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Alumni Profile: Grape Expectations

Michael Cruse draws on his scientific training to capture California in a bottle with his distinctive wines.

Photo by Demetrius Fordham

When Michael Cruse (BA ’02 MCB/Biochemistry) reflects on his years of lab research at Berkeley with John Taylor and Eva Nogales, he can pinpoint what he enjoyed about them. “A good part of it was staring up at the sun and coming up with ideas, and then there was another part of just putting your head down and plowing ahead,” he says. 

Those words could just as easily describe Cruse’s career as a winemaker. With his Ultramarine sparkling wine and Cruse Wine Co., this Northern California native has combined creativity and grit to blaze an oenological trail far removed from Napa Valley’s well-beaten path, one that draws on overlooked grape varietals to create distinctive wines that are “unabashedly Californian.” His innovations have caught the attention of the industry, earning him the title “Winemaker of the Year” from the San-Francisco Chronicle in 2016.

It was Terry Leighton, professor emeritus of microbiology, who opened Cruse’s eyes to the possibility of a career in winemaking. Leighton gave a presentation on campus about Kalin Cellars, his own small winery in Marin County. “Here was this guy who was extremely accomplished in his own field, and he took that scientific basis and applied it to his winemaking,” Cruse says.

Cruse first developed his skills at Sutter Home Winery, then over six years at Merryvale Vineyards, where he eventually rose to the position of associate winemaker. He realized that those he admired most in the industry were people like Leighton who struck out on their own and followed their own vision. 

Cruse did just that, first with a sparkling wine called Ultramarine, made from a single variety from a single vineyard in a single vintage. “That monastic focus made it a wine that was really special,” Cruse says. Ultramarine quickly attained “cult favorite” status among sommeliers and wine enthusiasts.

He then launched Cruse Wine Co., with a mission of “creating uniquely Californian wine for your table–often with bubbles.” “California is an ideal place for growing grapes, with lovely sunshine and very little disease pressure,” Cruse says. “I wanted to celebrate that.”
Cruse works with little-known varietals such as Tannat, St. Laurent and Valdiguié. He creates pet-nat wines, a different method of sparkling wine production than that used for Champagne. His signature wine, Monkey Jacket, is a bright red blend, dominated by Valdiguié, named for an old British sailor song. 

For each new endeavor, Cruse draws on the skills he honed at Berkeley. “In the same way that any good scientist keeps a lab notebook, I track everything,” he says. “I’ve always had my own lab, so I can create experiments with controls for whatever I want to try.” And he’s a firm believer in group meetings. “Just like in any science lab, I think it’s important to have an open forum where your team can feel comfortable sharing what’s of concern or interest to them and get everyone on the same page,” he adds. “It’s an important part of our winemaking process.”  

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