Scholium Project: Winemaking as Thinking

Posted by CrushWine

The following is an essay I handed out at a dinner I hosted in New York City for Abe Schoener and his Scholium Project wines in the spring of 2008. - Stephen Bitterolf

"Scholium: From the Greek , which shares the same root as "school, scholarship." Signifies a modest project, not a preeminent one, undertaken for the sake of learning, understanding - hence a commentary, an essay, a study."

"Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it." Jasper Johns, Notebooks, 1963-4

You just never know what to expect from the Scholium Project.

The 2006 vintage produced (among many other things) two very different Sauvignon Blancs from the Farina Vineyard atop Sonoma Mountain - twisted sisters if ever there were. One, a ruthless ice queen, pulsing out lightning bolts of minerals and acidity, the other a ponderous eccentric (a Prince in His Caves as it were), dressed in plush fabrics, as mysterious as the other is lashing.

In the Suisun Valley, the Tenbrink Vineyard produced small-berried clusters of Petite Sirah, dense with a hunger for power - they birthed a muscular king (of Babylon?), a god of war, who quickly announces reign over every part of your mouth (you have been conquered).

To the east, in the Sacramento Delta, warm and fertile breezes pass over the Lost Slough Vineyard, filled with eccentric ex-pats like Verdelho, juicy berries that maintain their poise in this sweaty, flat land. Though unfamiliar, a stranger in a strange land, upon shaking heads, and rolling the juice around in your mouth, an easy and rewarding friendship is quickly struck up; not everything has to be overpowering, not every sentence a revelation.

The wines of Abe Schoener, founder and winemaker of the Scholium Project, are all startling originals, characters from a schizophrenic mythology that writes a new and refreshing chapter every year, with each harvest. But there is a fundamental similarity here, a proof of genetic kinship: Every Scholium Project wine is a unique experiment, a singular and uncompromising thought process born of a specific vineyard, a specific harvest, inextricably tied to the snowflake-like, never-again-in-the-world uniqueness of a season's particular grapes.

The starting point is always the same: A face-to-face with the chosen fruit, a "get to know you" interview. The results, of course, are well...who the hell knows.

This, I believe, is "winemaking as thinking" at its most thrilling and brutally honest. This is instinctual, intellectual, stream-of-consciousness winemaking where no decision is final or formulaic (Johns' Zen-like mantra is relevant here, "do something, do something else...") and everything is open to the blessed whim of passion or logic...until, of course, the cork is pushed into the bottle. This is the stamp on the birth certificate, the "period" concluding the sentence.

Why not "winemaking as thinking"? Abe Schoner, after all, has his PhD in Greek Philosophy and taught the subject for nearly a decade at St. John's College in Maryland. My assumption is that thinking is something he's thought a lot about.

The whole notion - "thinking as winemaking" - does have a Greek flair to it; thinking as a process linked to movement. This is a society whose very architecture incorporated spaces to walk - spaces to think. Aristotle's philosophy was known as "peripatetic" - the philosopher himself meandering around, hands interlocked behind his back, thinking as walking. Abe Schoener hikes up Sonoma Mountain, saunters through the Sacramento Delta, walks down the rows of the vineyards, harvests, lifts, squeezes, pumps, dumps, pours, tops off, (or does not top off), tastes, sniffs, smells, thinks...thinking as winemaking.

The question left to ponder, then, is this: Is this a good thought? Is this a good wine?

Is "The Prince in His Caves" a reasonable thought when given a handful of plush, soppingly ripe fruit from the Farina Vineyard's kinder terroirs? Is three weeks of maceration the road that the burly Petite Sirah grapes from the Tenbrink Vineyard want to walk down? Certainly not easy questions to answer, and all of them are ultimately very personal, subjective, and of course unanswerable.

No grapples with them more honestly than Abe himself.

I can't help but consider the first time I met him at Crush - a group of probably six of us sitting around a formidable wooden table, swirling, sniffing...thinking. The 2006 Glos was poured - a wine that instantaneously charmed and thrilled me. As I began to compose lyrics in my head, Abe sniffed, considered, and stated simply, "Y'up...this was a failure." On the website he writes only: "If the wine were not fine, I would blend it away - it is fine, but you would not mistake it for its older siblings."

Fine. So it goes. Every thought, no matter how brutally honest, insightful and well-intentioned, does not necessarily lead to beauty. Sometimes perhaps it just leads closer to fine.

But I believe the process also unabashedly kicks the door open to greater possibilities. It introduces a wild-eyed range of options: Vineyards chosen for their uniqueness and subtle spirit, their off-the-beaten-path grandeur (terroir, as we're so often told, is more than the sum of soil, sun and exposure, right? right?). Fruit chosen, and handled, with the idea that anything can, and should, happen.

This process, this thinking and winemaking of Abe Schoener, introduces freedom, which can introduce chaos, which can introduce, well...anything.

And that nearly always tastes very, very good indeed.

Stephen Bitterolf
Wine Buyer
(Scholium Project Fan)
New York City, spring 2008