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California’s new garage sparkling – and the winemaker behind it

William Kelley meets a man making waves in California by producing sparkling wine in a garage off Highway 101.

Many California wine revolutions have begun in inauspicious surroundings.

Working from a garage in Forestville, Burt Williams and Ed Selyem expanded the parameters of the possible with Russian River Valley Pinot Noir in the 1980s. Around the same time, in a warehouse in Marin County, Terry and Frances Leighton of Kalin Cellars were pioneering the production of unfiltered, sur lie-aged white wines.

So it should come as no surprise that ground zero for a new kind of California sparkling wine is an industrial park in Peteluma, just off busy Highway 101.

It’s here that Michael Cruse, the movement’s doyen, has established his winery and custom-crush facility: opposite a Nissan dealership and around the corner from a brewery. And it’s here that he’s producing small quantities of sparkling wines using labour-intensive artisanal methods seldom seen here in California, such as disgorging and riddling by hand.

As other producers follow Cruse’s lead or contract for his services, the state’s sparkling wine scene is diversifying.

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Brief history of California sparkling

California bubbles, of course, are hardly new. More than ten million cases are sold each year, and the state’s history with sparkling wine begins around the turn of the twentieth century, when Burgundian émigré Paul Masson won the soubriquet ‘California’s Champagne King’ with his acclaimed méthode Champenoise bottlings.

By the 1960s, the sparkling wine scene we recognize today had began to take shape. First, in 1965, came Jack and Jamie Davies’ Napa Valley sparkling house, Schramsberg. It was with their 1969 Blanc de Blancs that President Nixon and Chou Enlai toasted the normalisation of relations between the USA and China.

Soon the French were getting in on the action: in 1973, Moët et Chandon’s Domaine Chandon opened its doors in Yountville, followed later that decade by Mumm Napa. And by the 1980s, the Champenois were looking beyond the confines of the Napa valley: 1982 marked the debut of Louis Roederer’s pioneering Roederer Estate in Anderson valley; then, five years later, Taittinger established their Domaine Carneros in breezy Carneros. So California certainly has its justly acclaimed grandes marques, both home-grown and Francophone.

Influence of grower Champagne

What’s going on in Cruse’s no-frills Petaluma facility, by contrast, has much more in common – in terms of its size – with the grower Champagne movement, and the parallels are far from coincidental. Cruse is a connoisseur of so-called farmer fizz.

Visiting the region, he tells me, ‘feels like going to a spa’, and it was his first encounters with grower Champagnes in the early years of the last decade that ignited his interest in sparkling wine.

Back then, Cruse was a scientist, not a winemaker. After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2002 with a degree in Molecular and Cell Biology (where he received his induction into wine microbiology from none other than Professor Terry Leighton), he worked in laboratories first in Berkeley, then at UC San Francisco.

‘We’re determined to do things seriously’

It wasn’t until the 2006 harvest that he took a job in the wine industry. Two years later, he and two partners set up Ultramarine, their own bonded winery, specialising in sparkling wine.

‘I’ve always been fascinated by process’, Cruse reflects when I ask him why he chose to pursue such a technically-challenging project.

‘The méthode Champenoise is a little bit of a magic trick in a way; it’s certainly a very method-intense way of making wine.’

And from the outset, no obstacle was too daunting. Cruse and his partners painstakingly purchased—or built—the tools of the trade: riddling boards, equipment for disgorging, dosing and topping up, a special press for white grapes.

‘We were determined to do things seriously,’ he explains. As well as being properly equipped, for Cruse being serious also means single-vineyard, single-vintage bottlings, barrel fermented with ambient yeasts and aged sur lattes, before disgorgement with minimal dosage. Riddling and almost everything else is done by hand.

So far, Ultramarine has lavished all its attentions on the Charles Heintz Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast, producing both a Blanc de Blancs and a Rosé from Pinot Noir.

But it’s still early days. ‘With our first two releases were just trying to figure things out, so our first commercial release came with the 2010 vintage’, Cruse explains.

And because the méthode Champenoise can’t be hurried, that debut 2010 vintage only appeared on the market two years ago. With the 2012 vintage release, a Blanc de Noirs will join the portfolio.

Expect more new bottlings

The Cruse Wine Company also offers custom crush services, so other wineries can draw on Cruse’s expertise—and battery of equipment—to produce sparkling wines, both méthode Champenoise and simpler pét-nat, under their own labels.

His winery is currently at capacity, with clients and collaborators from all over California (though non-disclosure agreements preclude naming them). What’s more, he’s not alone: Morgan Twain Peterson and Chris Cottrell’s Under the Wire is one of several new wineries producing single-vineyard, single-vintage California sparkling wines.

Expect more new bottlings—including Wenzlau Vineyard’s eagerly-anticipated Sta. Rita Hills sparkler—to debut in the next year or two.

Of course, in a sense all this represents a mere drop in the ocean, accounting for only a tiny fraction of the ten million cases of Californian sparkling wine that are sold each year.

Nor is Cruse by any means the first in the state to produce high-quality bubbles.

But by pioneering the artisanal methods and terroir-driven philosophy of the grower Champagne movement here in North America, it’s fair to say he’s enjoying an influence that’s being felt far beyond his modest facility in Petaluma.

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