Schoener (pronounced shurner) views this matter, and almost everything else, differently. The most frequently used word in his extensive vocabulary is “interesting” — as in, “I find it interesting that I have absolutely no desire to own my own winery” — and his days seem to be consumed by the desire to evade predictability. “No one else would want to work in this vineyard, because it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s perfect for Scholium,” he said, referring to his one-man winery, the Scholium Project. For the past eight years, Scholium has made sauvignon blanc from the McDowell property, though the wine’s label makes no mention of the actual grape, much less the oldness of its vines. Instead, the bottle simply reads, “Glos,” a reference to the name of the street that the vineyard is on, as well as the Greek word “glossa,” which translates to “word” or “language.” (In a previous life, Schoener taught classics at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md.) Standing beside him on the McDowell property were three of his interns, all of whom have pruned and harvested the vines: Alex, a former chef at the French Laundry; Brenna, a comprehensively tattooed wine director; and Courtney, a wine journalist who, when I asked her what the wine from this vineyard tasted like, sternly informed me, “It tastes like Glos.” (Later I paid $45 for a bottle, which is pale and restrained and unlike any other sauvignon blanc I’ve encountered. I guess that means it tastes like Glos.)
After showing me the McDowell Vineyard, Schoener drove us a few miles south to another vineyard he leases. We pulled up to the residence of a former refrigerator repairman named John Guman, who does not drink wine or any other kind of alcohol. After parking in the driveway and strolling past a collection of rusted tractors, we arrived in Guman’s backyard. There sprawled an oversize garden of 30-year-old chardonnay vines. “This is an A-plus vineyard,” Schoener announced. “Here is a place where one can make ageless wines. All you have to do is not screw it up.”
But it was also ridiculously miniature, producing in some vintages only about 80 gallons of juice, not much more than the McDowell property. For that very reason, the venerable Pahlmeyer winery stopped buying grapes from the Guman site after 2001. Schoener pounced on it. He calls the end product the Sylphs, after a mythological creature. As with Glos, its accompanying label says nothing about chardonnay, which is just as well, given that it doesn’t really taste like chardonnay. Schoener has likened its flavor to porcini mushrooms and crushed rocks. At around $80 a bottle (of which there are sometimes as few as a hundred in a given vintage), the Sylphs sells out every year.
While Schoener squinted reverently at the chardonnay vines, Brenna trained adoring eyes on him. She confessed to me, in Schoener’s presence, that the experience of working in his winery created “a feeling that is almost reminiscent of being in love.” I had seen similar displays of devotion at wine tastings that Schoener held in Brooklyn and San Francisco attended by well-heeled consumers who, while listening to the winemaker hold forth and sampling his unorthodox wines, buzzed among themselves like discoverers of a latter-day Dylan. Though there may be more coveted cult wines than those of the Scholium Project, the charismatic and somewhat quixotic Schoener is possibly America’s only winemaker with a cult following of his own.
To some degree, Schoener owes his success to the burgeoning market for culinary adventurism. As his friend and fellow small-scale Napa winemaker Steve Matthiasson told me, “The millennial generation are getting into position as wine buyers, and just like they’re into the local-food movement and choosing between Berkshire pork and Mangalitsa pork, they’re also culturally interested in exploring differences in wine.” But Schoener has tapped into a longing that extends beyond an appreciation of flavors and origins. True, his strange, often wonderful wines express the seasonal eccentricities of both the vineyard and the maker rather than a striving for uniform taste and high Wine Spectator ratings. More broadly, however, Schoener is selling the experience of extreme authenticity, of something pure and irreplicable. The arrangement is almost absurdly harmonious: the classics professor who has gone to the land (not just any land, but land that’s forgotten and seemingly irredeemable) and found virtue there, for himself and ultimately for his customers, who by buying his wines are buying into Schoener’s vision and thereby becoming something more than just elitist wine collectors. As Javier Martell, a San Francisco-based lawyer and one of Schoener’s longtime customers, told me: “Part of the attraction of his wines is for people like me who practice law for a living and have a forced rigidity in our lives. Abe’s wines give us an escape — I’m going with the flow, and Abe’s leading me down it, and it’s sort of liberating.”
Liberating and, of course, exclusive. Schoener and his interns (he has no full-time employees) produce about 2,000 cases of wine annually from the Guman, McDowell and about 10 other vineyards (none of which he owns) at the Scholium Project’s modest winery space (also leased) in the Suisun Valley, some 17 miles from his (rented) residence in Napa. Because he makes so little wine, Schoener estimates that he now has a customer list of about 600. Around 400 of these are restaurants and retailers, ranging from Per Se on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to a wine bar in Oklahoma City. The remainder are mail-order customers, who until recently could purchase his wines on the Scholium Project’s Web site at prices ranging from $24 (for a white blend) to $100 (for a cabernet). To help promote his product, the former professor has been traveling cross-country and delivering what he calls a metaphysical lecture series, in which he pours wine for small audiences while speaking on topics like “Wine and Loss” and “Wine and Morality.” Slots for these lecture-tastings rapidly sell out, as do his wines.
I asked what his annual costs were. Schoener said he didn’t know. When I asked him to estimate, he paused for a moment before saying, “Maybe half a million?” Some of his overhead, Schoener acknowledged, goes to things like “purchasing a lot of Champagne for wine education” and hosting dinner parties with customers both at home and in restaurants — “and it’s demonstrable,” he said, “that my entertainment has a value to the business.” He added, with diminished gusto, “In the next few days I’ll hire a rent-a-C.F.O. to remind me to fill out forms and help with the financial planning.”
Schoener’s fuzzy-headed business acumen is, of course, thoroughly in keeping with his persona — that of the groovy and somewhat hedonistic liberal-arts professor who taught philosophy, kept a garden, communed with his students on the basketball court and on dance floors and was blissfully at home in academia until his collapsing marriage spurred a midlife crisis that ultimately, in 1999, propelled him into the winemaker’s life. He all but liquidated his college pension, borrowed $15,000 from friends, procured another $20,000 from designing a company’s Web site and financed the bottling of his first few vintages. “I was initially just driven by the desire to learn,” he recalls, “and sort of hoping that I would please people — which is not the same thing as having the confidence that I could do so, which I have now, for sure.”
From the outset, Schoener was bent on what his fellow winemaker Steve Matthiasson terms “fearless experimentation” — reflected in the winery’s emblem, a diagram from Isaac Newton’s “Principia” that shows how gravity accounts for planetary motion. That schematic, plus the Scholium Project’s name and the specific wine’s vineyard, would be his lone descriptors on the bottles’ labels. He tinkered endlessly with obscure vineyards and varietals, with temperatures, with juice extraction, with acidity levels, with tannic structure, with rotting grapes. Sometimes he didn’t tinker at all and simply let a seemingly doomed wine repose in barrels for years, until the day came that a brilliant identity suddenly materialized. (Or not. “I’ve still got a 2003 botrytis-infected Malbec that’s turning into some interesting form of balsamic vinegar,” he told me.) Along the way, the ex-professor’s daring earned him the respect of fellow cult winemakers who would then alert him to small and tricky but promising vineyards, as Andy Erickson, the former Screaming Eagle winemaker, did in 2005, when he introduced Schoener to the Farina property high up Sonoma Mountain, owned by a farmer who had been kicking himself for switching from growing pinot noir to sauvignon blanc, just before the movie “Sideways” immortalized the pinot noir. Since that time, the Scholium Project’s singular Prince in His Caves has been made from the Farina vineyards.
“All of us experiment with weird wines, which we then serve at home or at parties,” the winemaker Alex Kongsgaard told me. “What sets Abe apart is that he’ll publish his results — he’ll bottle and release his wine to the market. So when people complain that ‘I had this wine of his, and I didn’t like it,’ well, that’s not the point. The point is to try his wines and learn about them and think about why they taste the way they do. People who are into Abe’s wines are interested in those ideas.”
Just as Schoener maintains a love for the wine that almost bankrupted him, he harbors scorn for one of his most commercially successful staples, a delicious blend of four white grapes. “I don’t really want to make blended wines, but they’re kind of a commercial necessity,” he explained to me, somewhat apologetically. “I have some wines that I feel are not good enough to put into a bottle with the name of the vineyard on it. That leaves me with only two alternatives: make a blended wine or throw it away.” Reflecting his ambivalence, no doubt, Schoener has saddled this wine with the name Midan Al-Tahrir, after Egypt’s Liberation Square — “such a commercially preposterous name that I might have to give it up,” he went on to say. A week later, Schoener acknowledged that he didn’t really like Midan — too rich, too encumbered, lacking “transparency” — and was going to discontinue it. In the end, he changed the way he was making the blend and renamed it Gemella.
“Look, I want to make good wine and live a reasonably good life, it’s true,” Schoener told me. “But my professional aim is to make really good wine.” Referring to the chardonnay he makes from the tiny vineyard in John Guman’s backyard, he added: “Like the Sylphs, vineyards like that are of an international level — there’s almost nothing of that quality in Napa and throughout the world, really — and so it’s very important to me to make a very small amount of very good wine. And so far, selling that wine has been the easy part.”
The greater challenge — and the risk that the Scholium Project’s customers accept, sometimes with relish — has been to make magic out of lesser sites, the below-sea-levelverdelho and the mangy old-vine sauvignon blanc tract, and in so doing to master the balancing act between the distinctive and the financially practical. For all that Abe Schoener has learned from his past mistakes, his ongoing flirtation with fatal error — with wines that can perplex or even repel — is what defines him and his cult appeal.
One morning after visiting his winery, I noticed a few wooden barrels stacked up near the driveway. “These contain skin-fermented gewürztraminer from 2009,” Schoener explained. “I made the decision that we’re not walking away from this wine. But I mean, it’s really strange wine. It was unpalatable until about a year ago. Then it started showing promise. It’s just not good enough yet.”
Schoener then added, “Maybe it’ll never get good enough.” Still, he laughed as he said it. Strange, unpalatable, not good enough yet — but interesting, and there was always a place for interesting.