Cruse Co Monkey Jacket Red

Here’s the scene: it’s Friday afternoon, and you’ve crushed it at work all week. You wrapped up that big project and high-fived your way out as you left early and managed to skip all the traffic. You get home in time to light the grill while the sun is still setting (when was the last time that happened!?) and you settle in for a much deserved celebratory evening. I’m not talking about the kind of celebration that requires days of planning or expensive linens, but the kind that comes together simply with good company, a favorite recipe, and a delicious bottle of wine. It’s casual in precisely the way you want it to be.

This red blend, based predominantly on the long-forgotten Valdiguié grape, is made purely for this occasion. It harkens back to a time when wines were made to pair with your meal at home, not to compete with high octane cocktails (or to impress some influential sommelier crowd). San Francisco-born Michael Crus has set out to capture the old California spirit in a bottle - the can-do energy, the optimism, and the sunshine - just for you. Why? Because he thinks you deserve a great glass of wine at the end of the week, or on a mere Monday evening, not just on special occasions.

“I make wine in a style of California that is undervalued now. Prior to the Judgement of Paris, prior to (Robert) Parker, California made wines for the table, for drinking, predominantly for the Catholics. we have a lot of sunshine that makes drinkable wines (and) I’m trying to capture that California.”

In case you’re wondering what exactly “California in a bottle” feels like, this wine has a bouquet of aromas that develop from a brooding earthy quality into ripe, juicy fruit, finishing with a perfume of wildflowers, cherry, plum, smoke, and licorice. How can so many qualities fit so seamlessly together, so beautifully you almost don’t want to move on to tasting it? Just the same way they do in California where the ocean meets the mountains, the mountains meet the vineyards and orchards, and it’s all basking in the glow of our year-long sun. Yes, this wine is complex, but this isn’t a wine to swirl and sniff all evening. It’s not a serious day at the museum, but rather, it’s a day galavanting around the Bay. It’s a wine to be enjoyed with friends - and it’s perhaps the best grape juice you’ve had in a while.

So what do you pair with California spirit and sunshine? That’s easy! That juicy fruit quality means it can handle the sweetness of a bbq sauce or roasted veggies. The smoky aromas and subtle grip of tannins will play beautifully with charred and grilled meats. And that earthy floral combination makes it a total home run with lamb.

Pairs perfectly with:

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Michael Crus is a Bay Area guy to his core. As a fifth-generation San Franciscan whose great, great grandma was born right here in SF, he’s inspired by the rich history of California and the way we used to produce and consume wine for the table.

“At the core of what I’m trying to say,” he told me, “is that our history is not making playful Pinots or Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Our history is not in making high-end Cabernet (either). Our history is in Lodi and in making Zinfandel and in making red field blends.”

Perhaps just as much as the history of California wine production has influenced his approach to this wine label, so has the idea of a blue-collar work ethic. He views himself as a tradesman, more like a cabinet maker that is limited by what nature has provided in order to craft a piece of art. He compares this idea to the work of a chef who can produce purely from an idea - mixing together endless ingredients and utilizing every cooking technique or tool under the sun until the finished product matches some original vision or idea. From the start, Michael couldn’t afford the fanciest equipment or the most expensive grapes in California, so he had to figure out a way around that. He had to do everything and make everything himself. Like a woodworker trying to find the best way to celebrate a stunning slab of redwood, it’s an honest and pure approach that’s grounded in respect for nature. There’s clear pride in that kind of authentic approach for Michael, as well as a sense of respect for the way things used to be.

If Michael is the blue-collar carpenter, then Valdiguié is the blue-collar grape. Once widely planted all over California, the grape has fallen out of favor amongst the mainstream wine crowd and replaced by internationally popular grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Made properly, Valdiguié is like a Crus Beaujolais - not the silly Thanksgiving soda pop style, but the knock your socks off delicious Gamays being made by the region’s best natural producers like Lapierre or Breton. It’s at once light and fruit-forward, but also mineral-laced and with surprisingly persistent tannins on the finish. Gulpable but respectable - and perfect for a Friday night with your friends.

Now that I’ve told you all about Michael’s love of the everyday wines and the unsung heroes of the grape world, you might be surprised to learn that what he’s truly known for in the wine world is making one of the most coveted (and expensive) domestic sparkling wines, Ultramarine. His path into wine began with a focus on the interplay between science and wine and he became fascinated with the idea of creating single vineyard sparkling wines, made by hand in the traditional Champagne method - something no one was doing in California at the time. They made the dry wines by themselves, added the yeast and sugar for the second fermentation in the bottle by hand, made their own tirage bins, and even created their own custom crush facility to facilitate it all. Too much work? Perhaps, but the news spread fast and those bottles flew off the shelf at prices unheard of for domestic bubbly.

And it seems that’s why Michael created his solo project, Cruse Co, to produce wines for your everyday life - wines that are made for gathering around the table on a Tuesday, celebrating a small victory at work, or merely accompanying your homemade burgers. If Ultramarine was an homage to perfecting the science of sparkling wine, then Cruse Co is all about experimenting to find what’s uniquely Californian. Sometimes that means looking to the past for forgotten grapes, and sometimes, like the next chapter he’s excited about, that means figuring out a uniquely Californian style of sparkling wine for the Cuse Label.

Ah, but before I let you go - I know you’ve been dying to know about the name, “Monkey Jacket!” Where does it come from? It’s from a sea shanty from the banks of Newfoundland. In the song, the singer talks about two guys from Liverpool who pawn their “monkey jackets” (sailor’s coat) for women and booze. It’s all they have to protect themselves from the stormy weather on the sea, but they don’t care because they live for the moment and life’s pleasures. Hopefully you don’t have to sell the clothes off your back for a bottle of Michael Cruse’s wine, but if you do, at least you’ll have one hell of a bottle to savor!

        * Photos of Michael and the winery courtesy of Jeanine Cruse