CRUSE WINE CO.
Michael Cruse is one of California's most talented young winemakers. Ultramarine, Michael's first venture, is arguably America's first cult sparkling wine. And in 2013, he launched the Cruse Wine Co., focused on fresh, fruit-driven unapologetically Californian bottlings, together with racy, nuanced traditional method sparkling wines. Three years later, the San Francisco Chronicle named Michael "Winemaker of the Year." Since then, he's been in high demand among both California's Old Guard and newcomers alike, who have sought his guidance in their own winemaking.
Michael Cruse is, at his core, a scientist. He attended U.C. Berkley for biochemistry, but he was bitten by the wine bug while hearing a lecture on wine science by microbiologist and founder of the famed Kalin Cellars, the late Terry Leighton. He promptly left the lab for the winery; ever the tinkerer, he was more drawn to the winemaking side of the process than viticulture. Early in his wine career, during his days at Merryvale in Carneros, the industry veterans around him were quick to notice his intellect and curiosity, but it was his ambition and enterprising vision that set him apart.
Captivated by the Méthode Champenoise in particular, Michael borrowed Jules Weinmann’s “Manuel du Travail des Vins Mousseux,” a textbook published in 1899, from a local library. Over time, many tests, and several tribulations, he taught himself how to make sparkling wine. In 2008, he launched his Champagne-inspired sparkling wine company Ultramarine Wines, an homage to his favorite grower Champagnes: names like Selosse and Prévost. The project was an overnight sensation and remains the kind of unicorn practically spoken of in hushed, reverent whispers industry wide.
The only thing Michael loves more than Champagne, however, is California, where he was born and raised, and this gets to the true distinction between Ultramarine and his second project, Cruse Wine Co. This is a line of wines meant to embody California itself, not to serve as an analogue or response to European stylings as is commonplace in many regions of American viticulture and winemaking. Therein lies the root of the decision to focus not on Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, but varieties well-suited to California’s terroir that can carve out their own identity in the marketplace. For Cruse, this most importantly means Valdiguié, or Napa Gamay as it was called in the mid-20th century, known for producing gulpable, fun wines closest in style to Beaujolais (hence the moniker).
All of the grapes are sourced from single sites, longstanding partnerships with organic growers throughout Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and the Sierra Foothills. Vines range from 20 to 70 years of age throughout all the sites. Trusting his tried-and-true growers to handle the vineyard work allows Michael to focus on the winemaking side: his true calling. Production quantities of each bottling are tiny, totals always denoted on the labels. The approach can be described as natural yet technical at once. Fermentation takes place spontaneously in a variety of vessels, depending on the bottling: stainless steel, wooden vats, barrique and concrete all make appearances. Each variety from each site is fermented separately and then blended to Michael’s specifications. Red bottlings often utilize some whole cluster fermentation, up to 50%. All sparkling wines are produced and handled in-house at his facility in Petaluma: Cruse owns all his own equipment from press to fermentation, riddling to disgorgement. None of the wines are fined or filtered.
As technical as Michael’s approach to wine is, he is careful not to lose sight of winemaking’s soul, keeping at the forefront that “wine can be a medium to transmit place and time.” A winemaker’s winemaker through and through, his contemporaries and the cognoscenti of the California cult wines regard him with a healthy blend of wonder, respect, and perhaps a touch of envy. The wines themselves are both pleasurable and cerebral, beguiling and fluid in expression: the kind of bottles you can sit down and ponder or just as easily frolic and imbibe.