Three hours northeast of San Francisco, in the scraggly western foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, the curiously named hamlet of Oregon House (yes: Oregon House, California) has 1,100 residents, two public schools, and, as of yet, not a single movie theater. It is not, as they say, a “happening” town. Not much happens here at all. Yet this tiny farm community happens to have three—count them, three—of California’s most impressive and intriguing natural winemakers: Clos Saron, La Onda, and Frenchtown Farms.
Just west of the Yuba River, Oregon House lies at the heart of the North Yuba AVA (American Viticultural Area), one of the state’s 139 designated winegrowing regions. You probably haven’t heard of it. Few have. Indeed, as you drive through the rugged hills outside of town, you may wonder why anyone would plant grapes here to begin with.
Considering it’s a designated winegrowing region, there don’t seem to be a whole lot of vineyards here—at least not in plain sight. Those you do see are hardly the prim-and-proper postcard grids you find in Napa and Sonoma. Here, gnarly vines wind up steep, pockmarked granite slopes, their uneven rows broken by ornery boulders, ancient trees, and other farming nightmares.
North Yuba’s remoteness is prized for other reasons, too: the moneymaking crop has long been not grapes but marijuana, legally planted or otherwise. (For this reason, it’s probably not a good idea to wander around in the woods.)
Yet in recent years, Oregon House has become an unlikely hotbed of organic viticulture, thanks to a pioneering group of thoughtful, small-scale winemakers, who value their work in the field as much as their work in the winery.
silver-bearded with a beatific grin, Gideon Beinstock is an Obi-Wan-like figure in these parts, revered for putting Oregon House on the wine map in the 1990s, when he took over winemaking operations at Renaissance Vineyard & Winery.
With 365 acres of vines at its peak, Renaissance was a massive endeavor—and yet Gideon took a low-intervention, terroir-driven approach that was radical at the time.
The strange history of Renaissance—and of the Fellowship of Friends, the religious order that owns it—has been covered in depth (the New Yorker has a fascinating overview). Gideon isn’t eager to rehash his exit from the fold over a decade ago but suffice to say he eventually left Renaissance to focus on his own label, Clos Saron.
Back in 1995, while still working with Renaissance, Gideon and his wife, Saron, had set up their own tiny operation nearby, taking over a friend’s half-acre of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. The couple grafted 400 of these over to Pinot Noir, a more suitable grape for the locale. Three years later they were able to buy the land, and Clos Saron was born. (That original plot, now known as “Old Block,” lends its name to their fantastic Pinot Noir.)
The portfolio has since increased to incorporate a number of Rhone inspired red, the singular and ageworthy Rose, “Tickled Pink,” as well as whites produced from both Riesling as well as the Bordeaux varieties, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.
For Gideon, who first came here in the 1970s to work the vineyards at Renaissance, the region’s evolution into a natural-winemaking bastion is…well, not how he expected the story to go. Even a half-century on.
“You have to remember: Until recently, the Sierra Foothills were considered the third-rate, poor cousin of everyplace else,” he says. “Who would come here if they could go to Sonoma or Napa or the Central Coast?”
The problem, says Gideon, was that the vineyards had been planted by “less experienced winemakers, who looked to the high-altitude valleys—the flat areas—instead of the slopes, as we do now. When, in fact, it’s the proximity of the mountains, the extreme exposures and elevations—that’s what jumps out at you here.”
The other mistake in those early days, Gideon says, was grape choice. “Many of the original vineyards were planted all wrong,” he says. At Renaissance, it took them years of trial and error to course-correct. “Saron and I were grafting new varieties onto existing vines, so where before you had a lousy Riesling, now you had an excellent Syrah.” In Gideon’s view, there’s no such thing as an inherently “bad” vineyard; it’s entirely about what you plant it with.
Even when they launched Clos Saron, the Beinstocks made early missteps. “We had our original vineyard planted with Cabernet Sauvignon. But it was too cool—the grapes never ripened. So we thought, what about Pinot Noir? Everyone told us Pinot in the Foothills would be crap. But we tried it, and it turned out to be a wonderful wine!”
And what of the Renaissance Vineyard & Winery, where Gideon made his mark?
After five decades, the estate no longer functions as a winery, and its vines have been mostly replaced with olive trees. But small parcels remain—and, by a stroke of good fortune, Aaron and Cara Mockrish were able to lease several acres of original vineyards from the Fellowship, on which to farm their own grapes.
East Coast emigrés with a passion for agriculture, Aaron and Cara had moved to North Yuba in the early 2010s in search of farming opportunities. “I actually came out here to work on a pot farm,” says Aaron. “But most of the marijuana growers, they’re not really in it for the farming. It’s kind of a dirty business.”
A chance meeting with their neighbors at Clos Saron led to seasonal work in the vineyards, where, under Gideon and Saron’s tutelege, the two fell in love with winegrowing. By 2016, when the Renaissance plot became available, the Mockrishes leapt at the chance, and began growing their own fruit. The pair relocated to the Frenchtown neighborhood on the outskirts of Oregon House (hence the name of their winery). Frenchtown Farm now produces 700 to 1,000 cases a year.
“Our yields are ridiculously low,” Aaron says with a laugh. “We get about a ton per acre, whereas Napa gets four to six tons. Lodi gets up to ten!”
But low numbers can make for higher-grade product. “There’s a reason why the only ones up here [in North Yuba] are crazy people like Gideon and Cara and myself. The land we’ve chosen is extremely inconvenient to farm, but it makes for extremely interesting wines.”
The North Yuba AVA covers just 30 square miles, with only a fraction of it under vine. Much of the land simply can’t be farmed, so ungainly is the terrain. But what is grown here has distinct advantages over grapes from other regions.
For one, the shallow, iron-rich, free-draining soil requires vines to grow deeper roots to gain a foothold, which concentrates flavor in the fruit. Since the vines are own-rooted, they struggle in the soil, so you end up with very intense wines.
Second, with chilly winds sailing in off the Sierra peaks, the Foothills are a prime example of the “hot days / cold nights” formula for strong, long-ripening grapes. “We have desert-like shifts in temperature, a 30- or 40-degree drop from day to night,” Aaron explains. “And the acid that people usually associate with granitic soil—that’s mostly due to those temperature shifts.”
But the main advantage, Aaron says, is the exposure. “Exposure is the key to all we do. There’s a huge difference between Syrah planted on a west-facing versus an east-facing slope. Those first few minutes of morning sunlight, burning the frost off the eastern side…that’s everything.”
Another factor that recommends North Yuba for winegrowing? “The fact that it’s not really a winegrowing area!” says Aaron. “Unlike so many wine regions, it’s not a homogenized monoculture. There’s still lots of forest, which cools the air and fosters biodiversity.”
Like Gideon, Aaron is clearly in love with the land here, despite (or because of) its countless challenges. “Look, most people, when they picture a vineyard, they see a flat, boring field in the middle of a valley, with parallel lines stretching out like a highway. I have no interest in making wine in a place like that. But even in Napa, if you look at the original vineyards that were planted there, back in the early days, they’re up on steep slopes above the valley—those are some badass vineyards! I would love to farm those.”
When I asked Aaron how the Foothills had evolved since his arrival a decade ago, he laughed. “It’s pretty much the same,” he said, “and I don’t expect it to change anytime soon.” He has a point. For all the trendiness of natural wine, it’s hard to imagine daytrippers and urban wine tourists turning Oregon House into some hayseed Healdsburg. North Yuba may be too rustic for the rustic-chic.
What Aaron has seen is a small but encouraging influx of would-be vignerons coming through to check out the scene, maybe scout their options.
“We’ve had people from all over,” Aaron says. “A Barcelona couple stayed with us and worked on the farm for a few months. Another couple interned here, then bought a vineyard down the road. Some of them have no background whatsoever, they’re just excited about natural wine.”
To coastal Californians, North Yuba’s real estate must seem like a discount candy store. Home sales in Oregon House average around $365,000—less than a third that of Santa Barbara, to say nothing of St. Helena.
“Because it’s so much more affordable, young people can try their hand at winemaking without a huge investment,” says Dani Rozman, who did just that in 2016. “That’s not something you can easily do in more established regions.”
Like the Mockrishes, Rozman apprenticed with Gideon and Saron at Clos Saron in 2013. After a sojourn in South America, he returned to North Yuba, and—using grapes grown on Renaissance’s vineyards—set up a small winery in Oregon House, naming it La Onda (“the wave”).
North Yuba’s granitic soil and temperature fluctuations give the grapes strong tannins and naturally high acidity, and La Onda’s wines don’t shy away from the latter. “Acid is what drives the wine forward, and makes you want to drink more of it,” Dani insists.
When Dani started La Onda just five years ago, Clos Saron was pretty much the only player in town, he recalls. “Now you’ve got myself and Frenchtown Farms, plus some smaller projects starting up after learning from us. It’s a very tight-knit community.”
And while that community is still minuscule by California standards, North Yuba punches well above its weight in reputation, drawing accolades from natural-wine lovers around California and, increasingly, across the country.
The “scene,” such as it is, has managed to avoid the turf battles one might expect of competitors in a multi-billion-dollar industry. It helps that North Yuba has no large-scale commercial wineries, and likely never will. There’s a spirit of collaboration among North Yuba winemakers that goes beyond mere “help-your-neighbor” gestures. It’s clear that the friends are not just interwoven in their history but interdependent in their work. Besides, as Aaron Mockrish notes, there’s no one else around to help.
“Frenchtown is a two-person operation—for most of the year it’s just me and Cara,” he says. “In harvest season, we need all the hands we can muster.” (Case in point: when I rang up Aaron last fall, he and Cara were at Gideon’s place, helping to bottle 200 cases of Old Block Pinot. No doubt Gideon would be returning the favor in kind.)
In keeping with the natural wine ethos, North Yuba’s winemakers put as much (if not more) emphasis on farming as on actual “winemaking” per se. For Aaron, his work comes down to patience and timing, decisions that occur entirely in the field. “Crushing the fruit the day we pick it is much more important than anything we might do in the cellar,” he says. “That old line about ‘Our wines are made in the vineyard’ isn’t just a cliché. For us, that’s the whole guiding principle.”
Given the harsh terrain (and the scarcity of help), one feels compelled to ask: Why here? What drew this group of highly ambitious, talented winemakers to this remote corner of northwestern California? And more to the point, why did they stay?
These wines aren’t just supremely balanced and fresh; they taste alive. They also taste nothing like other California wines—which, as all three winemakers would agree, is the entire point.
I asked Gideon what he’d consider the mark of a successful vintage. Is there a particular characteristic he’s aiming for, some platonic ideal he might capture in a bottle?
He’d obviously considered this before. “We want the wine in the botle—no matter what variety or where it’s grown—to be as distinctive of their vineyard as possible. That’s why we don’t de-stem, don’t innoculate, don’t filter. The goal is to eliminate any man-made effects, so you get a raw expression of what’s in the vineyard.”
Dani Rozman seconds this notion. “The terroir here is very distinctive, full of character. You could compare it to the Northern Rhone,” he says. “But to me, it’s less about terroir than about how we farm, and how little we do to the wine.”
Gideon, who is as charmingly self-effacing as any brilliant winemaker I’ve met, put it best. “I’m never going to beat the competition by making ‘better’ wines,” he told me. “What I can do is stay out of the way, so that what comes in from the vineyard will express itself and its location to the fullest.” He chuckled and thumped his fist on the table in excitement.
“Our wines will have free speech!”And with that, he was off to tend his fields.