Two unlikely Californian winemakers represent new wave of winemaking

Mr Hardy Wallace (left) of Dirty And Rowdy and Mr Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co represent a new generation of winemakers. -- PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH
Mr Hardy Wallace (left) of Dirty And Rowdy and Mr Michael Cruse of Cruse Wine Co represent a new generation of winemakers. -- PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH

Two unlikely Californian winemakers represent the new wave of winemaking in the region

After getting retrenched from his technology sales job in 2009, former wine blogger Hardy Wallace decided to start his life afresh and pursue his dream of making wine.

On a "shoe-string budget", he went from living in a posh high-rise condominium to rustic cabins in North California with fellow wine-loving roommates.

To gain experience, he worked at various vineyards, including for the respected viticulturist Ann Kraemer of the famed Shake Ridge Ranch and prominent winemaker Ehren Jordan in Napa Valley.

In 2010, Mr Wallace, 41, made its first wine - a Mourvedre from Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard - and set up a label called Dirty And Rowdy with his long-time friend and business partner Matt Richardson. Their wives are also involved in the business. They now have contracts with 11 other vineyards throughout California, including in Napa, Monterey and El Dorado.

As for the name, "Dirty" refers to Mr Wallace's nickname. Though born in Massachusetts, he was living in Atlanta, Georgia, which is also known as the Dirty South. His old wine blog was called Dirty South Wine. Rowdy is Mr Richardson's nickname.

They produce mainly Mourvedre-based red wines and Semillon for the white. Mr Wallace chose the less-common Mourvedre grape as it thrives in the warm and arid climate of California.

Their white wines include the Skin & Concrete Egg Fermented Semillon (2013, 2014) and Alder Springs Vineyard Chardonnay (2013).

To make the Semillon, 80 per cent of the Semillon fruit is fermented in its skin in an open-top tank and pressed into old oak barrels, while the other 20 per cent of the fruit is pressed into a concrete egg-shaped tank.

This year, they put out their sixth vintage. Over the years, the label has been named one to watch by The New York Times and LA Weekly, as well as magazines such as Wine Enthusiast and Gourmet Traveller Australia.

In Singapore, a selection of the label's wines is sold exclusively at wine boutique Artisan Cellars in Palais Renaissance. The Mourvedre-based red wines are priced between $69 and $80 and the white wines are $69. They are sold out and can be pre-ordered for the upcoming shipment next month.

Mr Wallace credits the success of Dirty And Rowdy to social media engagement. It was through Instagram that he got to know Artisan Cellars' general manager Henry Hariyono.

Besides Singapore, Dirty And Rowdy wines are also available in Copenhagen, Australia, France and Britain. Later this year, the wines will be sold in Hong Kong.

Mr Wallace notes that consumers have become more adventurous in trying new wines.

He says: "In the old days, you have one or two wine labels at home, with four cases of wine from each. Now, consumers may still have four cases of wine, made up of different varietals from various winemakers."

While he is still learning about how his wine pairs with local food here during his time in Singapore, he recalls that the 2013 Rosewood Vineyards Petite Sirah went well with claypot rice during a dinner he attended.

But the perfect pairing for his wines?

"Fried chicken," says the true Southern boy at heart. "It's not a joke. It's about compounding flavours, not cleansing the palate. The soul food matches our soul wine."


From biochemistry to winemaking

Former research associate Michael Cruse ditched his lab coat for a career making wine and says the switch was not as great a leap as many would have thought.

"Lab work in general, and specifically biochemistry, is quite a bit like winemaking," the 35-year-old founder of Cruse Wine Co says. "You are constantly learning from experience, optimising, taking notes, thinking about next steps."

The wine enthusiast, who has spent more than 10 years learning about wines, used to work in the University of California, Berkeley, and even thought of pursuing a PhD in biochemistry there.

But his interest in wine won out and, in 2013, he set up his own winery in Petaluma, Sonoma, in northern California.

He works with various vineyards that he knows from previous experience, in particular the famed winemaker Charlie Heintz's vineyard for Ultramarine, the sparkling wine label he started in 2008 with two other partners.

He uses under-represented varieties such as the Valdiguie grape, as well as terroirs for chardonnay and pinot gris in the Sierra Foothills.

Cruse Wine Co has made a name for itself for its table wines as well as its Ultramarine range of sparkling wines.

Work has been a constant learning process for the entrepreneur since the first harvest in 2006.

Last year, yields were cut by drought. In 2013, he made 175 cases of Charlie Heintz's Syrah, but this year, he made only 70 cases.

The father of two says: "There was more concentration in the fruit, so the wine ended up being spectacular despite having less of it."

The wines under the Ultramarine label are made with the "Pet Nat" (short for Petillant Naturel) style of winemaking, which requires minimal intervention from the winemaker and avoids using additives.

While champagne purists may turn their noses up at Ultramarine, Mr Cruse is quick to say he is not planning to compete with the premium bubbly.

"Champagne is king, there is no question about that," he says. He declines to reveal how much he has invested in his labels, saying only that one-third of it is from investors.

The current release of Ultramarine is based on his 2010 vintage and it sold out in two months.

His production is so small that Singapore is the only country besides the United States that carries his wines.

His wines are available for pre-order at wine boutique Artisan Cellars at Palais Renaissance. The Valdiguie and Syrah from two different plots are priced at $66 each, while the pinot blanc and chardonnay are priced between $66 and $72.

Like his good friend winemaker Hardy Wallace of Dirty And Rowdy winery, Mr Cruse's wine labels have gained a loyal following via social media and the media has caught on too, with praise for his Valdiguie (2013).

The LA Times called it "bright and fruity", while the San Francisco Chronicle has it in its list of value wines from top wineries.

Now, he joins the league of new-age winemakers who do not come from winemaking school or a family of winemakers.

Emphasising that wines are "not trophies" and should not be made unattainable, he applauds efforts by the Californian winemaking community to promote one another's wines.

Younger wine-drinkers are getting into his wines as well, thanks to recommendations by sommeliers.

He says: "It also helps that this younger crowd - 25 to 35 years old - is more IT savvy.

"The older generation think they come across as less sophisticated if they ask about wines, but the younger ones want to learn."

A believer in personal touch in customer service, he replies to e-mail messages personally and loves feedback from consumers.

And while his wines have gained many fans, the hardest people to win over were his in-laws. His wife is French.

Chuckling, he says: "My in-laws in France don't get it. We did not go to winemaking school or come from a multi-generational family of winemakers. But they have grown to accept it."

To pre-order wines from Dirty And Rowdy and Cruse Wine Co or join the mailing list for Artisan Cellars, e-mail sales@artisan-cellars.com.