Laboratory Vineyards

by Alastair Bland, May 9, 2012

For ten years, Abe Schoener has been recording the unfolding history of California’s climate and geology — but he is not a government scientist drawing sedimentary core samples from the Earth or a hydrologist taking stream level snapshots each season. Far from either, Schoener is a daring entrepreneur bottling liquid data in one of the most unusual winemaking ventures in the state — the Scholium Project, a micro-winery near Vacaville.

“What I’m doing is preserving the historical record of a vineyard,” Schoener says, speaking matter-of-factly about winemaking principles and methods that he concedes “would be commercial suicide” if applied by a larger company. For instance, Schoener makes a Sauvignon Blanc as brown as apple juice — a wine fermented on the skins, unlike nearly every other white wine in the state. His wine labels, too, make no mention of grape varieties, naming, instead, just the vineyard location and year. He allows vinegar-making bacteria to live in his barrels, and he welcomes the effects of oxygen — both potentially deleterious forces but which Schoener considers to play virtuous roles in building a wine’s character.

Market forces, clearly, have less bearing on the Scholium Project than Schoener’s unregulated sense of whimsy. Indeed, the winery — worth just 2,500 cases per year — has nimbly navigated the cliff’s edge of financial viability since Schoener founded it in 2000, the year of his first three-ton grape crush. Schoener, who works with a staff of two and the help of friends, travels tirelessly much of the year, trying to wedge his wines into niche markets across the country. He says wine shops, which arrange their bottles most often by variety, sometimes are dubious about bottles that make no mention of grape variety — their main criterion for categorizing inventory and selling it. In restaurants, though, where wines are hand-sold from sommelier to guest, Schoener’s wines make an easier sell. Meanwhile, an attuned following that responds to Schoener’s email announcements buys up new vintages fast enough to keep the Scholium Project afloat and empty out the warehouse — and each season Schoener pays the bills, makes payments on the next vintage of grapes, and does it all over again.

In his pre-wine era, Schoener taught Greek philosophy at St. John’s College in Maryland. It was during a sabbatical in 1998 that he and his wife at the time took a trip to California and landed in the Napa Valley. Here Schoener would stay, taking up an apprenticeship at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and a more hands-on job at Luna Vineyards, where star winemaker John Kongsgaard became his teacher, mentor, and most lasting influence.

Schoener’s duties included the task of picking up fruit at crush time. It was during these outings that the learning apprentice saw backyard vineyards and abandoned plots of vines that captured his imagination — obscure but wonderful sites living in the shadows of California’s most esteemed wine region. He did not forget these vines, and in 1999 he began planning his venture, intending to make use of grapes that few others had. In 2000 — using the facility at Luna — he crushed his first vintage, Chardonnay grapes from Los Olivos vineyard in the Napa Valley. The wine went to barrel, and he kept exploring the state for more vineyards.

In 2002, he discovered one called the “Lost Slough.” Planted in what Schoener describes as an “unheralded” location — a sinking island deep within the winding waterways and levees of the Sacramento Delta — the vineyard features Verdelho and an Eastern European white wine grape called Gruner Veltliner that had previously been sold to large companies mostly as blending fruit.

But Schoener put Lost Slough on the bottle and on the map.

“The owners certainly knew they grew good fruit, but it wasn’t until I made a single-vineyard wine with their grapes that they maybe realized just how good,” says Schoener, who recently took several bottles to a tasting at The Wine Consultant shop in Citrus Heights. “It was so cool to pour these wines made from sites closer to Sacramento than they are to Napa and still have them come out on top.”

By 2003, Schoener was still isolating his vineyards, bottling them unblended. Most winemakers blend uninhibited to take rough edges and sharp corners off of more unruly and perhaps unmarketable vintages. But Schoener, like a scientist collecting data, specifically wanted these idiosyncrasies in the bottle. Blending would only erase them.

“It was just a learning process at first,” Schoener says. “I wanted to see what each vineyard could produce, and after I found some that I liked, I decided there’s no way I was going to blend them together.”

He has kept this approach, and today ten of his dozen wines are single-vineyard bottlings. He has also maintained another off-center principle of not varietally labeling his wines. Grape variety, Schoener believes, is too much information for the wine taster, who mustn’t be distracted from more important information — specifically where and when a wine was grown. With one red wine from Suisun Valley made early last decade, Schoener isn’t even entirely certain what grapes went into the bottle. The vineyard owners, he says, had ordered Syrah vines from a nursery years ago, but Schoener, after tasting the fruit and fermenting the juice, suspected the vines were actually Grenache.

Other Scholium Project wines are so unusual and so out of the ordinary that to label them by grape might throw consumers off or even disappoint them. He makes a Sauvignon Blanc that is “brown tannic, and salty,” in Schoener’s words. It gains its color from the seeds and skins, which are left in the fermenting juice. Schoener believes that if he printed “Sauvignon Blanc” on the label of this rugged wine, he might never move a bottle out the door. Instead, he named it “The Prince in His Caves,” after a winemaker and hermit of Roman legend.

The Scholium Project’s library of wines is almost as much a library of ancient history. Bottles bearing titles like Cena Trimalchionis, Scythia, Naucratis, and Babylon (which Schoener has likened to “a gladiatorial contest in your mouth”) indicate the winemaker’s intellectual roots in ancient Old World history and philosophy.

Schoener acknowledges that a Napa Valley Cab could make him an easy 50 bucks a bottle, but he veered onto the side roads years ago and prefers creating reputations for isolated vineyards, far from the tourist trail through the Napa, Alexander and Sonoma valleys.

“I like showing that these unknown vineyards can make very special wines,” he said. “And it’s not like I’m a magician. People just haven’t been paying attention to these vineyards.”

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