Considering California Sparkling Wine
“We really want to make a California sparkling wine with all that entails,” Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co, and Ultramarine sparkling wine, tells me. All it entails includes the ripe fruit flavors characteristic of California’s sun, a feature that historically has tended to work against quality sparkling wine in the state.
California sparkling wine remains a difficult category. The California conundrum of too much sun and not enough acidity has so far largely kept it from achieving the balance and brightness in the glass wine geeks love. It’s never achieved the respectability Champagne immediately garners, and wine lovers rarely brag about it.
However, in recent years a shift has been happening. Boutique size wineries all over the state have begun popping open small scale sparkling projects. Last year the Pet-Nat craze coming from France began taking over California wineries.
Pet-Nat style sparkling wine seems more do-able for small production wineries. The approach offers the advantage of far less intervention, little equipment, and far less time to get those bubbles in the bottle than methode traditionnelle style wines. You can turn around a pet-nat wine in as little as a year, versus the several years required by the other approach. But most pet-nat bottlings remain incredibly hard to find. One of the tastiest versions to come from California last year, J. Brix 2013 Cobolorum sparkling riesling, for example, only had 17 cases made. It’s hard to start a quality revolution with such small numbers.
At the other side of the category, methode traditionnelle (that is, the same method used to make champagne) examples rely on far more input from the producer. Thanks to the work and expertise required, many of today’s champenoise style sparkling wines found in the state are made by large scale wineries. Such wineries do successfully churn out bottles but most California examples blend grapes from multiple locations producing wines with the state’s clear fruit expression but little character.
In reality, California has had little of its own sparkling tradition. The closest we’ve come was with the work of Paul Masson on the cool slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Masson’s work with California sparkling wine brought international attention to the category. He was able to continue his work through Prohibition selling his wines for sacrament and medicinal purposes, but after Masson’s retirement, his vineyards shifted to still wine production.
The difficulty with sparkling wine rests in its technical elements. Elevating the category truly to the level of fine wine depends upon an expertise grown not just from transferring knowledge but also in hands on experience. Even the apparently approachable style of pet-nat suffers at the same point it gains popularity. While it seems far easier to make, in truth making clean pleasurable versions depends upon yeast health, numbers, and viability that doesn’t consistently come from simply throwing wine in the bottle.
The improvement of any craft depends on a sense of critical mass intersecting with critical brilliance. Critical mass offers the foundation of interest to support development of knowledge and maintain its momentum. Critical brilliance brings together creativity with the backbone of experience to give it traction. For California sparkling wine, the coalescing of all these elements brings the opportunity of elevating the category to a level that truly means fine wine.
Enter Michael Cruse.
Tasting with Michael Cruse
Though it’s only just starting to be released this month, Cruse’s sparkling label, Ultramarine, has already achieved a kind of cult status. That’s saying something as he explains not more than twelve people have even tasted it yet. From those twelve, however, its secured distribution through California, as well as within the tricky New York market.
Cruse’s cult status rests not only in the wine itself, but also his perhaps still hidden influence. Thanks to the underdeveloped history of California sparkling, few in the state could be considered consultants in the category. Those few with the knowledge tend to be secured by larger houses. With Cruse’s experience and custom crush facility, Cruse Wine Co., he’s become the go-to sparkling winemaker for several well-respected clients throughout the state. Over the next several years, sparkling projects Cruse has helped give focus will begin appearing across California.
Finding a Passion for Sparkling
Cruse’s path hasn’t always pointed towards sparkling wine. With an undergraduate degree in Molecular and Cellar Biology, emphasizing Biochemisty, from UC Berkeley, Cruse was certain he’d continue to a PhD. Stepping into research through labs at Berkeley, and UCSF, while also publishing, his path to graduate work seemed certain. Then something changed. He began to recognize others he met doing post-docs in science proved unhappy. Over time, the shift in perspective meant he began wondering if he could apply his love for lab work in another field.
“It took into my mid-20s to realize I could get paid for a real job.” Cruse laughs. Working through a formal education includes its disadvantages. Students rarely or barely earn money during their degree training. Then continuing into academic life, researchers learn to sustain themselves through minimal pay while doing loads of unpaid research under the umbrella of advancing their expertise and education. But for the curious, that same environment supports their passions.
“What I love about academia is that no one is ever telling you that isn’t how you should be spending your time,” Cruse explains. “People are always studying, writing, researching, working on something. I had a lot of kinship with that kind of work.”
When Cruse did make the leap out of academia, the transition wasn’t immediately easy. “Moving into a regular job as a lab oenologist,” Cruse tells me, “I would have night terrors because I didn’t know what to do with my brain.” The continuous problem solving of a research laboratory differed from the more repetitive work in a wine lab but the challenge of the transition eventually led him to his work with sparkling wine.
The mechanics of Cruse’s research work rested in reviving lab techniques established in the 1980s, but forgotten by the end of the last century. “I was in the library,” Cruse says, “looking at transcripts and papers from the 1980s figuring out how they were doing their work so we could apply it.” The library research provided solutions where lab knowledge otherwise failed. Such a lesson eventually became the salve for his night terrors as well.
While transitioning from oenologist, into cellar work, and then to assistant winemaker for red wine wineries, Cruse got curious about sparkling wine. Doing library research on old methods, then applying them to sparkling home wine experiments became his after work project.
“I was in the library looking at books from the 1880s, from before people had these [contemporary winemaking] machines to see how they made sparkling wine.” He explains. In 2010, he would make his first bonded California sparkling wine, the current release Ultramarine.
Natural and Sparkling?
Through his still table wines, and pet-nat Valdiguie for Cruse Wine Co., it looks easy to describe Cruse’s work as happily fitting with the family of natural wines. He avoids additives, doesn’t cold stabilize, and minimizes or avoids sulfur when the wine will remain stable.
His unsulfured Cruse Wine Co. 2014 Pet-nat Valdiguié is made with an interest in affordability put alongside admirable vineyards. Tasting it, the wine proves to be the cleanest example I’ve tasted of a new world pet-nat, all rose blossom aromatics cut with a leafy, herbal freshness that fills the palate through a delicate foam.
Indeed, with Ultramarine too, relying on older texts as he did, also bolstered his more minimalist approach to winemaking. But there he becomes reticent to describe his approach as natural.
“Sparkling wine is a very techniques driven wine,” he explains. He’s referring to making wine through methode traditionnelle. “Whether you agree with a natural wine approach or not, you’re going to use the same technique.” For Ultramarine, Cruse avoids additives, cold stabilization, and innoculation as well.
“But am I going to use a riddling aid? Yes. Will I add dosage? Yes. A dash of sulfur at disgorgement? Yes. Trying to claim sparkling is a natural wine becomes a stretch.” Still, the wine is undoubtedly unique — single vineyard, single vintage with each bottle hand riddled, and disgorged. When I push him he finally responds, “I guess you could say we’re minimalist.”
Finally, I ask him to further explain his earlier comment about California sparkling wine with all it entails.
“For me, I want the wine to be noticeably California. That doesn’t have to be flamboyantly fruity.” He explains. “It is intense, and flavorful, and strong. That is the site.” He says. It’s an answer that exemplifies the quiet humility he somehow couples with certainty.
Inspired by the grower producers of Champagne, Cruse focuses Ultramarine production on fruit only from the Charles Heintz Vineyard. It’s a site he believes offers exceptional farming for sparkling wine.
The lemon curd and pastry elements of the bubbles resemble flavors found in still chardonnays familiar to lovers of the vineyard. But the graceful long finish, and cut mineral edge speak to a fine wine elegance brought by the hands of its producer. And there we discover the California balance of Michael Cruse.
To sign up for the Ultramarine mailing list: http://www.ultramarinewines.com/joinus/
For more on Cruse Wine Co.: http://www.crusewineco.com/
Wednesday‘s column here: “In Defense of Natural Wine.” Post update: Wednesday Nov 12 article will post Thursday Nov 13 due to travel delays.
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