Both Sides of the Vine: Tom Cramer ’83, Winery Owner

Tech guru by day, vintner by night. That’s Tom Cramer’s world these days. As a vice president at Tekvisions Inc., Cramer, Class of ’83, oversees ever-changing touch-screen technology used by schools and gaming facilities. But he’s had a passion for wines since watching his father sample wines at the dinner table.

Tom Cramer ’83 at Altisima Winery, which he co-owns and opened in fall 2021.

“We moved the TekVisions office to Phoenix in 1994, but then I realized Phoenix is just way too ahead in experiencing global warming and moved the office and family to Temecula [California] wine country in 2000,” he says.

“After my kids [Abby and Jake] graduated and I was single, I decided it was time for change. I moved to Laguna Beach while still working my core business. I wanted to follow a passion that had been with me since I was young—my father always had wine at the table and made it an event. His love of wine must be genetic.”

When he was approached by one of his tennis-playing friends who had purchased land to start a winery, Cramer helped provide capital to get the fledgling winery, Altisima, underway. The winery’s name is a nod to the soaring views from the plateau on which the winery sits.

An array of wines in Altisima's tasting room.

“This dream was eventually shared by eight partners. We shared the start-up cost as ‘passive’ investors while the one ‘expert’ got the winery up and running,” Cramer says. “Lo and behold, he was no expert, and within two years, he was gone, and the eight partners had a project that was 50 percent done and in need of money. We had to learn quickly.”

Fortunately, Cramer says the eight partners ran successful businesses in construction, banking, technology, manufacturing, and hospitality, and they drew on their individual expertise to finish the project. The eight families are represented in the winery’s logo, a red hawk wearing a crown with eight spikes.

“We had the pieces, and where we lacked, we hired experts, including a top-notch winemaker,” he says. “Fast forward two years later, through COVID, and only a semi-ridiculous amount over budget, we opened the doors to Altisima in November 2021 with four years of wine in inventory. As of July 2022, we have over 2,400 wine club members, a thriving restaurant, and are profitable. We have live music three days a week, and our restaurant holds up to 180 people.”

The tasting room at Altisma Winery.

The winery, located in Temecula County, sits in one of California’s oldest winemaking regions.

“Once we opened up, we went gangbusters,” Cramer says. “It’s absolutely beautiful. We have weddings in the olive grove, people eat in the restaurant. We have 14 wines, and are known for our Spanish and Italian varietals, from Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Grigio, Mourvèdre-Grenache, and two types of Champagnes done in the French method.”

Cramer took courses to learn everything there is to know about running a winery and is now a Level 2 WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) wine expert.

“We are knowledgeable in wines, wine production, wine grapes, wine regions,” he said. “We are not sommeliers who are masters of wine. WSETs are usually geared toward industry.

“Besides drinking wine, I’ve enjoyed the whole process, from planting, harvest, producing, and of course, winemaking. From region to weather to different varietals and to the blending of wines, I’ve always enjoyed both the science and the art of winemaking,” Cramer says. “Wine is the most complicated liquid in the world. From when do you pick the grapes to when do you open the bottle, it’s an art as much as a science.”

Cramer with his daughter, Abby, at a balloon and wine festival.

The wines, which are only available at the winery or through its subscription club, sell in the $30 to $50 range and provide a variety of wine experiences, from sweet Muscat to spicy Sangiovese.

Coming up next: a 44-room hotel at the winery in 2025, he says. “When I moved to Temecula, it had 11 wineries in 2000. It now has over 60 wineries and is a destination area,” Cramer says. “It’s a good thing to do. It’s fun to have a passion project that makes people happy.”