making Sense of California Wine," said he admires the winery's courage in taking on the difficult microclimate. He called the Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling "very promising" and great deals for the price.
"They are still feeling out what grows best in that microclimate," said Kramer. "How long it will take them to become fully revealed is unknown."
At San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton, wine director Stephane Lacroix has been serving Renaissance's Cabernet 1996 at $10 a glass for three years. He said it has good balance and a fresh finish.
"There is value and quality and I never took into consideration anything else about them," Lacroix said. "They are quite professional people who are serious about making quality wine."