Abe Schoener of The Scholium Project has been criss-crossing the country this year delivering what he calls a ‘Metaphysical Lecture Series.’ The classics professor turned winemaker is visiting nine cities, and the $100 tickets have sold out well in advance.
The talks cover themes such as “Wine and Loss,” “Eating Animals” and “The Moral Nature of Winemaking.” Originally, the Chicago title was “Permanence and Rot,” but Schoener changed the topic to “Monumental Architecture: Cities and Wine.”
“I realized I was going down a dead end path for Chicago,” Schoener explains in a teacher’s version of the-dog-ate-my-homework. “I’ve been finishing this lecture a la minute.”
Prior to arrival, Chicago lecture goers had received a curiously strict email:
Please arrive at [the location] promptly at 7 pm– no earlier and no later– and you will be shown to our special room, and seated, and given a glass of wine. We will close the doors at 7:05 pm, and after that time, there will be no one to let you in. There will be no snacks and no spit cups. Prepare accordingly.
Once inside exactly at 7, we were greeted by an effusive Mr. Schoener wearing a striped blue shirt and a billowy black Alexander McQeen skull print scarf.
“I’m SO excited,” an alert Schoener says, shaking hands and looking everyone in the eye by turn. “I’m SO glad to be here. I’m SO glad you’re drinking and thinking.”
It is clear that Schoener’s enthusiasm alone will carry the lecture hour forward.
As guests settle in and chuckle over the email’s tone, Schoener asks us if we know the renowned French winemaker Eric Texier. “He was locked out of one of my lectures,” Schoener confesses. “It’s embarrassing, but it happened.”
Schoener then explains that we are going to listen to him read his lecture from his Macbook Pro while sampling a wine approximately every ten minutes. We will imbibe as he asks specific metaphysical questions.
The woman seated next to me, dressed all in black, sports a tattoo of a skull that says ‘Scholium’ under it on her left shoulder.
We begin with a glorious Cedric Bouchard champagne. Intense and refreshing waves of apple and brioche enter our mouths as Schoener reads: “I’ve served a wine that is particularly metaphysical. It gives us pleasure and makes us think. It is so pleasurable, in fact, that it makes us think of pleasure, about pleasure, itself.”
Schoener then launches into a discussion of 14th Century North African historiographer Ibn Khaldun and his contrasting accounts of nomadic and sedentary life. The lecture also meanders through a discussion of Genesis and Noah.
Noah becomes the hero of the story as the first landowner, first vineyardist and the first purveyor of pleasure. Somehow, discussion moves to the pig as the first sedentary animal– the sedentary animal par excellence.
Schoener then attempts to tie various strands of Khaldun’s thinking and Medieval discussions of food in Genesis to a bold thesis: the origin of wine is not the country, but the city.
“The city,” Schoener intones, “is the outgrowth of the clos– which is the anticipatory dream of the city.” But the connection is not made explicit. It’s a breathtaking conclusion without a supporting argument.
Like good dinner conversation, perhaps the point is stimulation and not actual solutions. By that measure, Schoener’s lecture is a great success.
During the talk we’ve had five additional wines, including an ‘82 Salomon Undhof Reisling and an ‘85 Emilio Pepe Montepulciano.
Next, the difference between cities and country is framed between the salumi and wine of cities vs. raw greens and beef of the nomads. Schoener also distinguishes New Orleans as a city of rot from Chicago as a city of permanence.
If this all sounds all rather confusing, it’s because it is. A lengthy and lively question and answer session following the talk digresses further into a discussion of kefir.
Connections between the particular wines we have sampled and the topics at hand are not clear, the lines of Schoener’s various arguments blurry.
However, the very form of the event–a lecture with wines that asks more questions than it answers–appears to satisfy the audience deeply. Everyone is engaged.
If Abe Schoener’s Metaphysical Lecture Series offers a space in which fundamental questions can be asked over a few pours of good wine, that seems more than enough reason to embrace it.