Earlier this week, Niner winemaker Amanda Cramer was among those whom we chatted with about the current state of the 2010 California grape harvest. For better or worse. In an industry currently swimming in public relations laced glasses of keep quite (never say it might be a bad vintage), ours was a refreshingly frank interview. That Cramer was a former Northeast prep school kid (St. Paul's) who is now doing hard labor time is somehow even more sweetly intoxicating.
Cramer landed the lead position at Niner after working her way though several Napa wineries as an assistant winemaker (her husband is the one who told her to stop over-analyzing and just take that dream job, damn it). Turn the page for our interview with Cramer, from her days working under Heidi Barrett to how she really landed that gig at Niner (via her book club friends). Please god, don't tell Oprah.
Squid Ink: You started out as a math teacher?
Amanda Cramer: Yes. It was a lot harder than I thought. It was the fourth year I'd been a teacher that I decided it was time for a change. Those first years, I'd had AP students [calculus] who really wanted to be there, to learn. That last year I had 50% freshman who didn't care about math. That was when I told my students they drove me to drink (laughs).
SI: So you went to UC Davis for a graduate degree in oenology.
AC: Actually, I started out in their undergrad program. My math degree wasn't all that relevant to winemaking. But I always loved science, which is what winemaking is really about. Then I wound up in the graduate program. I like to say I was "lured" by the idea of a master's degree.
SI: Aren't we all.
AC: Well, with me, for goodness sake, I was there for the entire three years and didn't even finish my thesis. I even wrote most of it. I call it my MS/EBT degree, Everything But the Thesis.
SI: Instead you wound up at a few different wineries, eventually at Paradigm under Heidi Barrett.
AC: Yes, it was a great experience. But there is always that Heidi Barrett ceiling. You know you are never going higher than her.
SI: You're never truly going to be making your own wine with Barrett in the house.
AC: Right. And then this Niner thing, to be perfectly honest, just sort of came up from a book club I was in.
SI: A book club?
AC: I know it sounds crazy, but a woman in my 3-person book club, a good one, not one of those silly ones, by the way, was a general manager at a winery and was friends with someone at Niner. I met the owner, we clicked, that was that. My husband and I loved Napa, he's a winemaker too and I wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. But he told me I'd be crazy not to take the job.
SI: But the winery didn't exist yet?
AC: No. It was one of those amazing opportunities. My little fantasy land. I helped decide which vines to plant, what kind of winery did we want to build, how the wine itself should be made. I wanted everything indoors, under-the-roof, even crush.
SI: That's pretty unusual.
AC: Yes. You know, I'd worked as an employee, as a fruit picker, winemaker, everything at wineries. I knew the good and bad. Driving a forklift in the rain is so dangerous. I didn't want anyone who worked for me to do something I'd felt uncomfortable with, and the owner [of Niner] was fine with it.
SI: This year is your first for 100% on-site winemaking?
AC: Yes, I started at the winery in 2004, but we didn't have a facility yet. I had to do custom crush. Which, by the way, they hated me at the custom crush facility. I don't think they'd ever had a winemaker show up all the time.
SI: Tell us about your winemaking style.
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AC: Well, right now the overall trend is still "let it hang" [keep the grapes on the vine as long as possible]. Which in my opinion, is very Robert Parker driven. I'm not a fan. I think wines picked ripe, but not too ripe, are more accessible. I don't want to add 10% water to the wine because the grapes were over-ripe.
SI: Something you can enjoy with food.
Yes, I like to say my wines are not stick-a-fork-in-it-and-call-it-diner wines. I want them to go well with dinner, not be dinner. That's what wine is. Or should be.
Niner Wine Estates, 2400 Highway 46 West, Paso Robles. Tasting room open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.