Tasting With Michael Cruse + Hardy Wallace, The Laurel and Hardy of California Wine

During a brief trip to Sonoma over the summer, I swung by the Cruse Wine Co custom crush facility in Petaluma. It was full-on harvest, so I felt lucky to be able to steal some time from Hardy Wallace of Dirty and Rowdy, and Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine and Ultramarine. I’ve admired their respective wines for some time, and it was fascinating to glimpse these very different projects side-by-side.

I’ve written before about how Dirty and Rowdy came to be, and about their devotion to the Mourvèdre grape. Cruse, I was less familiar with until sometime last spring, when I had a Cruse Pinot Gris at Rebelle one night; it wooed me with its boisterous aromas and notes of lemons, white peaches. That wine is no longer be part of the Cruse Wines line-up, as the vineyard changed ownership. But that’s the way things go, for winemakers who purchase fruit; Dirty and Rowdy will no longer make Semillion, one of their most beloved wines, because the vineyard has been sprayed with Round-Up, a poisonous weed killer. Along with the fact that both of these winemakers purchase fruit from various vineyards around Northern and Central California, they also both work in a very natural manner—indigenous fermentations, very low levels of sulfites, no bullshit additions at all. Those are the main unifying factors between them.


Despite the fact that Hardy and Michael both buy fruit and both make fantastic natural wine, I had never considered them together, in any way. Their wines are quite different stylistically; as Michael put it: “maybe Hardy’s wines are more of a terroir investigation and mine are more of a, I don’t know, drinking investigation, [but] they’re still two sides of the same coin.” (There’s a bit of humor there, but I think Michael really means that his wines are about drinkability.) Michael emphasizes that his project is to make “wine like California used to make wine,” something he also phrased as making “table wine” when I interviewed him last spring, in New York, over a drink at The Dutch. Michael gives the impression of wanting to represent or emulate a time when California wine was a little more humble, maybe a time when wine in general was more humble—less hyped up by somms, and maybe writers like me, oops.

Meanwhile, the Dirty and Rowdy wines are born of an obsession with dry-farmed, high-elevation, old vines, particularly the Provençal grape variety Mourvèdre. The fact that all of these Mourvèdre wines are made in a relatively similar fashion (100 percent whole cluster, no destemming, old barrels) is a nod to—or even a direct replication of—a fairly Old World style of examining and working with terroir. There are also Dirty and Rowdy blends, of course, and white wines and a pét-nat, but the label is generally known for the rustic, earthy, and complex Mourvèdres.


Despite having such different projects, the two have found themselves working side-by-side, as Hardy recently moved into the Cruse winery in Petaluma. The famous slapstick comedy duo Laurel and Hardy met in 1921; six years later they became a team and proceeded to make 107 films together, allowing their approaches to comedy to play off each other. Cruse and this Hardy weren’t exactly kicking each other in the butts and slipping on banana peels during our tasting, but they do have a friendly, spitfire humor going on, amidst a strong conversation about what California wine is and what it could be. I would also bet you that their winemaking styles are going to influence each other over time, if they aren’t already (there is a “DRC” wine in the works—“Dirty, Rowdy, Cruse,” a Furmint from Mendocino, but I didn’t taste it). And I think it goes without saying, but as a writer it’s still my duty to say it here, that Cruse Wine, Ultramarine, and Dirty and Rowdy represent an incredibly thoughtful, almost obsessive effort to discover the ultimate potential of California wine, by sourcing from the most unique sites, and exploring forgotten varieties. In a sense, this post should be about the vineyards these wines come from, rather than the bottlings themselves. But that will have to be my next trip.

I’ll let the tasting notes speak for the rest of the visit.

Cruse, 2012 Ultramarine Blanc de Noir

The Ultramarine wines, which have varied from year-to-year between blanc de noir, blanc de blancs, and rosé, are culty, very limited production traditional method sparkling wines that have become something of an Instagram phenomenon. It’s not without reason. Michael’s approach is inspired by the growers of Champagne, particularly those who have experience working in the oxidative tradition spearheaded by Anselme Selosse; Michael names Alexandre Chartogne and Jerome Prévost as two examples. The idea is that Ultramarine wines are single-vintage, and single-vineyard, single-varietal wines—terroir in bubbles, autremente dit. For our tasting, Michael disgorged his 2012 Ultramarine of Heintz Pinot Noir, of which fewer than 500 cases total were made; it will be riddled and racked this fall, then disgorged, and out to his list over the winter, then distribution in spring. The wine had no sulfur or dosage added; it displayed gorgeous, ripe stonefruits and candied lemon on the nose; the palate was rich and supple, followed by pure acidity. Such a beautiful wine now, it will be incredibly good once it’s been properly disgorged, although I imagine it would be even better were it laid down for at least a year, and there’s no question that cellaring a few bottles of these would be brilliant. (Please share one with me, if you do that.)

Dirty and Rowdy, 2014 Melon de Bourgogne Antle Vineyard:

This is a high elevation site (1700 feet above sea level) in the Chalone appellation, with subterranean limestone, and a rare planting of Melon de Bourgogne. Despite the elevation, Hardy finds that the grapes don’t have high enough acidity, so he aims for minerality in this wine. To achieve this, he leaves the juice macerating on the skins for 40 days in a one-ton bin fermenter; the juice is then moved to barrel, where it stays for about 18 months. The wine showed notes of freshly grated orange zest and delicate white flowers, and had a nice, round texture, followed by soft, wispy tannins. Hardy recommends decanting this wine.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Antle Mourvèdre

Hardy makes eight Mourvèdre wines, and he broke them down for us like this: “Antle, Shake Ridge and Evangelho are at the darker-fruit end of the spectrum. Santa Barbara Highlands, Skinner Oak Flats, Skinner Stony Creek, are on the redder-fruit side of the spectrum.” This Antle Vineyard Mourvèdre is from as slightly higher plot than the Melon—as much as 2000 feet. Hardy always does 100 percent whole cluster with Mourvèdre, lending the wines that brambly, rustic character often ascribed to Bandol. The nose on this wine was a bit reduced at first, then opened up to lush red and blue berries; on the palate, the wine traveled quickly from fruit to intense acidity that made my mouth water, and then to a strong, stony minerality. I was very moved by this wine and thought it was one of the best examples of Dirty and Rowdy that I can remember tasting.

Cruse, 2015 Saint-Laurent pét-nat

Michael is very passionate about pét-nat; he sees is as a “slightly more transparent way to make wine,” he told us, and believes strongly that good pét-nat requires technical expertise. For this reason, he is of the opinion that proper sparkling wines need disgorgement—because it makes the wines more precise and revealing of variety and terroir. “I think pet-nat’s interesting from the point of view that maybe, as we get better at it, because this is just grape juice, because we don’t add any sulfur or sugar or yeast, maybe in the right vineyard with the right variety, this could be a more transparent way to make wine. But if it’s cloudy and foaming and tastes like old saison, I can’t imagine that being the case,” Michael remarked as we tasted his pét-nat. It was completely dry, with a fruity, flowery nose, and a refreshing and savory character that would make it a wonderful food wine.

Cruse, 2015 Monkey Jacket

This is a red blend, made from about 50 percent Valdigué; 40 percent “Mendocino blend”; and 15 percent Tannat from Alder. It has lovely fruit—fresh strawberries and cherries—and great acidity. I would drink this at lunch, any day. The Valdigué is from a 60-year-old block in Calistoga, and Michael explained that Robert Mondavi once believed that this work-horse grape would be the hallmark variety of California; in the early 70s (pre-Judgment of Paris), it was more expensive than Cabernet. To me, Michael’s use of Valdigué is an affirmation of his sense of California history, and a look back to a time before the rise of Napa Valley and its expensive, cult wineries and their big, bold reds.

Cruse, 2015 Heintz Syrah

From a small plot of Syrah in the iconic Heintz Vineyard, a cold site located five miles from the ocean in the Russian River Valley growing region, is this incredible wine. If you ever come across it, drink it without hesitation. The nose provides all the black olives, blue and black fruits that you could hope for from cool-climate Syrah; it’s light and full of fresh, nervy acidity on the palate, and finishes with intense, tingly tannins and still a bit of fruit. I love Syrah in this pure, bright form. Michael makes it with 100 percent whole cluster, adds no sulfur, and ferments in concrete before aging in concrete and large used barrels.

Dirty and Rowdy, 2015 Merlot/Cab blend

This was a barrel sample, showing lots of brambly, blue and black fruit, balanced by excellent freshness, and soft tannins. Hardy is probably blending these two barrels now. A very promising wine that I’m sure will need time in bottle. I can’t wait to drink it.

OK, enough. Go out and drink these fantastic wines, and picture their very different makers guffawing at their own jokes as they foot-stomp Furmint.