Drinking with the Nutty Professor

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 08-22-2011

Abe Schoener.

Thirteen years ago, Abe Schoener – then a professor of ancient Greek philosophy at St. John’s College in Maryland — headed to the Bay Area for a brief sabbatical.

At the time, he was already a wine nut and had become quite interested in plant physiology. So after arriving in San Francisco, his wife encouraged him to look for a job in Napa Valley. Shortly thereafter, he landed an internship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.

While there, he met John Kongsgaard, whose children were interested in St. John’s. The two men hit it off and admired one another’s intellect. So even though Schoener didn’t plan on learning how to make wine or staying in Northern California, he jumped at the chance to become Kongsgaard’s student.

Schoener is still in Napa Valley — and the entire wine world is benefiting from his decision to stay.

The reason? He makes wine as if he’s still a professor of ancient Greek philosophy. Indeed, his winemaking method would please Socrates, as Schoener is teaching us about the limits and possibilities of wine by questioning established conventions.

Over the past few years, Schoener’s winery, The Scholium Project, has received quite a bit of press coverage. There was Alice Feiring’s 2009 profile in the Wall Street Journal magazine, where the wines were described as “creativity unleashed, and anything but safe.”

Last year, Esquire magazine included Schoener on its list of “16 Geniuses Who Give Us Hope,” and described his project as “a winery rooted in the philosophical belief that only by experimenting at the precipice of disaster can we challenge our understanding of what wines can be — and create new ones.”

Wall Street Journal wine critic Jay McInerney has described Schoener’s wines as “deeply eccentric.” Terroirist’s own Andrew Feldsen once explained how Schoener “pushes the limits of wine and makes people think.”

Weird. Funky. Thought-provoking. Sounds like a wine geek’s dream. So when I got an invite a few weeks ago to taste through Scholium wines with a couple of buddies, I was stoked.

After tasting the 2010 Scholium Project Rhododactylos Phillips Farm, I wrote the following in my notebook: “I love the nose — super fragrant, with a seductive combination of flowers and peanuts. The palate, though, tastes like dirty, sweaty socks.”

After tasting the 2009 Scholium Project Riquewihr Lost Slough Vineyards, I wrote, “On the nose, a dead-ringer for Blue Moon, with a huge orange slice thrown in there, along with some fresh herbs and remind-me-of-Oregon gray minerals. The palate, though, is disappointing, as I there’s a strong chemically perfume taste.”

All the wines were unlike anything I had ever tasted. I didn’t love them or hate them, but they all made me think. And while I couldn’t envision opening up a bottle with takeout on a Tuesday evening, I could envision opening them again with a group of wine geeks.

The Scholium wines generated conversation, and that’s exactly what I expected.

Those of us who gathered to taste these wines wrote about it on WineBerserkers. And the next day, Abe Schoener reached out to the Berserker who organized the event, Matt Latuchie, and suggested we all get together for dinner.

“I wanted to come to DC to drink with this group,” Abe later explained, “because you are probably the first group that has had a tepid response to my wine — most people either love it or hate it. After reading the notes from your original tasting, I said to myself ‘I need to taste with these guys!’”

Drinking with Abe.

So earlier this month, over dinner at Ripple, a group of us gathered with Schoener and opened up nine of his wines. (For detailed notes on the wines we tasted, check out Matt Latuchie’s detailed notes on CellarTracker.)

Some were delicious — I thoroughly enjoyed the 2004 Scholium Project Scythia Donati Vineyards and the 2005 Scholium Project Satrapies of the East.

Some weren’t — when I first smelled the 2005 Scholium Project Babylon Tenbrink Vineyards, I assumed it was flawed, as the wine smelled like burnt tires and rotting vegetables. (One of my friends, Tim O’Rourke of Weygandt Wines, smelled burnt hair.) Abe wasn’t too surprised with our descriptions — he explained that the wine was purposefully at the edge of “acceptable” volatile acidity and extremely reduced.

As I thought more about the wines and my conversation Schoener, I couldn’t help but think how ancient Greek philosophy had influenced the winemaking.

Schoener approaches the process with an open mind. He never assumes that conventional winemaking wisdom is correct. He challenges his colleagues. He questions standard practices. When he makes a mistake, he freely admits to it and learns from the experience.

As Scholium’s website proudly explains, “Once we have harvested the fruit, our prime task is husbanding the microbial population of our wines. We do this by interfering as little as possible in the spontaneous development of a natural (if invisible) ecology in our fermenting wine. We do not sterilize the fruit, juice, or must; we do not add commercial yeasts, enzymes, acid, bacteria. If the developing system veers toward winemaking disaster, we intervene. If not, we add and take away nothing.” (Schoener does admit to frequently adding water. He picks extremely late, so without it, many of his wines would top 17 percent alcohol.)

Schoener’s devotion to experimentation is why the wine world needs him. Just think of other pioneers — Where would Oregon wines be if David Lett hadn’t taken the bold step of planting Pinot Noir in the late-1960s?

Sure, Schoener might sometimes offend our palates. But by pushing the boundaries of winemaking, he’ll always keep us on our toes, continually surprise us, and make sure we think about what we’re drinking.

I still don’t love Schoener’s wines. But I definitely don’t hate them. So I’m not sure why his wines are typically so polarizing. While I still can’t envision opening up a bottle of a Scholium with takeout on a Tuesday evening, I’m really looking forward to opening some Scholium wines again with a group of wine geeks.

Comments (1)

  1. This is a nice and honest review. I am lukewarm to the Scholium Project wines as well, but I do enjoy tasting them; especially the whites.