Last week in New Orleans, I drank a 2008 Scholium Project “Prince In His Caves.” We were eating at John Besh’s August restaurant, which was quite good and set in a really pretty room near the French Quarter.
The wine left me thinking, and I think that is what proprietor Abe Schoener wants. The trouble is I can’t decide whether I actually like the wine or not!
I was first exposed to Abe’s wines about two years ago when I was eating at Momofuku Ko in New York City (no, I did not have to sacrifice anyone to get a seat at David Chang’s East Village counter). Ko is a tasting menu only restaurant and I decided to let the Sommelier pick wines for each course. The 2007 Prince in his Caves was one such wine. Two years is a long time ago and I didn’t write anything down at the time, but I recall finding the wine incredibly intriguing and really liking it. I was at least intrigued enough to do a little research on Scholium and to try some of Abe’s other wines (I did buy some more Prince in his Caves to enjoy at home too).
Schoener was a philosophy professor at St. John’s college when he got the wine bug. In 1998, he went on sabbatical and took an internship at Luna Vineyards, where John Kongsgaard of Kongsgaard fame was making wine. John makes, in my opinion, one of the most amazing California Chardonnays – it’s up there with Kistler and Aubert and was the wine that made me realize that white wine (like red) could actually be contemplative, interesting, alive and downright delicious. After Luna, Abe worked at a family winery called Whiterock and in 2006 he moved his very own Scholium Project to the Suisan Valley (a 3 mile by 8 mile AVA bordering Napa Valley) where he could focus almost exclusively on his own wines.
Schoener openly acknowledges that sometimes his wines don’t taste like other wines. He admits that sometimes the wines are the result of experiments. And he claims not to be a renegade, but he certainly does push the limits of wine and most importantly, make people think! And speaking of thinking, his label (or logo) is a diagram of the first proposition of Issac Newton’s Principia (now that is pretty cool). Abe taught John Kongsgaard’s high school aged children for a couple years in exchange for John’s wine lessons and Abe and the kids spent nearly a year on Newton!
The Prince in his Caves’ name comes from Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi, the Prince of Venosa who in Schoener’s words was “a winemaker who toiled for years, alone, on a tiny estate outside of Rome.” Apparently “the prince” did not release any of the wines that he made from 1986 – 1994; the wine simply sat in his “cave.” Scholium’s Prince in his Caves is comprised of skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc from the Farina Vineyard. This is NOT your typical Sauvignon Blanc largely due to the fact that unlike nearly all white wines made today the grape juice is fermented with the grape skins. The inspiration for this technique comes from the winemakers of Friuli (in Italy, but near the Slovenian border) where winemakers like Gravner and Radikon have been experimenting with skin-fermented whites for years.
Most notable initially with the 2008 Prince in his Caves is the wine’s color. It’s more orange than golden/yellow and it’s cloudy (the wine is unfiltered). It can be oft-putting to drinkers used to traditional whites; I find it exciting and if nothing else, conversation provoking. The nose is intense – your olfactory glands will immediately be stimulated with big grapefruit notes. The wine tastes slightly oxidized. This is actually purposeful as Schoener does not top up his wines while they ferment as frequently as most vintners (thereby allowing the wine to interact with air). Abe isn’t going for fruit; he’s going for secondary flavors and aromas. He’s trying to make you think.
For me, the 2008 is interesting but I’m not sure it’s delicious. I love the nose and I love the way the wine makes me think with every taste. But after the initial shock, it’s kind of flat. The wine improved as it was open longer and the finish became longer and more complex, but it still left me searching for more. Perhaps that is Abe’s point; after all, he is a philosopher.