It’s a Monday night at one of the city’s newest wine bars and more than 20 locals have gathered around a bar with a renegade California winemaker to discuss spoilage and microbes in natural wines. If you think we’re in Brooklyn or Berkeley or even an international city like Copenhagen, Paris or London, you’d be wrong.
We’re here in Washington, D.C., the city not less than a decade ago where those selling wine were more intent on engaging clients like lobbyists or politicians who would seek out the most expensive Napa Cabernets or Bordeauxs as a means to impress.
But in the past few years, as D.C.’s food and dining scene grew (and as the lobbyists’ rules and bank accounts tightened), it makes sense that more diverse wine options would soon follow. A few key sommeliers started changing up their lists and introducing new regions and orange wine to the mix. Then in the past year, the momentum multiplied.
So on a Monday night, Dio Wine Bar – which is also D.C.’s only wine bar focused solely on natural wines – became home for Abe Schoener’s D.C. debut. His wines have popped up in the city here and there, and he’s visited D.C. before (he’s a former professor from St. John’s College in Maryland), but this was his first sales trip to actively promote his Scholium Project wines.
Rather than just tasting the three wines he brought, this was a nerdy discussion in the context of eight additional wines. (The line-up included wines by Spain’s Celler Jordi Ilorens, Beaujolais’ Julian Sunier, Loire’s Clisson from Jérémie Huchet & Jérémie Mourat and Champagne’s Charles DuFour.)
This was a smart move. I’ve seen other wineries – like RdV Vineyards in Virginia – provide tastings against similar wines from other regions. Not only does it give the tasters something to compare, but it’s a good teaching method and lends to a more memorable experience.
Several years ago the only people who may have attended something like this in D.C. were industry. Instead the sold-out event was comprised of enthusiasts, including those just learning about natural wines, and a few super-geeky types, like me.
While it’s certainly a sign of D.C.’s wine transformation, some of the participants noted it’s still difficult to find many of these wines throughout the city. Stacey Khoury-Diaz, Dio’s owner, suggested if consumers start asking for more of these wines, local shops and restaurants will begin to respond.
Capitalizing on the growing geekdom that’s here, this tasting was all about spoilage (and not necessarily in the negative sense of the word). Abe wanted to discuss the natural yeasty microbes which fight each other to eat the sugars and turn grape juice into wine during the fermenting process. He says that when the right microbes win, delicious wine is the result.
So when he was asked several times for his definition of natural wine, the closest he came to answering it was to suggest that the discourse in natural wine should not be focused on the means of production (everything from how to farm the vineyard, to more industrialized ways of winemaking), but rather on the chemistry of winemaking. For example, he’s placed his grapes under high pressure and used electromagnetic forces to create cross-flow filtrations in his winemaking process.
The more common answer from natural winemakers is usually about their yearn to translate the terroir (sense of place) into the bottle, their trials in avoiding filtering wine (not necessarily through scientific methods) and an argument over whether or not to use added sulfur.
But “scholium,” means “commentary,” and that’s what Abe was seeking to do when he first created the Scholium Project in 2006 after learning about winemaking during an internship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and later from famed Napa winemaker John Konsgaard.
He says his wines can even been seen as his own commentary on some of the wines he enjoys, such as Cru Beaujolais and Edmond Vatan Sancerre. His wines are not supposed to be what you expect from California, yet they showcase some of the beautiful fruit coming from key vineyards and microclimates.
The three Scholium Project wines we tried included:
The 1MN Bechtold Ranch, a red wine made from 140-year-old Cinsault vines in Lodi, Calif. This was a fresh and vibrant wine exhibiting beautiful and tamed fruit. A light-bodied wine that indeed reminds you of something from Beaujolais.
And two Sauvignon Blancs – La Severita Di Bruto and the Prince In His Caves – which both come from Farina Vineyards on the east side of the Sonoma Mountain. The vineyard sees very little sun – only around noon – so the resulting wines are more in line with what you might expect from cooler climates.
The first had a very distinct smell of rotting produce – much like the spoilage Abe brought us here to discuss, but it eventually blew off and the palate revealed amazing acidity underneath a crisp minerality. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Vatan, you’ll understand and adore this wine.
The second wine, which spent more time on its skins during winemaking was a lusher wine with green vegetal flavors like asparagus and artichokes.
All three maintained significant structure and were well balanced – values Abe strives for in everything he makes and are not necessarily a hallmark of many natural wines.
While some like to define natural winemaking as a throw-back to past methods, Abe actually sees this kind of winemaking as post-modern and a way of looking to the future. The traditional methods still used sulfur or as industrialization came along, took advantage of what was offered. But today’s natural winemaking, he says, points away from the traditional and away from what’s expected.
It’s those expectations that Abe’s wines have successfully avoided. And thats what makes his wines absolutely fascinating to taste, and even more enjoyable to drink.