Abe Schoener, 48, defies the standard-issue image of second-career winemaker. His house is not a Napa villa but a rented bungalow on a rural road. The man is not a retired CEO but a former professor of ancient Greek philosophy. And he doesn’t make fruity and safe wine to keep wine critics happy—in fact, his Scholium Project wines are on the edge of vinous sanity. Take, for example, his Web site, where he announces his wines “should make one sense decay, decomposition, transformation.” Not exactly mouthwatering invitations to reach for the corkscrew. That’s OK—he makes so little, he only needs about 600 devotees. And that he has.
Becoming a high-wire winemaker was an odd course for a man previously committed to teaching Plato’s The Republic. Armed with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, Schoener returned to his undergraduate alma mater, St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., for a professorship. This former assistant dean considered himself an academia lifer. Yet there he unwittingly laid the groundwork for his defection; he tended his organic garden, fell for plant physiology and fine-tuned his wine palate with colleagues. “Twice a month we’d taste a bunch of wines, at first studiously and then festively,” he says.
In 1998, Schoener began to crave breathing room. “The professor is supposed to be the best student in the class, and after nine years I was coasting,” he says. He and his wife headed to San Francisco for his sabbatical. “I had no idea what I was going to do, perhaps study Machiavelli. But it was my wife who encouraged my wine fanaticism and said, ‘Look to Napa.’ ”
But his new passion deepened a rift in his marriage, and he and his wife split: “It was amicable but also like an earthquake that reduced my life to rubble.” He took an internship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of the benchmark cabernet makers and supplemented experiential learning with extension classes in viticulture.