There are winemakers that thrive upon tradition and honor the techniques that have been used through the ages to make wine that is consistent from year to year. There are winemakers that strive to challenge convention and turn the industry on its head by making wines differently. Then there is Abe Schoener.
A former Greek philosopher who fell in love with Napa while on a sabbatical, Abe served as an apprentice at Stag’s Leap Vineyard, was hired by Luna’s Vineyards and counts Cult Chardonnay maker John Kongsgaard as his mentor.
I had the chance to meet with Abe this week during a Scholium Project winemaker’s dinner at Bailey’s Prime Plus, which was the first menu beyond restaurant week that newly hired Executive Chef Grant Morgan had a chance to prepare since he joined four weeks ago. Morgan who made the distinction that he is chef-trained vs. school trained has held executive chef positions at Dragonfly at Hotel ZaZa and executive sous chef of Loqua. He also worked at Sweet Basil in Vail, Colorado, the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and the Spa and the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Look for a new menu featuring seasonal projects to debut sometime in October.
Abe started the Scholium Project to transform the way people think about wines by changing the way they are made and marketed. The focus is on preserving the historical record of a vineyard. The bottles contain no varietals on the label – only the year, location and a reference to something Greek from his philosophy days. I asked him if his unconventional approach alienated some consumers who drink solely by label, varietals and name. He acknowledged that was the case with some, but this is a small production of 2,500 barrels and he has no problems in selling its inventory to high-end wine shops and restaurants.
Abe’s been described as unconventional, experimental and maybe even a little radical.
The wines are billed to be powerful and nuanced with layers unfolding at each sip. Wine Director Jennifer Jaco talked about the passion that she has for wines from the Scholium Project because the wines go so well with food.
Then it was our turn to try. The first course paired blue point oysters with a cucumber mignonette foam with the 09 Naucratis “Lost Slough Vineyard” Verdelho. The wine is named after the first Greek settlement on the Nile River in Egypt. This wine is unoaked and I tasted tropical fruit, grapefruit, Meyer lemon, banana and minerality. This was a sublime combination with the oysters.
The next pairing was a tuna served with octopus, hearts of palm, arugula and blood orange vinaigrette with the 09 Marcher sur la Lune Reserve “Bokisch Vineyard” Verdelho. Again, the same grape, but what a difference in the body, color, texture and mouth feel. The difference here is partially skin-fermented grapes and destemmed whole berries are used. I tasted caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, nutmeg and spice. The octopus was the winner in the pairing of what was on the plate.
The third pairing was the lamb T-bone and squab breast served with confit creamer potatoes, lamb’s lettuce and spring onion ragu with the 05 Babylon “Tenbrink Vineyard” Petit Syrah. The grapes are harvested in Suisun Valley, which is far enough away to earn the whimsical Babylon name representing the distant East. This was black, dense with dark fruits, big tannins and cocoa. Jennifer then brought out a surprise addition – the 08 Gardens of Babylon “Tenbrink Vineyard” red blend. Lots of full berry and rich fruit flavor. I liked the Petit Syrah best and thought it paired best with the squab.
Our final course was the cheese course and Ali Morgan from Scardello Cheese brought out several fabulous artisanal cheeses. Ally’s passion for cheese cannot be denied and her enthusiasm is infectious. We had the 08 Androkteinos “Hudson Vineyard” Syrah, which was port like with big bacon, black raspberry, black pepper and earthiness. A sublime end to the dinner.
Abe surprised me when we told us that he’d personally never do a dinner exclusively with his wines. He talked about the difficulty of having one powerful wine follow the other and how these are not made to enjoy every night. However, I appreciated how well the wines were paired with the food.
Kudos to Grant, Jennifer and Ali for the time and care that went into making this a special evening. And cheers to Abe and the unconventional.
We wish to thank Melanie Ofenloch, the Dallas Wine Chick, for playing guest today and for her marvelous touch with wine. Look for future collaborations!