How exclusive is Ultramarine, the single-vineyard sparkling wine made by winemaker Michael Cruse? Well, the wine was first released in 2014, and up until a few months ago, I still hadn’t tasted a bottle.
I will admit, I wasn’t exactly bending over backward to taste it, and I’m sure if I had called up Cruse and asked him to send me a sample, he would have done so. But the fact of the matter remains that even hanging out with fellow wine geeks and wine writers, even attending the various industry events I do where many wines flow freely, until a couple of months ago I still hadn’t encountered a bottle in the wild, so to speak.
I had seen Ultramarine on wine lists at a few fancy restaurants for several hundred dollars, of course, but I was not moved to throw down the cash for a bottle (a polite way of saying it’s out of my price range).
But then a couple of months ago Cruse sent me an e-mail asking if I’d be interested in attending a small gathering that would feature the first-ever retrospective of his Ultramarine bottlings from Heintz Vineyard, and well, I got to taste some.
An Inauspicious Start
The project that would eventually become known as Ultramarine began in 2008 when Cruse and “a couple of buddies” decided they wanted to do something on their own that wasn’t yet another expensive coastal Pinot Noir.
“We said, ‘Why not sparkling wine?’ but none of us knew anything about it,” laughs Cruse. “The first two vintages were literally made in my backyard. We used a bit of topping wine, and some excess grapes, and we got bubbles into them, but they definitely weren’t good.”
There was something in the process though, that grabbed Cruse, possibly the technical complexity of it all coupled with the added bonus of microbiological science. Undeterred by the first two years of failure, Cruse got serious about his grape sourcing and approached Charlie Heintz, proprietor of the legendary Heintz Vineyard outside of Occidental on the Sonoma Coast.
“I said ‘I want to make sparkling wines and I want to buy some of your fruit to do it,'” recalls Cruse. “Charlie asked ‘Who are you, and where are you from, and what do you know?'”
“I told him I knew nothing, and he took a chance,” says Cruse. “That’s really the start of it, honestly.”
Out of the Lab, Into the Cellar
Cruse, 43, grew up first in San Francisco, and then later in the town of Petaluma in Sonoma County. He attended UC Berkeley, where he studied Molecular Biology, and first encountered the idea of wine as an outlet for his love of science during a lecture by the late Terry Leighton, the microbiologist winemaker behind Kalin Cellars.
Cruse must have filed that notion away in his brain. After spending a couple of years post-graduation working in research laboratories, Cruse began to have a sense that academia was not going to make him happy.
But maybe wine would. Cruse landed a job working in the enology lab at Sutter Home, thinking that he’d go back to school and get a masters in Enology and Viticulture at UC Davis (he applied and got in), but enjoyed hanging out in the cellar so much that he never bothered to get the degree.
Instead, Cruse got a job in the cellar at Merryvale’s Starmont winery and worked his way up to associate winemaker before leaving to open a custom crush facility in Petaluma and begin his backyard experimentations with sparkling wine.
Third Time’s the Charm
Armed with two failed vintages, a lot of reading under his belt, the fruit and (somewhat shocking) faith of storied grower Charlie Heintz, Cruse made a couple hundred cases of single-vineyard Chardonnay and Rose in 2010, settled them into his cellar, and waited.
Then he did it again ( in 2011, 2012, and 2013, all before selling a single bottle of wine.
When Cruse finally did offer to sell some of his first vintage in 2014, word of mouth had already ensured a waiting list of customers, despite almost no one having ever tasted it. Cruse quickly sold most of the wine to his mailing list with a few bottles reserved for restaurants and some boutique distributors.
Almost overnight, Ultramarine became the most sought-after sparkling wine in California, and the first California sparkling wine popular enough to be both difficult to purchase and able to be sold at speculative prices.
Ultramarine is now sold almost exclusively direct-to-consumer through Cruse’s mailing list and continues to be resold at higher multiples on the secondary market.
But that’s not the most important distinguishing characteristic of Ultramarine.
A Different Model
Until Ultramarine came along, all modern California sparkling wines were made in the mold of the great Champagne houses in France. What does that mean? Simply that the wines are crafted (meticulously made and blended) with a house style as their north star rather than with an eye to a specific site.
Like the great Champagne houses, most successful California sparkling wine producers source grapes from multiple growers and multiple vineyards, producing wines that have an admirable consistency of character, even when they aim to be single-vintage expressions.
Cruse took an entirely different approach to sparkling wine, modeled after the tiny grower-producers of Champagne, the most cutting-edge of whom take a much more Burgundian approach to sparkling wine. Instead of blending to achieve a house style, these producers are laser-focused on the expression of place and work deliberately (usually by hand, in tiny quantities) to remove anything that might get in the way of this communication.
Ultramarine was therefore conceived to be an expression of a single individual vineyard site, in a single vintage, often expressed through a single grape (Pinot Noir, or Chardonnay). And while sparkling winemaking ends up being a lot more technical than for still wines, Cruse has opted to keep it as manual, and low-intervention as possible, fermenting the base wine with ambient yeasts and opting to riddle and disgorge by hand.
Cruse’s two deliberately chosen interventions (quite common in even the most artisan sparkling wine) involve the liberal use of sulfur to block malolactic fermentation and a standard commercial sparkling wine yeast for the secondary fermentation in the bottle.
“It’s a dream of mine one day to have my own tirage yeast strain that we’ve collected and cultured ourselves,” says Cruse, “but I don’t know why.”
Each barrel is going to be its own thing the whole way through. That’s the secret recipe I guess.Michael Cruse
Cruse once tried culturing his own yeasts for use in pét-nat winemaking with disastrous results.
“I made a huge mess,” says Cruse. “There was foam everywhere, even on the ceiling, with Petri dishes overflowing everywhere, and our assistant winemaker came in and I felt like a kid who had been caught watching a TV show that he shouldn’t be. Charlie took one look, and then backed slowly out of the room.”
Until there is a proprietary Ultramarine tirage yeast, however, Cruse believes the thing that truly distinguishes Ultramarine is the pressing regimen.
“I think I’m the only one in California, but we press everything directly to barrel, never to tank,” says Cruse. “Effectively this means that every barrel is its own little press cut, rather than making cuts based on cuvée or taille.”
Cruse is referencing the standard, regulated practice in Champagne of keeping track of the juice from every batch of grapes that goes into the press. After loading the whole grape bunches into the press, the grapes are squashed three times to yield a specific amount of juice. The juice derived from these three pressings is known as the cuvée, and is usually collected together in a single tank (even if the wine will eventually be barrel fermented). The same batch of grapes is then pressed again up to three more times yielding another smaller batch of juice known as the taille, which by regulation must be collected in a separate tank and is often used judiciously as a blending component later.
Cruse doesn’t utilize the typical vertical basket press found in Champagne, instead preferring a modern pneumatic press.
“We press really specifically, in a way that is hard to explain,” says Cruse, “But essentially we make the pneumatic press work like those old Coquard presses, mimicking the pressure to yield the same kind and quantity of juice you’d get out of the cuvée.”
But instead of one big batch of wine, each pressing (which yields roughly 122 gallons of juice) is split into about two barrels of mostly used (25% new) French oak.
“Each barrel is going to be its own thing the whole way through [fermentation],” says Cruse, “That’s the secret recipe I guess.”
In the spring, Cruse tastes through these individual barrels of still wine and then blends them together to make the base wine that goes into bottle for secondary fermentation. The wines stay on their lees in the bottle for 40 to 48 months before being disgorged and topped up with dosage, which ranges from 2 grams per liter of sugar to about 6 grams per liter depending on the bottling.
Small But Mighty
Beginning with the 2017 vintage, Cruse began adding more vineyards to the Ultramarine portfolio, which now includes single-vineyard bottlings from Hirsch Vineyard, Michael Mara Vineyard, and Keefer Ranch Vineyard.
Total production hovers around 1400 cases of wine per year, up from an initial quantity of around 150 cases, with roughly 300-700 cases of the total coming from the Heintz Vineyard.
Those minuscule numbers are worth considering in a couple of different ways. Firstly the cost of making sparkling wine typically dwarfs the cost of making still wine, both because of the equipment and steps involved, but also because of the space and time required to manage and store all those individual bottles for years before they are sold. The cash flow, frankly stinks, which is why there generally aren’t a lot of artisan small sparkling wine producers going it alone. Rather it is much more common to grow a small sparkling wine program as an addition to a well-established operation or to take some wine over to Rack and Riddle and ask them to make you some sparkling wine
That Cruse has survived at all is remarkable. But then to have grown the program from a few hundred cases to close to 1500 represents quite an achievement. Add in the numbers from the Cruse Wine Company, a brand under which Cruse makes several more sparkling wines, and the operation is cranking out 2500 cases of bubbles every year.
“I’m not aware of a sparkling wine producer (without a lot of family money behind them) that has gone from zero to that size ever in California,” says Cruse in a rare moment of self-praise.
In more typical Cruse fashion, that statement was shortly followed by, “After 13 years, I’m not 100% sure I really know what I’m doing.”
The Proof is in the Bottle
But of course, to anyone who has tasted these wines, Cruse very much knows what he is doing. He might be humble and soft-spoken, but get him started on the finer points of any element of the winemaking process, or why there are some vineyards that are good for sparkling wine and others that aren’t, and watch him go.
The wines speak for themselves. They have that wonderful combination of both precision and richness, along with the racy acidity and salinity that makes you want not just another sip but another couple of glasses.
I think I prefer the Blanc de Blanc wines and their purity of Chardonnay expression, but every one of the wines tasted below was satisfying and delicious. Some of them are slightly more successful than others, but what more can you expect from someone finding their way, carefully, deliberately, towards greatness?
Note that the prices listed below reflect what retailers are charging for these wines on the secondary market. They are sold primarily to mailing list customers for $80 per bottle.
2018 Ultramarine “Blanc de Blancs – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, kelp, and greengage plum. In the mouth, a velvety mousse carries wonderfully salty and kelpy green apple and greengage plum flavors mixed with white flowers. Great acidity with a lovely chalky minerality. Fantastic balance. 2g/l dosage. Disgorged November 29, 2022. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $249. click to buy.
2017 Ultramarine “Blanc de Blancs – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass with extra fine bubbles, this wine smells of tidepools and toasted brioche. In the mouth, bright citrus pith, brioche, seawater, kelp, and just a touch of oak are all borne on a velvety mousse. Amazing salty lemon peel flavors linger in the finish. Phenomenal acidity and balance. This is a preposterously good wine, and easily one of the best California sparkling wines I’ve ever had. 2g/l dosage. Disgorged November 17, 2021. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: n/a
2016 Ultramarine “Blanc de Blancs – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of green apple and sea air. In the mouth, a softer mousse delivers malic green apple skin and seawater flavors mixed with citrus peel. The wine is deeply mineral, with bright acidity and great length. 2g/l dosage. Disgorged November 9, 2020. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: n/a
2012 Ultramarine “Blanc de Blancs – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish gold with extra fine bubbles, this wine smells of nori, brioche, finger lime, and seawater. In the mouth, flavors of finger lime and brewers yeast mix with bright citrusy lemon and a little butterscotch on the finish. This wine has a surprising breadth on the palate, and finishes with a zingy, salty lemon surprise. 2 g/l dosage. Disgorged November 16, 2016. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: n/a
2011 Ultramarine “Blanc de Blancs Late Disgorged – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of smoky brioche, fleur de sel, and lemon peel. In the mouth, a fine mousse delivers intensely saline grapefruit and lemon peel flavors that possess electric neon bright laser beams of lemony acidity and saline brightness. Utterly delicious. 2 g/l dosage. Disgorged April 4, 2019. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: n/a
2010 Ultramarine “Blanc de Blancs – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish gold in the glass with extra fine bubbles, this wine smells of butterscotch, brioche, and sea air. In the mouth, a velvety mousse delivers gorgeously bright lemon peel and lemon pith flavors that have a salty, amazingly mineral depth. The wine is wonderfully lemony, bright, and intense. Outstanding acidity. 2 g/l dosage. Disgorged February 6, 2015. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: n/a
2014 Ultramarine “Blanc de Noirs – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of freshly baked bread, wet leaves, and sea air. In the mouth, cherry and berry flavors mix with salty sea air, borne on a soft, fine-grained mousse. Salty finish. Excellent acidity. Zero dosage. Disgorged November 20, 2018. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $175. click to buy.
2013 Ultramarine “Blanc de Noirs – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Wine, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan, brioche, and sea air. In the mouth, slightly, barely faintly sweet flavors of berry and butterscotch. Softer acidity, but enough to counter the roughly 3 g/l residual sugar left in this wine. Zero dosage. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: n/a
2018 Ultramarine “Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Rosé, Sonoma Coast, California
Light ruby in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of berry jam and white flowers. In the mouth, berry and citrus flavors mix with a saline brightness borne on a voluminous mousse. Tangy kumquat and salty seawater flavors linger with a hint of kelp in the finish. Excellent acidity. 49% Chardonnay, 51% Pinot Noir, 2 g/l dosage. Disgorged November 22, 2022. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $220. click to buy.
2017 Ultramarine “Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Rosé, Sonoma Coast, California
Pales salmon pink in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of flowers and berries and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, a velvety mousse delivers bright and tangy flavors of sour cherry, citrus peel, and seawater. These mix with bright kumquat and more bitter citrus notes that linger for a long time in the finish while bright acidity kicks the salivary glands into overdrive. Velvety mousse. 73% Pinot Noir, 27% Chardonnay. 6 g/l dosage. Disgorged May 4, 2022. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $228. click to buy.
2016 Ultramarine “Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Rosé, Sonoma Coast, California
Palest salmon in the glass with peachy highlights and very fine bubbles, this wine smells of salty brioche, berries, and white flowers. In the mouth, saltwater taffy, berries, brioche, and citrus peel flavors are borne on a velvety mousse, with delicious saline notes that linger in the finish. Gorgeously balanced and poised. Wonderfully salty with excellent acidity. 58% Pinot Noir, 42% Chardonnay. 6 g/l dosage. Disgorged January 14, 2021. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $221. click to buy.
2015 Ultramarine “Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Rosé Sonoma Coast, California
Light ruby in the glass with bronze highlights and very fine bubbles, this wine smells of orange peel and cherry. In the mouth, bright and tangy cherry and orange peel flavors are wonderfully saline and mouthwatering. A chalky note lingers for a long while after the velvety mousse does its thing. Excellent acidity. 63% Pinot Noir, 37% Chardonnay. 6 g/l dosage. Disgorged November 14, 2019. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $239. click to buy.
2014 Ultramarine “Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Rosé Sonoma Coast, California
Palest peachy yellow in the glass with tiny bubbles, this wine smells of marzipan, brioche, and dried citrus peel. In the mouth, a soft, silky mousse delivers tart flavors of citrus peel, toasted bread, salty ginger, and a long citrus-peel finish. Excellent acidity. 20% Pinot Noir, 80% Chardonnay. 6 g/l dosage. Disgorged November 13, 2018. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $190. click to buy.
2011 Ultramarine “Late Disgorged – Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Rosé, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale ruby in the glass with hints of bronze and very fine bubbles, this wine smells of bitter orange, marzipan, and hints of blood orange. In the mouth, blood orange and citrus peel flavors are borne on a voluminous mousse, as wonderfully saline qualities push the salivary glands into overdrive. There’s a hint of bitterness in the finish. An intense and piercing wine. 6 g/l dosage. Disgorged April 4, 2019. 12% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: n/a
2010 Ultramarine “Heintz Vineyard” Sparkling Rosé Sonoma Coast, California
Pale ruby headed to salmon in color with fine bubbles, this wine smells of dried citrus peel, dried flowers, and dried berries. In the mouth, bright berry flavors are lifted on a voluminous mousse as juicy raspberry and cherry flavors mix with salty brioche and seawater. Citrus peel lingers for a long while in the finish. Excellent acidity. Outstanding wine. 6 g/l dosage. Disgorged February 20, 2015. 12% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $234. click to buy.
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Cruse also makes a few sparkling wines under his Cruse Wine Co. label, so here are a few tasting notes on recent releases from that brand (represented by the colorful labels in the lineup shot below).
NV Cruse Wine Co. “Tradition” Sparkling Wine, California
Pale gold with very fine bubbles. This wine smells of bread, golden apples, and white miso. In the mouth, lemony flavors of white miso and sesame paste mix with apple, lemon, and grapefruit. There’s a light grip here. 2019 base wine. 73% Chardonnay, 27% Pinot Noir. No dosage. 24-32 months on the lees. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
NV Cruse Wine Co. “Tradition” Sparkling Rosé, California
Pale ruby in the glass with tiny bubbles, this wine smells of salty berries and wet earth. In the mouth, very savory, salty berries, orange peel, red apple skin, and a wet wood quality all have excellent acidity. 2019 base wine. 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay. 2 g/l dosage. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $55. click to buy.
NV Cruse Wine Co. “Reserve Cask” Sparkling Wine, California
Pale gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of vanilla, oak, bread, and seawater. In the mouth, rich flavors of brioche and sesame paste are borne on a soft mousse. No dosage. This is the 2018 base with small amounts of all previous vintages back to 2016. 100% Chardonnay. Aged in a large Stockinger foudre. 12.5% alcohol. Disgorged September 2022. 1566 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: n/a
2019 Cruse Wine Co. Sparkling Valdiguié, Napa Valley, California
Pale ruby in the glass with bronze highlights and very fine bubbles, this wine smells of orange peel and wet sawdust. In the mouth, tart raspberry and strawberry flavors mix with green strawberries and fresh herbs. Bright and juicy, and a little sour and tangy. This wine is usually a pet-nat, but this year it happens to be a saignee rose of 24 hours maceration, and 30 months on lees in the bottle using the traditional method. 12.5% alcohol. 2167 bottles made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $34. click to buy.