Decoding the scholium project
Last week I wrote about Matthew Rorick of Forlorn Hope and the uncommon grapes he guides into unusual wines. He's one of a handful of boundary pushing California winemakers in the Seven % Solution club. But while Matthew is planting Old Country throwback varietals out of curiosity, winemaker Abe Schoener of Scholium Project is straight up flipping traditional winemaking on its head.
Scholium is the singular of scholia from ancient Greek meaning "comment, interpretation," and shares the same root that birthed scholar and school. Abe is the first to admit not all his winemaking experiments work. That he considers them experiments is the first clue that this project is the antithesis to California winemaking, where the dollar is king and wine the commodity. But that he can get away with it all may be solely because he's in California. While France, Italy, Germany and the rest of Europe live under law-binding stipulations on how wine can be made and with what grapes from where, the U.S. is a veritable free-for-all. From a cultural perspective, vinous and otherwise, it's a fascinating endeavor to watch.
Scholium Project calls the Suisun Valley home, about an 80-mile drive up I-680 from the Silicon Valley, which seems telling, if not simply coincidental. Certainly the quest to poke at wine as we know it is part of the project's appeal, falling somewhere between innovation and deconstruction. Like Apple's most recent re-invention of the private listening device, wireless AirPods.
There too is the inherent authenticity of the project, which countless articles about the Millennial generation tell us is a priority for them, especially when it comes to buying into brands. Sommeliers are often tapped as the tastemakers leading wine trends, especially the strange and new, and many of those somms now are Millennials. Perhaps with the disappearance of affordable and obtainable Bordeaux and Burgundy greats, these young wine hounds need more than ever something fresh and interesting to call their own.
I was an hour late for our appointment and Abe would have been right to tell me forget it, but he graciously received me that Monday afternoon in August. He just needed a few minutes to finish up a "text conversation with Norway " first. I wandered into the pinot noir vineyard adjacent the building, which Abe later told me belonged to the Tenbrinks of Tenbrink winery. The building in which he makes the wines is also theirs. He buys all fruit for Scholium from a handful of small and often forgotten vineyards across Northern California.
In a 2013 article for "The New York Times Magazine," Abe told journalist Robert Draper, "I find it interesting that I have absolutely no desire to own my own winery." Maybe I'm pushing the obvious, but the freedom from ownership is becoming more popular in America, particularly among the young, under employed and debt burdened degree holders. Despite being near the double-nickel mark himself, surely that resonates with the propertyless. This writer is on the tale end of Generation X, but I have to admit, art before money has always struck a pleasant chord.
We tasted only from barrel that afternoon, the first being six barrels of chenin blanc from Tegan Passalacqua's Lodi vineyard that had been picked two weeks prior. Abe and his team had decided to deconstruct this batch into different barrels by pressings. The first barrel was from the first pressing, the second from the second pressing, and so on. In the end they will be blended and bottled as one, but this was an exercise in education, a tangible explanation on the effects of pressing. The barrels did indeed display subtle differences in taste and aroma from one to the next.
The next several barrel samples were from 2015 and included skin fermented sauvignon blanc and skin fermented chardonnay. These wines aren't labeled with the variety but given a proprietary name, like "Michael Faraday," "The Sylphs," and "The Prince in His Caves," plus a vineyard designation when applicable. As we tasted, Abe pointedly avoided revealing the grape name until I'd taken a few false stabs. Granted, I'm hardly the most attuned or practiced blind taster, but these were nothing like what they were supposed to be, if you're following the familiar dimension of winemaking. The Scholium wines are clearly of a different dimension with an approach that's rather like petting a porcupine from ass to head. And yet it works, at least on an intellectual level. Which is largely the point.
"Think about the technique, not the grape," Abe told me. In the land of varietally labeled wines where consumers drink a grape, not a place or style, this flies in the face of convention where convention hits hardest. Unlike the self-declared marketing angle behind the Lodi Native wines, I don't think this project has an ounce of fiscally focused drive. As Abe would say, "it's interesting," if nothing else. Coming from a former Philosophy professor at St. Johns University, it'd be weird if he wasn't asking, what if?
You've likely heard of orange wine, a new stateside trend that's ages old in regions like Italy's Friuli where skin fermented pinot grigio has long been a thing. The practice adds texture and hue to the wine plus a wider, different range of aromas. Many of the whites obtain oxidative qualities and secondary and tertiary notes. It might be off-putting for some, but maybe not such a far cry from Jura and Sherry.
Though I made notes on all the barrel samples we tasted that day, I'm not going to share them with you. In part, because barrel samples need to be taken with a grain of salt, not that I'm suggesting you don't have one. But more important, because these aren't wines you grab for weeknight dinner expecting a delicious accompaniment. These wines are the equivalent of a 400 level philosophy course; you need to apply your own critical thinking.
If you want to find out for yourself, best bet is to order directly from the winery and have a mixed case delivered to your doorstep. And if you do, please email me your thoughts and experience with the wines. I'm curious to hear about it.