What to Drink
Ultramarine, The Cult California Wine That Sparkles
What to Drink

Ultramarine, The Cult California Wine That Sparkles

Michael Cruse didn’t set out to turn California sparkling wine on its head, but that’s exactly what he’s done
By Virginie Boone
Photo: Courtesy Michael Cruse

July 26, 2023

In 2008, Michael Cruse was tasting his way through Northern California during the windows of free time his day job allowed. Cruse was working as a winemaker at Merryvale, where he’d spent seven years, mostly focused on the company’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay-based Starmont brand.

This was a particularly exciting moment for Northern California wine, and Pinot Noir in particular, as variety and experimentation were everywhere. Wineries that had previously made one or two Pinot Noirs under their name, were now releasing handfuls—sometimes dozens—of vineyard-specific wines in a single year. Cruse found himself enamored with the proliferation of site-specific wines, and the opportunity it presented for winemakers to expand the number of experiments they could run in a single vintage.

Cruse had come to wine from science. A biochemistry major at University of California, Berkeley, he worked as a research associate at the university after graduation, assuming he’d pursue a career in medicine or scientific research. But after attending a winemaking lecture by microbiologist Dr. Terry Leighton—who had a side career making wine at his small Marin-based winery named Kalin Cellars—Cruse changed course. Winemaking, he realized, provided a way to apply his scientific brain and affinity for rigorous experimentation, but also make something in the process. 

What piqued Cruse’s curiosity, as he tasted scores of Pinot Noirs, was why, in a region so taken with the notion of vineyard-designate Pinot Noir (and Cabernet Sauvignon), nothing of the sort was to be found in the realm of sparkling wine.

Great sparkling Methode Champenoise wine producers in California had been around for decades, sourcing predominantly from cool pockets within Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Mendocino where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can grow and develop the right levels of acidity to make sparkling wines. Many of these producers, including Roederer Estate, Domaine Carneros, Mumm Napa and Gloria Ferrer, have relationships with European Champagne or Cava houses, while Schramsberg, Iron Horse and J Vineyards still stand as some of the original California-native pioneers in sparkling wine. 

But nearly all of these wines, though often estate-grown, had typically been traditional blends, focused on technique and aging, rather than place. 

This approach was borrowed from European sparkling wine producers, most notably those in Champagne, where wines blended from multiple vineyards, growers and vintages have dominated for many years. “Historically, Champagne is a region of blends which makes it difficult to show a place over a house style,” says Paul Einbend, owner of The Morris in San Francisco.  

Was it possible, he wondered, to make grower Champagne-inspired sparkling wines from California coastal vineyards that were any good? Could a California sparkling wine transmit its unique, place-based qualities as successfully as its French counterparts?

But Cruse also knew that grower Champagne—wines made by individual winemakers, often from a specific vineyard—had begun to edge their way into a market accustomed to bottlings from big Champagne houses that sourced grapes from many sites.  

Was it possible, he wondered, to make grower Champagne-inspired sparkling wines from California coastal vineyards that were any good? Could a California sparkling wine transmit its unique, place-based qualities as successfully as its French counterparts? What would happen if he took the techniques of the grower Champagnes producers he saw as inventors and tinkerers like him and applied them to the grapes near his home? 

Cruse sought to vineyard-designate and vintage date these wines, making them in a style he felt had long been forgotten. “I wanted an older take on California wine―what California used to do before the Judgment of Paris,” he said. 

In other words, he wanted to explore the idea of sparkling wines that were less showy, bracingly fresh and, above all else, conveyed a sense of place.  

Enter Charlie Heintz

Cruse set out to make his first Ultramarine wines in 2008. The first vintage wasn’t bad, but he was unsatisfied with how the wines turned out. If he was going to model Ultramarine after grower Champagne, he needed the right site.

For some winemakers, marrying their vision with the right piece of ground can take a lifetime. It took Cruse all of two years. In 2010, after receiving a tip from a fellow winemaker, he approached Charlie Heintz, of Heintz Vineyard in the West Sonoma Coast, who had a bit of unallocated fruit available from the upcoming harvest. 

Heintz is a third-generation grape grower, whose family has been farming along a coastal ridgeline in Sonoma County since 1912. His Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes had long been used by such prestige producers as Williams Selyem, DuMol, Littorai and Ceritas. 

“Charlie and I met in his office, he told me it sounded crazy, but we chatted and that was that,” Cruse said. The grapes were his.

Cruse’s stroke of luck, in combination with Heintz’s willingness to take an unusual risk, made Cruse the first person to make Heintz vineyard-designated sparkling wine. 

“Would we get something that was like what the growers were doing or get something that is a more pure expression of terroir in California, but with bubbles in it?” Cruse wondered. “I think we got the latter.”  

It was pure California alchemy.

“It struck me as the most complete U.S. high-quality, ambitious sparkling wine, a great balance with the aromatics and the umami, yet still Californian with an extra-aromatic layer coming from the ripeness of the fruit and the terroir,” said influential sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier, MS/MOF, who began buying Ultramarine in 2014 as beverage director of Rouge Tomate in New York City. 

Cruse’s Ultramarine bursts in bright shocks of acidity and fruity nuance, capturing the California coast’s singular ability to marry the ocean’s cold with the heat of the sun. The wines have weight and texture without baby fat. They’re feral and savory. Sea spray, brine and oyster shell conjure up a glorious day at the beach.

“2010 was an extremely high-acid, cool vintage,” Cruse recalls. “I didn’t really have any idea of what I was doing on the vin clair side [vin clair is the still wine that eventually becomes sparkling wine], though in 2008 and 2009 we were able to do the tirage to an ‘acceptable’ level. It [wasn’t until] 2016 that I felt like I started to know what I was doing.”

But the wine world began to take notice of Ultramarine long before that, attracting the attention of some of wine’s most discriminating tastemakers. Patrick Cappiello, who was consulting for Cruse’s distributor at the time, quickly became a fan, as did podcaster Levi Dalton and Lepeltier, who helped ignite yet more interest.

By 2015, Ultramarine was listed as one of Dalton’s 13 most desired wines on the market in an article in Eater called, “What Is Unicorn Wine?” 

“Ultramarine,” he wrote, “has quickly established itself as an American producer on par with the top grower Champagnes of France.” 

What seemed to light up so many of Ultramarine’s admirers wasn’t just its ability to stand next to France’s best independent sparklers, though it certainly did that. It was that Ultramarine achieved the clarity and brilliance of the best site-specific Champagnes, but used those traits to showcase its distinctively Californian attributes.  

“Most of the sparkling wine producers in the world try to get as close to Champagne in style as they can,” says Einbend. “But we’re in California and our grapes don’t make Champagne. They do, however, make amazing California wine when treated as world-class wines to begin with and not as a stand-in for another region.”

More accolades for Cruse and his wines poured in from Bon Appetit (“Champagne-style Ultramarine is, to wine nerds, a status symbol akin to Krug”) and The San Francisco Chronicle, whose wine editor, Esther Mobley, named him Winemaker of the Year.  

Cruse continued to refine his craft. “Partially [by] knowing the site, but partially learning how to press, tasting more, experimenting more, traveling to France, reading more . . . 2016 was a turning point because it was the year [The San Francisco Chronicle] named me winemaker of the year. But also the wines felt precise and well-made.”

There are dozens of cult wines in California. Maybe even hundreds. But Ultramarine became the only sparkling wine of the bunch, reaching secondary market prices in the hundreds of dollars, often two or three times its release price.  

Second Growth

In the face of such remarkable success, Cruse looked to expand. 

Early on in Ultramarine’s ascent, Cruse had tried to replicate what he had done so miraculously with Heintz Vineyard grapes by sourcing grapes from other sites. It didn’t work. 

Ultramarine’s unique qualities could only be created with grapes from a very specific subset of vineyards, which were limited in their yield. Cruse didn’t want to toy with his near-instant success and change Ultramarine’s style, nor could he grow the brand’s production with Heintz grapes—there simply weren’t enough for him to buy. 

Ultramarine had run into a hard limit, topping out at a mere 1,000 cases a year. 

“Once it got popular, I knew I had to keep it popular. I protected it by focusing on production and style. I wanted to try other things, but I felt I couldn’t.”

Cruse quickly realized that if he wanted to expand—and to experiment with other grapes and techniques without risking Ultramarine’s quality and reputation—he’d have to start another brand. Thus, Cruse Wine Company was born in 2013 as a custom crush facility. 

“Basically, I cloistered Ultramarine, and now Cruse is my lab. 2016 was a bit of an inflection point for me—[it was] the time I started working on more experimental things with Cruse. ”

As a new platform for his methodical experimentation, the new company allowed Cruse to expand the range of his winemaking techniques, work with a broader range of vineyards and play with oxidation and the use of sulfur to avoid mousiness in what he considers his natural-adjacent wines.

His flagship red blend, Monkey Jacket, perfectly signifies the spirit Cruse has attempted to channel. It combines Valdiguie, Carignan, Tannat, St. Laurent and a mix of field blend reds into a wine that’s bright and highly drinkable yet speaks clearly of California in a different way. 

Some of these varieties get made into single-vineyard wines of their own. Others turn into Pet-Nats, which enable Cruse to experiment more widely with the possibilities of sparkling wines.  

Today, Cruse Wine produces around 7,000 cases per year (30% of which are exported), with far more in distribution than could ever have been possible with Ultramarine.

Still, Cruse hasn’t lost sight of his original and persistent mission to make sparkling wines he feels are the truest lens into a vineyard. He certainly didn’t set out to turn California sparkling wine on its head, but that’s exactly what he’s done with his laser focus on what a single-vineyard, single-vintage approach can do for an entire category of wine. Ultramarine is now secure in its place among the great cult wines of California. But for Michael Cruse, the mission never ends.