The idea of switching careers in mid-life may seem far-fetched for most, but for philosophy professor Abe Schoener this aspiration became a reality when he decided to turn the tables in 1998 and become a student of viticulture. Taking sabbatical from St. John’s College, Schoener headed west where he enrolled as an intern at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa to gain some insight on the biology behind grape growing. Under the tutelage of Napa native and prolific winemaker John Kongsgaard, Schoener soon created his own varietal and has been experimenting with the non-intervention approach to making wine ever since, naming his small-batch operation the Scholium Project. (Scholium means a marginal note or explanatory comment made by a scholar.)
Rather than manipulate the juice with additional nutrients, bacteria or enzymes, Schoener simply lets the liquid ferment to become his wine. This Taoist-like tack to producing wine is rooted in Schoener’s background in ancient philosophy. He tells us, “There’s no doubt about it that my wine-making has been influenced by the philosophies that I study, and to the degree that I am a non-interventionist, that is for sure a philosophical position, and one that I enjoy very much.” Schoener’s theoretical stance may be to let nature take its course, but this technique is also warranted through several years of trial and error where he saw that problems occurring during the process typically corrected themselves. “Once you learn that wine is self-regulating, you learn to stay out of the way.”
Schoener likens the more traditional method of controlling the wine fermentation process to simply a culture fixated on minimizing losses. While he admittedly lost an incredible amount of wine in the beginning, like any good scholar, his relentless research and experimentation has led to a real understanding of wine’s microbial components and a greater ability to control loss. Schoener’s approach is like a surfer who pushes the limits of every wave to get the most out of the ride, but understands that, no matter how skilled you become, Mother Nature is deeply complex and there is always a degree of chance.
While Schoener recognizes that winemaking is actually a simplified process—he’s far from a beaker-toting chemist—he is aiming to put a little artistry back into it, creating vintages and blends that “make you sit up a little bit, but at the same time give you pleasure.” The philosopher’s position is ostensibly to challenge an industry that tends to unconsciously run on a flavor treadmill powered by controlled consistency on a grand scale. Schoener aims to put a delicate poetry back into the bottle by creating good wine that has evolved out of an accumulation of knowledge on the fundamentals of biology and reduction.
Finding a harmonious intersection between pure science and sheer artistry, Schoener’s philosophical mind for oenology leads to controversial wines that—whether “right” or “wrong”—have a distinct flavor personality that awakes your senses. Scholium Project wines sell from the online emporium (or can be tasted at San Francisco’s Press Club, where we enjoyed a glass). Bottles typically span $20-$85.