Tuesday, August 3, 2010

NINER WINE ESTATES WITH WINEMAKER AMANDA CRAMER


Amanda Cramer

Amanda Cramer was a math teacher before becoming an extraordinary winemaker.  “One particular group of students drove me to drink,” she says.  That statement may have been a vehicle for hyperbole at the time, but if those mathematical underachievers had anything to do with putting Cramer on her present career path, we owe them our thanks.

I had lunch with Amanda Cramer recently.  Well, I and eleven other wine-writer types did.  She’s the winemaker at Niner Wine Estatesin Paso Robles.  The lunch and tasting - at West Hollywood’s Sunset Marquis - showcased seven of the wines Cramer has made for the Paso producer since signing on with them in 2004.  Praise has been heaped upon her by a variety of award-giving interests.  Just this year she won two gold medals for her wines and grabbed the winemaker of the year award at the 2010 San Francisco International Wine Competition.  There, she was up against over 3,000 other wineries, so those kudos are anything but “gimmes.”

Wine Fever

Cramer was bitten by the wine bug at Cornell University.  “I filled out a semester of math and science studies with an elective class: Introduction to Wine and Spirits,” she explains.  “It was a 15-week class that provided basics on grape growing and winemaking plus lots of tasting labs so we could get hands-on experience with wine regions around the world.”  That was all it took to get her interest, even though she pursued her teaching path and got a job in which the chalk was in her hand, not the soil.  Then, along came those disinterested students, pointing the way to her exit from teaching.

In the wine industry, Cramer has worked and learned at Far Niente Winery, Chimney Rock, and Heidi Barrett’s Paradigm in Napa Valley, D'Arenberg in McLaren Valley in South Australia and Casa Lapostolle in Santa Cruz, Chile.  Of her viticulture knowledge, Cramer modestly says, "I know enough to know what I don't know, and I know who does know, so I can call them if I need to.  I don't emulate anybody," she insists - but her love for Carmenere stems from her days in Chile

When she was given the opportunity to help create a winery from the ground up, it was too much to pass up.  The new facilities which she has at her disposal allow Niner to make wines on-site now, rather than trucking their grapes to a crush facility.  That means they can pick grapes at night, and they have time to double sort - sorting both the clusters and the individual grapes.  “Double sorting gets every last stem out of the grapes," says Cramer.  "I like to press ‘sweet’  - without any stems - so the vegetal notes are minimized and the fruit is the main thing."

The newly-opened Hospitality Center at Niner Wines looks like a stone barn, but inside it contains a cutting edge wine tasting facility complete with a demonstration kitchen to be used by visiting chefs.

Her Philosophy

Cramer believes quality wines begin in the vineyard, but they definitely don't end there.  When tweaking is called for, she's an able and willing tweaker.  "We don’t grow grapes, we grow wine bottles.  My goal is balanced tannins, so it's an approachable wine,” she says, adding that her red wines are “nicely aged and built to last."

“With oak, overall we use 75% French, 15%-20% Hungarian and the rest American.  Hungarian is basically the same as French oak, and I can get Hungarian for sooo much less.  Our Italian varieties get new oak and a little less time in the barrel than, say, Merlot.  Our Merlot spends 16-18 months in oak.  One-third of it is new, one-third is once-used and one-third is twice-used.”

The Vineyards

All of Cramer’s wines are estate wines, with the grapes coming, so far, exclusively from Niner’s Bootjack Ranch Vineyard east of Paso Robles.  That vineyard is dominated by Bordeaux varieties.  “It’s got a Cab focus, but the Carmenere is great,” she says.  The only white grape from Bootjack Ranch is Sauvignon Blanc, so that’s the only white wine on Niner’s menu at present.  “That will change when the grapes in our Heart Hill Vineyard start to come in.  We hope to have a Heart Hill flagship wine, and that will be a blend of Rhone varieties.  That vineyard was named for a stand of oak trees that have grown in the shape of a heart.  It’s west of the Paso AVA, about 12 miles from the ocean.  It has a longer, cooler growing season.  2010 will be our first vintage from Heart Hill.”

One of the big attractions for Cramer is the location itself.  The Paso Robles AVA is one of the gems of California’s Central Coast.  It’s said to be the fastest growing wine region in the Golden State, and now boasts over 200 wineries.  Warm days, cool nights and diverse soils which feature limestone, shale and sandy loam all give Paso Robles’ wines a unique character and present the opportunity for many different varieties to be grown.

The Wines

Here are the wines Amanda Cramer poured at the luncheon, along with my notes on them.   All the wines utilize fruit from Bootjack Ranch Vineyard.

Rosato 2008 - It’s a deep red strawberry color with a beautiful cherry nose.  The wine has a fresh and vibrant character with great acidity.  It’s really delicious and mouth watering.  The juice spends about three days on the skins, so the color is darker than in previous vintages.  "Maybe a little too dark," says Cramer.  I disagree, it’s a lovely, rich color.  The grapes are 75% Sangiovese and 25% Barbera.  With an alcohol content of 14.5%, it’s as dry as a bone.

Sauvignon Blanc 2008 - There is a grassy nose with tons of tropical notes.  A mix of steel and neutral oak in the winemaking process adds a lot of character.  I taste citrus - lime and grapefruit.  It’s 14.1% abv with a bracing acidity - quite refreshing and food-friendly.  This is all Sauvignon Blanc, since it’s the only white grape Niner has made wine from - so far.  Cramer explains, “Heart Hill has Grenache Blanc that will be ready this year.  The Marsanne and Roussanne were just planted in 2010.”

Sangiovese 2007 - The Niner family traveled in italy and fell in love with Italian grapes.  They tried Nebbilo, but Cramer says "it didn't work out."  Their Barbera vines developed viruses and had to be yanked out.  “That hurt,” says Cramer.  “Barbera is a part of our Rosato.  The block was replanted to Barbera, so that’ll be okay.”   The Sangiovese shows spicy cherry, black cherry and licorice on the nose, with cherries and dark berries on the palate.  It’s quite dry and full in the mouth.  It’s a blend of 97% Sangiovese and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon.  The 14.9% alcohol content does not detract from the aromas or the taste.

Merlot 2007 - This Merlot is nice and dry, too, with smoke on the nose and mouth puckering tannins.  It tastes fruity and dry with a graphite edge.  Cramer says, "We weren't sure about the Merlot, but we blended it with cab and it blossomed in the bottle.”  86% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc.  It’s got the lowest alcohol level of all their wines, at 13.8%.

Syrah 2006 - There is a big, blackberry and blueberry nose with hints of chocolate!  The taste is fruity and dry, at 14.5% abv.  There’s a splash (2%) of Petite Sirah in this blend, with big tannins once again.  “We like to start with 100% Syrah and go from there until it’s right,” says Cramer.  “I've got three different lots of Syrah at Bootjack Ranch, so even at 100%, it’s still a blend to me."

Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 - There is some Merlot in this big Cab.  Spices and fruit on the nose with a lovely floral streak lead to blackberry, cassis and some graphite on the palate.
It’s a 14.3% alcohol level.

Fog Catcher 2005 - This big red blend is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot.  The nose shows plenty of dark fruit, with red fruit, minerals, pencil point and smoke on the palate.  It’s dry and dark.  Future vintages of this blend should include as many as six Bordeaux varieties, according to Cramer.  The wine sits at 14.1% abv.