Teacher makes leap from classroom to vineyard

In the mid-1990s, young women at the National Cathedral School here in our nation’s capital had no way of knowing their patient and personable honors math teacher, known casually to them as Cramer, would later become one of the most talented winemakers in the country.

Nor did Amanda Cramer, but by 1997, the call of the grape grew too powerful to ignore. She put down her protractor and headed West to pursue an entirely new career, the seeds of which were sown when she was a senior at Cornell University just a few years prior.

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The School of Hotel Administration offered an “Introduction to Wine and Spirits” class, a 15-week course consisting of lectures and tastings. Students under the age of 21 had special dispensation from the state to participate. Needless to say, it was one of the more popular classes on campus.

“Although I did have a passing interest in wine, I was more attracted to the fact that it was a 400-level course with no prerequisite,” Cramer admits, revealing her scientific mindset. “But it was an amazing experience learning about viticulture, profiles of the different wine regions of the world, food and wine pairings, while being able to actually taste all of those things,” she recalls with fondness.

The school-year calendar at Cathedral allowed Cramer to escape the oppressive city heat and spend summers in her native New England. She explored what it would take to make the giant leap from the classroom to the vineyard and begin a whole new career. Teacher became student again as she took necessary science classes at the University of New Hampshire.

Eventually Cramer gained enrollment at University of California-Davis, where she studied enology and viticulture. While still a student, she gained hands-on experience as a harvest cellar intern at the renowned Far Niente Winery in Oakville, Calif. After Davis, she spent the next three years working at wineries in three of the world’s most exciting growing regions: Napa Valley, Calif.; McLaren Vale, South Australia; and Colchagua Valley, Chile.

Inspired by the steadily-increasing quality of the region’s wines, in 2004 Cramer moved to Paso Robles, Calif., to become a winemaker at the newly formed Niner Wine Estates. “Given the opportunity to help build a winery from the ground up in this attractive region that is on the rise, I simply couldn’t pass it up,” she explains. 

“I most enjoy, and produce, table wine, not wines that put you under the table,” she quips. She’s referring to the recent popularity of massive, expressive wines with high alcohol content. “Big can be good and exciting, but just not for dinner,” she adds.

Cramer crafts wines that are more fruit-forward with enough acidity to pair well with food. I like her 2011 Sauvignon Blanc - Bootjack Ranch, Paso Robles ($19). She describes it as having “Yummy fruit — the grapefruit and guava I am always looking for from the grape. And there is a delicate, pretty hay quality — not green hay, a bit richer, prettier expression.”

To date, it has won Silver Medals at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and 2013 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s Wine Competition.

Cramer oversees all production of a diverse stable of wines, including Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese Rosato, Barbera, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah; red blends include a Sangiovese-based blend called Super Paso, a blend called Twisted Spur and a barrel-select blend of traditional Bordeaux varieties called Fog Catcher.

Niner wines are available in shops in D.C. and Northern Virginia. When you find them, buy them. Advanced calculus is not required to determine they are a worthwhile investment.

Derek M. LaVallee, partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners and certified wine buff, can be reached directly at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.