Monday, July 14, 2008

Winning winery

Winning winery
Small area vintner finds formula for success
By ANDREA WOLF/Times-Herald staff writer
Article Launched: 07/14/2008

LEANING on one of the oak barrels used at his winery, Abe Schoener describes his history in teaching and winemaking and the path he took to combine the two, producing the critically acclaimed wines that bear the Scholium Project label. (Mike Jory/Times-Herald)

FAIRFIELD - An unconventional winemaker with a small Fairfield winery, fueled by philosophy rather than science, is producing some of today's most unusual California wines.

The affable Schoener, owner of Scholium Project, is nothing like the pretentious vintners of lore. Like a kid playing with a new chemistry set he just got for Christmas, Schoener gleefully makes wine for the experience rather than the end result.

A current project, growing Austrian Gr ner Veltliner grapes in the arid Suisun Valley, reflects his laissez-faire attitude toward winemaking. "It will be terrible," Schoener said. "But why not try it? It's worth a shot."

He encourages all those who volunteer their time at his winery to have fun, including stripping down to swimsuits at rush time and jumping in the barrels of red wine grapes.

But he must be doing something right: Schoener's wines are garnering national accolades from some of the most respected voices in the business and have become cult favorites among many wine enthusiasts.

On a recent visit to Scholium Project, the Rolling Stones were moved to serenade the Pinot Noir vines. The San Francisco Chronicle named Scholium Project one of the "six wines to covet," and Stephen Bitteroff, of New York's Crush Wine and Spirits, called it "one of the most thoughtful, and outrageous, artisanal producers in California."

Chatting among the vines growing on the Tenbrink vineyard in Suisun Valley - one of many sites from which he buys grapes around the state - Schoener eagerly related tales of winemaking successes as well as failures.

"It's all part of the fun," he said, believing experimentation is an important part of his wine making adventure.

His winery is housed on property owned by Steve and Linda Tenbrink, longtime Suisun Valley farmers known for their excellent produce.

Schoener met the Tenbrinks while falling in love with the tomatoes they sell at a Napa farmers market, and the unlikely partnership bloomed from there.

"At first I thought there was no way I was going to buy grapes from the woman I buy my tomatoes from," Schoener joked. But their insistence in him checking out their vines finally brought Schoener out to Solano County.

"I knew I wanted to work with these grapes before I even stopped the car," Schoener said. "There is such a balance in these vines and the site is naturally restrictive. I want the grapes to struggle a little."

A Greek philosophy professor in Maryland in his former life, Schoener was bitten by the vintner bug while working under famed winemaker John Kongs-gaard at Luna Vineyards in Napa.

Schoener took over as winemaker for Kongsgaard in 2002, the same year he started Scholium Project. In 2005, he started working on his own wines full time.

"I didn't do any of this scientifically. I'm not good at business plans," Schoener said. "We more than doubled our production between 2005 and 2006, but it wasn't a business decision."

Despite rapid growth early on, his wines remain remarkably small productions, sometimes bottling only 14 cases of a particular vintage. He said he typically bottles about 1,500 cases a year.

Schoener doesn't think his Cabernet needs to taste like every other California Cabernet. In fact, he relishes the fact that many of his wines are tricky to identify, even by the most educated palates.

In an unusual marketing technique, Schoener doesn't list the varietal or appellation (wine growing region) on his labels, but instead gives them Greek names reflective of his philosophy teaching background like Naucratis, Gemella and Eurydice.

"I pick the vineyard first, then decide what to do with the grapes," he said.

Believing it is impossible to classify a wine as "Napa" or "Monterey" in character, he lets the specific vineyards speak for themselves.

Schoener strives for as little intervention as possible with the grapes, and wants the end result to be based on what the grapes want to be, not a winemaker's vision.

"He believes deeply that the wines he makes should be of the year, of the vineyard, of the moment," said Jason Berthold, a chef who has started making wine under Schoener's tutelage.

Enlisting the help of other vinophiles interested in learning, mostly his friends, Schoener doesn't have any employees on a regular payroll. He said he looks for people with "open minds looking for a new experience."

"It's important to Abe to have the input from people who are not professional wine tasters," Berthold said. "As a winemaker it is incredibly valuable for there to be no bias or marketing plan, branding or anything else influencing decisions."

Berthold, who is working on opening a Michael Mina restaurant in San Francisco, said he first tried Schoener's wines while he was a sous chef working at the French Laundry in Yountville. While not widely available at local restaurants, Scholium Project wines have made the list at some of the Bay Area's top spots, including A16 in San Francisco and Yountville's Bouchon.

"At the French Laundry the chefs would often open a bottle of wine while we worked on the menu," Berthold said. "I was immediately intrigued by Abe's wines, they were so unusual and just incredible."

Now, three years later, Schoener has become Berthold's winemaking mentor and helps him craft his own label, Courier.

Like a mad scientist creating new compounds, Schoener bucks many traditional wine making techniques just to see what will happen. He sometimes treats white wine grapes like red wine grapes, letting the skins soak with the pressed juice for days.

His successes have grabbed the attention of many wine lovers across the country, but he said he has been especially embraced by the New York market.

This could be because his wines are so atypical of California wines, Schoener said.

"New Yorkers tend to drink more European wines, for obvious reasons, and that may be why they are more likely to embrace something as unusual as Abe's wines," Berthold said. "Abe's wines are such that people don't know what to expect form them, which can be both a virtue and a vice."

THE LABEL on Scholium Project wines represents a planetary path diagram from one of Sir Isaac Newton's first books on gravity. (Mike Jory/Times-Herald)

• E-mail Andrea Wolf at or call 553-6835.