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. But while Matthew is planting Old Country throwback varietals to quench his curiosity, winemaker Abe Schoener of Scholium Project is straight up flipping traditional winemaking on its head.
Scholium is the singular of scholia in ancient Greek meaning "comment, interpretation." Of all the Project wines I've tried, every one needs interpretation, like gazing at an abstract painting. Anything you say about it is right, because there's no form to compare it to, no technical bar upon which to apply a grade, or even a pass/fail. You like it or you don't, and it really doesn't matter either way. The wine, like the splotch of blue with gold and green halos, isn't about the person on the receiving end.
Schoener 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 every penny counts. But that he can get away with it at 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, just to see how far the rules will bend.
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.
I was an hour late for our appointment and Schoener 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 ." I wandered into the pinot noir vineyard adjacent the building, which he 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," Schoener 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 Schoener's position resonates with the propertyless. It seems his followers are largely Millennials, and I can't help but think that part of the Scholium appeal for them is because the Bordeaux and Burgundy greats are now unobtainable. Without the classics to cut their teeth on, these novice wine hounds need more than ever something fresh and interesting to call their own.
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. Schoener 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 indeed displayed 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 chardonnay, more passengers on the orange wine train. 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, Schoener 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. "Think about the technique, not the grape," Schoener told me. Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I want a variety to resemble itself. I want a chardonnay to smell and taste like chardonnay, and I want the wolf in his own feral clothing.
The Scholium wines are clearly of a different dimension, with an approach that's rather like petting a porcupine from ass to head. It works, sort of, at least abstractly, on an intellectual level. Which, I think, is largely the point. (I can hear the gallery owner say, "But how does it make you feel?")
Typically, hosts open bottles of current vintages, and on the best occasions, older vintages, to showcase what the wines will become. Maybe Schoener sensed my skepticism and decided to save his inventory for a believer. The tasting ended a bit abruptly, though with an invitation to follow-up with any questions that might arise. I certainly felt his frustration with me toward the end. I was late, after all, and far from swooning.