Financial support

Visiting the farm puts perspective on where our money goes

There’s nothing quite like visiting local agribusinesses to put the whole farm-to-table movement into perspective. Seeing the land and meeting the men and women who transform fruits and veggies into edible delights reminds us that food is more than just a commodity. At the same time, we are paying for it, and a visit to the source can offer insight into exactly where our dollars are going.

I learned that lesson during the recent North Sierra Wine Trail, held the last weekend of April and spanning 11 wineries in south Butte and north Yuba counties. My husband, Josh, and I started at Hickman Family Vineyards in Bangor. Like many along the trail, Hickman is a family-owned boutique winery. One of the owners and organizer of the event, Alyse Hickman, was on site serving wine out of a barrel. When it came time to move along and we forked over $18 for a bottle of Chardonnay, we did so knowing we were supporting something special. We’ll likely be back for the Sangiovese.

After a few more stops in Bangor, including to the grand opening of Spencer Shirey Winery, we made our way to Oregon House, in Yuba County. That’s where our adventure got weird.

There was no mistaking where to turn to enter Renaissance Vineyard and Winery when we saw the gold statues atop white pillars at the main entrance. We stopped at the guard shack and were handed a detailed map to the tasting room, in a terracotta building atop the hill. We drove up the palm-tree-lined boulevard and through two roundabouts, each studded with another pillar and statue. Strategically parked cars barred us from going off-route. Along the way, we saw goats, yaks, French donkeys and camels. (After all, does anything say “Renaissance” quite like camels and gilded statues of David?)

At check-in, we were told that the property is owned by a nonprofit religious organization (the Fellowship of Friends) and that the winery is a for-profit benefiting FoF. The wines were decent, but the olive oils, by independently owned Apollo Olive Oil, also on site for tasting, were de-lish. We chatted up the Italian owner of Apollo and went home with a bottle of balsamic that was otherworldly.

A later Google search revealed our suspicions that Renaissance felt like a cult were well-founded. The Fellowship of Friends’ website explains that the group was started by spiritual teacher Robert Burton in 1970, and the 1,200-acre Oregon House property is the group’s home base. FoF’s goal is “awakening” and “being present” and further Web searches led to numerous references to it as a cult complete with sex scandals and end-of-days predictions.

No one tried to indoctrinate us during our visit. My inquisitive side enjoyed seeing the property, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy any Renaissance wines. It was so strikingly different from meeting the families at places like Hickman or Spencer Shirey. And I had to ask myself: Do I want to support a mysterious religious group, or a local family? Without going out and seeing for myself, I might never have known the difference.