Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Night With Abe

A number of weeks back, I was invited to to a wine dinner at the swank and narrow Lower East Side hotspot Stanton Social (sharing plates, scarce reservations). The host was Crush Wine & Spirits, my fave wine shop in Manhattan. The subject was Abe Schoener, the former Greek philosophy professor turned maverick winemaker behind the Scholium Project line of California wines.

Schoener is a wine-philosopher, if such a beast exists, and his background shows in the name he's given to his enterprise (it means "a modest project, undertaken for learning") and his wines, which are called Naucratis, The Prince in His Caves, Scheria and Babylon, among others. This would all be insufferably precious and pretentious—the press release for the event mentioned Jasper Johns and Aristotle—if his wines weren't so good.

Schoener gathers grapes from different small vineyards in Cali for each wine he makes. The nature of the grapes dictates the wine he makes, and he tries not to interfere with the natural fermentation process as much as possible. Additionally, he hardly a slave to the prevailing varietals in California. Among whites, he goes for Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Verdehlo; reds are Syrah and Petite Sirah.

The winemaker himself is an unmistakable character. Burly, with a buzz cut, thick glasses and wearing a loud plaid shirt, he could have been in installation artist with a Chelsea dealer. The din at Stanton Social was almost deafening (why do young people like to shout over dinner?), so Abe took turns sitting at each table discussing the wine and fielding questions. I learned that the winemakers of Friuli, particularly Kante, are an inspiration; this was quite apparent after tasting a few of his heady, mineral whites, in which extended exposure to the lees was marked. He also said his profit margin was thin, since he produced only small amounts of each wine. (This accounts for the high prices. The Verdehlo, at $21, is the cheapest.) He additionally mentioned his plans to start producing wine in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Other things he said:
*Every wine is an experiment
*He first finds the right vineyards, then decides what grape to plane
*He doesn't top off barrels. He feel wine should be exposed to oxygen. Because of this attitude, he often loses wine to spoilage.
*He thinks Sauvignon Blanc is the number one grape in California.
*He makes wine "for 600 people."

We were all handed a glass of the Verdehlo, vinified in stainless steel, and dubbed "Naucratis," when we walked in. It was one of my favorite wines of the evening, with a nice balance of minerality and fruit, a juicy drink, but not too juicy. The wine had just been bottled a few days before.

The Sauv Blanc called "La Severita di Bruto" was metalically fresh, flinty and sharp, with tart notes of lime. Very good. Another Sauv Blanc, "The Prince in His Caves," spent 30 days on the skins and it showed. It was tropical and thick and wildly fragrant. This reminded me most of Friuli's whites. (The name has something to do with an monastic Italian prince who worked a couple small vineyards in solitude in the late 20th century.)

From there, we went on to the reds. While Schoener's red wines are respectable and make for good drinking, I don't feel they measure up to the inventive eccentricity of his whites. This may be because of his choice of Petite Sirah, which I think is rather limited grape in terms of flavor and textural possibilities. I'd like to see what he could do with some of the more obscure northern Italian varietals, like Ruche, Refosco and Lagrein. I also have a suspicion he'd make a great wine with the Pecorino grape.

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