It’s very strange,’ says Michael Cruse, talking about how Ultramarine – his ‘ramshackle wine operation’ – has gone from a back-porch experiment to cult in just over a decade. He’s one of a small but high-profile cohort of winemakers that is changing the game when it comes to Californian sparkling wine.
The category has a long history, with Paul Masson (the Burgundy-born ‘Champagne king of California’) and the Korbel brothers (Czech lumberjacks turned vine growers) putting it on the map in the late 1890s. But, as with the rest of the California wine industry, phylloxera and Prohibition put paid to its progress.
The category’s modern revival began in the 1960s, with Jack and Jamie Davies, who purchased Schramsberg in 1965. The property had been founded in 1862 by Jacob Schram, but Jack and Jamie – reportedly inspired by two Paul Masson bottlings – set out to create top-tier, traditional-method sparkling, exclusively with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc.
As America’s food scene blossomed, so did the demand for sparkling wine and the Champenois saw an opportunity. Domaine Chandon (Möet & Chandon’s first international operation) was established in 1973. Mumm, Deutz, Roederer, Taittinger and more followed suit in the 1980s, along with Cava’s Freixenet and Cordoniu. Not all of these European interlopers survived – but making sparkling wine was no longer the radical idea it once had been.
Many of these early pioneers, however, were focused on re-creating what they knew, echoing the style of their European siblings. Today, a new wave of producers is championing not just quality sparkling wines, but ones that speak of their Californian roots.
Cruse started experimenting in 2008, with the first commercial release of Ultramarine that was, as he puts it, ‘bonded and legit’ 2010. Chris Cottrell and Morgan Twain-Peterson MW of Bedrock Wine Co made the first wine for their Under the Wire label a year later. Both were inspired by Champagne’s grower movement – crafting single-vintage, single-vineyard wines.
While the Schramsberg wines are emphatically Californian, with a distinctively un-Champenois ripeness and opulence, Cruse and Under the Wire wanted to strip the wines back, looking for site rather than style.
Of course, there’s a reason that the main players – until recently – were established names. Making traditional method sparkling wine is expensive. Not only do you have to hold stock for years, but the equipment is made almost exclusively in France and Italy. Cruse estimates there’s a quarter of a million dollar entry point to the category, and that’s before you learn how to make the stuff. Indeed, Schramsberg only started turning a profit in 2000 – 35 years after it started.
Cruse is one of those to have made sparkling production more feasible, operating a custom crush at his winery in Sebastopol – where limited-production labels from the likes of Sandhi and Failla are made (it’s also where the Under the Wire wines undergo their secondary fermentation). He and others have created the infrastructure that explains why many brands now have a sparkling wine in their line-up – often exclusively for their tasting room or Wine Club.
Without the strict appellation rules of Europe, there’s great freedom here
Most of the fruit for these wines comes from Sonoma County (especially for the newest wave). However, producers are looking for any cooler sites – whether in Carneros, the Sierra Foothills or Mendocino County. Without the strict appellation rules of Europe, there’s great freedom here – but it also means that typicity is still in development. Expect a riper profile in general, with ‘grower-style’ wines playing with oak, oxidation, long lees-ageing and lower dosage, as in Champagne. It’s worth remembering that even terms like ‘Blanc de Noirs’ have no legal definition in the US, so they can – as at Schramsberg – include white grapes.
The category represents a tiny percentage of California’s wine production, but more producers are testing these sparkling waters. With Cruse’s Ultramarine trading for more than double its release price on the secondary market, it’s clear there is great appetite and potential for the state’s terroir-driven fizz.
Three California sparkling wines to try
2019 Schramsberg, Blanc de Blancs
From the OG Californian sparkling wine producer, this wine is 100% Chardonnay, sourced from around Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino. Just under a fifth of the base wine is fermented in barrel, adding additional spice and toast notes. It spent around two years maturing in the estate’s mile-long caves before being disgorged in early 2022. The wine is vibrant and fresh, with bright citrus and riper, peachy notes. Generous with a creamy decadence and ripeness, this is an excellent introduction to the Schramsberg style.
Roederer Estate, Quartet, Brut, Anderson Valley
From the swathe of Champenois arrivals, Roederer crafts some of California’s finest (and best-value) sparkling wines. A multi-vintage blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir (all of which is estate-grown), the entry-level bottling spends at least two years on lees, then an additional three to four in bottle before release. The wine offers rich, creamy and savoury notes, cut by bright lemon curd and peach fruit. Honeyed yet fresh, with a long zesty finish, this is a serious wine for the price. NB This is just labelled as ‘Brut MV’ in the US, but as ‘Quartet’ in the UK to avoid confusion with the Champagnes.
Cruse Wine Co, Tradition Rosé LC18, Mendocino County
From the new-wave winemaker behind the cult Ultramarine, the sparkling wines under the Cruse label are great value – and slightly more experimental than those of the rare and elusive sibling label. A blend of 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay, including 10% still red wine, this is an expressive, effusive rosé. Vibrant and chalky, there’s a decidedly savoury, mineral and saline undercurrent here, thanks to the firm structure of the still Pinot Noir. Petrichor, chalk and bright cherry fruit shift in and out of focus. Impressive. The dosage is just 2g/l.