The LA River Wine Co was founded by Abe Schoener in 2019, but the seed had been planted many years previously. Once a philosophy professor at St John’s College, he took a sabbatical in 1998, turning his hand to grape growing. He was hooked. While creating wines under his label the Scholium Project, he developed not only a fondness, but a deep dedication to the somewhat underdog vines of California, helping to highlight the lesser-known but magical vineyards that exist in the state, such as the deep-rooted ancient vines of Lodi.
Until recently, however, his forays had been amongst the vineyards of the north. But when he learnt about the history of southern California wine, something in Abe stirred — so much so, that he uprooted his life in Napa to move to Los Angeles — to explore further. He picked up the phone one day to Rajat Parr, sommelier-turned-winemaker and farmer, as he had a visceral instinct this project would intrigue him too. Together, they set out to see what might be possible.
What they discovered was almost unthinkable: a treasure trove of century-old and semi-forgotten grapevines growing just 30 minutes outside of the city.
20 years after Abe’s first cuvée was bottled, a new chapter of his life in wine emerged.
Our cofounder Christina travelled to one of the vineyards the LA River Wine Co works with, 'Lone Wolf,' to prune in 2022. She made this video while there:
People: Abe Schoener with Rajat Parr and a whole team of wine-loving students and friends from around the world
Place: The winery is in Los Angeles, and the main vineyards are in the southern Californian wine regions of Cucamonga and Temecula
Varieties: Zinfandel, Grenache, Salvador, Alicante Bouschet, País, Rose of Peru and Palomino
Farming: Organic (semi-wild in some cases)
Hectares: Purchased fruit from several vineyards in Cucamonga, and a one-acre parcel of vines in Temecula is tended to
Did You Know? Where to begin? Around a century ago, Cucamonga was the largest grape growing region in the whole of North America. Fast forward 100 years, and the circa 18,000 hectares of vineyards have dwindled to only a few hundred; a figure that is decreasing sometimes on a monthly basis.
This rapid decline of vineyards in southern California is testament to their location; an acre of land here can easily fetch several million dollars on the market, hence much of the land home to the original vineyards are now home to tarmac, motels, offices and depots of varying kinds. Thus, if you say the word Cucamonga in wine circles these days, it’s unlikely you’ll receive many nods of understanding, but rather several puzzled looks.
However, amongst the giant corporations, the concrete and the motorways, there is also hope and determination. Some of the old original vineyards remain, their determined roots buried tens of feet into the deep sand of the region. It was with this realisation that Abe took a duty upon himself to try to prevent their otherwise untimely fate: he would do everything in his power to bring their existence — and their magic — to light. He says,
“The idea is to work with the small remaining traces of these vineyards, and to rediscover the nature of wines that can be made in Southern California from vineyards that are so close to a city; so close to the ocean; so close to the desert — at the intersection of all of these elements.”
It isn’t just the vineyards he had in his mind, it is also the very notion of teaching winemaking; but an atavistic kind of teaching; the one that existed before modern university winemaking degrees and diplomas.
If you meet Abe and have the chance to taste with him (NB: he hosts many tastings in the US and indeed around the world – you can sign up to his mailing list here to find out more), you immediately recognise that this is not your usual winemaker. Using his own method, you often find yourself with more questions than answers — but larger questions which make you approach wine from entirely different angles. That is the point: his deep-rooted passion and unreserved love for that magical juice to wine transformation shines through. He opens another dimension of wine education; one that isn’t necessarily about sulfites, nor vessel type (although he may well refer to these aspects metaphysically; and sometimes scientifically too, albeit perhaps less often).
Since establishing the winery in Los Angeles in 2019, he has invited countless people to not only taste with him, but also to come and work in the vineyards, whether for pruning, shoot thinning or harvesting. In a sense, it is like a school — but one purely for discovery, one without exams. He says,
“The people who join us work in all walks of life. Some have careers in winemaking, some are viticulture students, others are horticulturalists and landscape architects. Then, there are many who work in fields that aren’t related at all to farming or winemaking.”
Indeed — amongst others who have joined the expeditions have been creators of craft furniture, artists and psychiatrists, but to name a few. There is, however, one thing which unites them all: