Island in a Bottle: Distinct Wines Born from Rusack's Catalina Island Adventure

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 13, 2011)


Alison and Geoff Rusack
When Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband, Geoff Rusack, planted the first ever vineyards on Santa Catalina Island four years ago, it was a lot like planting grapes in their own backyard.  After all, the rocky, 75-square-mile Channel isle – which is located some 22 miles off the Southern California coast – is a significant part of Mrs. Rusack’s family legacy.

The Rusacks own controlling shares of the Santa Catalina Island Company, which manages 11% of Catalina.  It’s proprietary control that stems back to Mrs. Rusack’s great-grandfather, William Wrigley, Jr.  The magnate who made a fortune selling chewing gum brands to the American public at the turn of the 20th century bought the island from fellow investors in 1919.

Perhaps most important to the Rusacks’ stake on Catalina is El Rancho Escondido, or the Hidden Ranch, which was established as a Wrigley family retreat in 1931.  For decades a tourist attraction, the ranch is closed now, as the Rusacks undertake a major overhaul aimed at transforming the property into a destination for weddings and corporate events, and to expand by adding a winery. 

The Rusacks have had commercial success with their namesake wine venture in Santa Barbara County since 1995, so this is them spreading their viticultural wings to their other home, across the channel.  Syrah was a serious consideration at first, but when weather studies pointed to ideal growing conditions for Burgundian grapes, the land was earmarked for pinot noir and chardonnay.  They also selected zinfandel, a warmer weather grape that’s not necessarily their ideal neighbor.  But this wasn’t your ordinary zin.  The Rusacks had obtained the wild vines from neighboring Santa Cruz Island, thanks to its long-standing collaboration with Catalina on conservancy projects.  Experts at UC Davis identified them as zinfandel, and it would be planted near its Burgundian neighbors, but on a sunnier south-facing slope.

Aerial view of Catalina Island Vineyard
The three vineyards are planted on six total acres that surround El Rancho Escondido: one acre of zinfandel, two of chardonnay and three of pinot noir; a portion of the pinot plot has been dubbed the “View Block” because the ocean is clearly visible in the distance on any clear day.  It’s over this block that the Rusacks envision building a wine tasting room with a deck.

For now the wines are being made at their Santa Ynez Valley facility.  That means that the grapes are being flown in a retrofitted Cessna from Catalina’s Airport in the Sky to the Santa Ynez Airport, then trucked to the awaiting winemaking team of John and Helen Falcone.  Not a cheap way to make wine.

The first Santa Catalina Island Vineyards vintage was 2009, a project made all the more thrilling by all the unknowns.  No one has grown wine grapes here before; there’s no past data to refer to; no past mistakes to learn from.  But “we’re making wine – really good wine -- in a spot in the world where no one else has ever done it before,” says John Falcone, “and that’s pretty cool.”

Falcone has made the Catalina wines very much like the Rusack wines from the Santa Ynez Valley; same facility, same barrels, same overall philosophy.  His goal is to extract the genuine flavors that the island imparts on the vines.  “What does Catalina really taste like?” he says.  And from what I can tell, the answer is, “Delicious and distinct.”

I recently sat with Falcone at the Rusack vineyard property to taste the three debut wines; in the case of the chardonnay and pinot, we taste them alongside their Santa Barbara County counterparts.  And what’s clear right of the bat is that there is, yes, plenty of merit here; the Falcones consistently make great wine.  But there’s also a clear uniqueness to these wines.  Terroir – or the expression of place inside the wine bottle – resides comfortably on the other side of each cork.

The Catalina chardonnay has a bouquet that’s rich in fruit, with earthy, spicy and tropical notes.  It’s big in the mouth – round in the front and mid-palate, especially – but with enough acidity, minerality and a wet stone streak to make it very drinkable.  It’s delectably layered and nuanced.  By comparison, the Santa Barbara County chard, made from Sierra Madre and Bien Nacido fruit, is leaner on the nose, with less acidity on the palate.  Equally worth every sip, of course, but different, and a fascinating study in differences in terroir.

The Catalina pinot noir may be the most distinct wine of all three.  Dark to the eye, and dark in its aromas of earth and tea leaves.  But its flavors are deliciously delicate: bright red fruit, some tart cherries, flowers and a soft spicy end.  It makes you want to reach for dried fruits – or a mix of nuts and cheeses – right away.  And it’s more focused on the palate than the Rusack Santa Maria pinot we tasted alongside, which proved broader in the mouth.  Overall, a very distinctive rendition of what’s become a very popular red wine.

“The ’09 zinfandel saw radically uneven bud break,” Falcone tells me as he pours.  “Like months apart.”  A Catalina curve ball.  But the result is surprisingly attractive, and sophisticated.  A perfumy nose leads to velvety jamminess in the mouth, generous fruit, black pepper and – stay with me here – a lean meat feel.  This is an elegant, restrained version of zinfandel and refreshingly lower in alcohol than many other, popular California zins: 14.3% versus 16% or 17%, or higher.  “Early on, this was really just going to be an experiment,” Falcone admits.  What would zinfandel grown so close to the sea really do?  “But honestly, when we tasted it after fermentation, we were all really impressed, so we went through with it and bottled it.”

The Rusacks have been permitted to plant 12 more acres, so this project’s output is bound to grow in vintages to come.  And since there’s no AVA, or federally-assigned appellation, established on Catalina (and seeking one for such a small venture may not be worth the expense), the wine carries a “California” designation.  The label features a simple drawing of the landmark Channel Island fox, seated, overlooking the vineyards and El Rancho Escondido.

With final pricing still being set, and public release expected within a few months, sales of the debut 2009 Santa Catalina Island Vineyards wines will be done through a waiting list, which you can access at www.catalinaislandvineyards.com.

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