Winemaker, Scholium Project
For making radically natural wines in America. Abe Schoener's Scholium Project wines have been described as radical, experimental, bizarrely expressive, and, at times, undrinkable. Yet they have been featured at the French Laundry, Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and Gramercy Tavern.
Schoener, a gregarious former philosophy professor at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, ditched his job in 1998 to pursue his fantasy career as a winemaker. His wines don't adhere to typical styles: He makes an insanely multilayered Chardonnay, a super-high-alcohol Pinot Grigio, and a fresh white wine originally designed to be a rosé made from very dark, black grapes. "There's no one else in California doing things the way that he does them," says Gus Vahlkamp, the wine director for San Francisco's Out the Door restaurant. Schoener's wines are fermented via the natural yeasts on the grape skins, he uses no disinfectants in the winery, he sticks to mostly old barrels to avoid any oak flavor, and he isn't afraid to make mistakes.
Schoener is also a big proponent of wine on tap: an environmentally sensible alternative to bottles that he's trying to take national. He's currently researching how winemakers could start a cask-sharing system like the one beer distributors have for kegs.
You've been quoted as saying, with regards to your grape sourcing, "There's a certain degree to which my vineyards are built from other people's castoffs." What's an example of this?
I'm willing to consider certain vineyards that others might overlook because they're too small or are in obscure locations. There was this guy who was making wine on a Sunday in fall and sent his wife out to find a piece of equipment he needed in a truck. She stopped in, and I said, "I'll let you borrow it." They both came up when they returned the piece of equipment, but they didn't bring their wine. Maybe they figured it would be like bringing coal to Newcastle or something. But they brought some wild game and foraged mushrooms. We put a crew together and went to their place, north of Orinda, [to check out their operation]. It's in a suburban neighborhood. But the guy lived on this conical hill and had planted vines there, and the grapes were good. They had some Sangiovese. We bought it and made some pretty good wine.
What has been your most humbling moment?
In just gradually learning this method that I now really love of letting the microbes go wild, I had a lot of wines spoil through inattention. It's basically the same tech I'm using now, but in the beginning I didn't know that you had to monitor the wine closely. Attention, not chemicals, [is] the answer. As the wine evaporates, more and more oxygen comes in, and with that, there are more opportunities for microbes to flourish. You have to deprive the microbes of oxygen. In 2004 or 2005, I had to destroy a year and a half's worth of wine. I think all the barrels had vinegar problems, but there were other problems in some as well. It probably took months for me to face reality and come to that conclusion.