Island Vintage: Santa Barbara Vintners Launch First Ever Catalina Island Wines

By Gabe Saglie
(published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on October 9, 2011)

Vineyards on Santa Catalina Island
The news that Alison Wrigley Rusack and her husband, Geoff, are about to launch the first ever wines grown on Santa Catalina Island is fresh off the press.  After all, their debut release – an island-grown chardonnay, pinot noir and zinfandel from the 2009 vintage – is just months away (and has many serious wine drinkers on a growing waiting list on pins and needles).  But in some ways, this story really began close to 30 years ago.

“Alison and I had just started dating and I remember we were riding horseback along a ridge, looking out to the ocean,” recalls Mr. Rusack.  He pauses to gaze out the window of his private plane as, 45 minutes after taking off from its Santa Barbara Municipal Airport home base, it begins its descent toward a rural runway on Catalina; three neatly manicured vineyards are coming into view through the parting clouds.  “And we said to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to have vineyards here one day and make wine?’”

Quite the prophetic notion, it turns out. 

But many years would go by before their romantic conception would become reality.  The Rusacks married in 1985 and settled in Los Angeles, where she developed consumer products for Disney and he worked as an aviation law attorney.  They made the pastoral leap to Ballard Canyon in the early 90s and, before long, the vintner bug bit.  Rusack Vineyards and Winery was established in 1995; the doors to its tasting room opened two years later.  And today, thanks in large part to the talented stewardship by winemakers John and Helen Falcone, the brand is synonymous with some of the best Rhone and Burgundian wines in Santa Barbara County.

There’s always been that connection to Santa Catalina Island, though.  Anchored 22 miles off the Southern California coast, it’s the third largest isle on the Channel Island chain and the only one that’s privately owned.  And that’s where Mrs. Rusack -- and her pedigree – feature prominently.

William Wrigley, Jr., her great-grandfather, is easily one of the great businessmen in American history.  He founded the Wrigley Company in the 1890s and would go on to make a fortune selling wildly popular brands of chewing gum to the American public.  In the decades that followed, he’d own the Chicago Cubs baseball team; their historic hometown ballpark was named in his honor.  And he’d own the luxury, landmark Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix.

But a significant chapter of his legacy is what he did for Santa Catalina.  He joined investors in the 75-square-mile island in 1915 – they were the Santa Catalina Island Company – and, four years later, bought them out to own it outright.  In the years that followed, the made major improvements, such as revamping water systems and public utilities, and developing real estate, which included building the island’s iconic Casino building.  He also founded a company that used local clay to make glazed tiles and house wares which, today, command big money from collectors.  And he regularly hosted his Cubs for spring training on Catalina, on a custom diamond he called “Field of Dreams.”

The Wrigley generations that have followed have continued the legacy of enhancing the island.  Son Philip (also a baseball buff, whose creation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was depicted in the 1992 Tom Hanks film, A League of Their Own) created the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy and deeded 88% of the island – to the tune of 42,000 acres – to it.  One percent of what remained is held, to this day, by private individuals, mainly longtime shop and home owners.  The other 11% is managed by the Santa Catalina Island Company, which Philip’s son, William, inherited; when he died in 1999, controlling shares in that company went to his daughter.

That daughter is Alison Wrigley Rusack.

Today, she and husband Geoff have taken the reigns in restoring the Company’s stake on the island.  That includes much of the tourism attractions on Avalon, Catalina’s main town and, for years now, a popular daytrip for Southern Californians.  “We’re primarily a real estate company,” says Mr. Rusack, referring to their three hotels and three restaurants in Avalon, including the much buzzed-about Avalon Grille.  The Company also manages several new tourist-friendly attractions – including semi-submersible boats, fly-fishing outposts and a 4000-foot zip-line – and general stores on the resort town of Two Harbors, which is popular with leisure boaters.

But the most important part of the Company’s portfolio, if for nothing more than sentimental reasons, is El Rancho Escondido, or The Hidden Ranch.  The rustic property was founded by grandfather Philip as a training ground for the Wrigley family’s Arabian horses, which were, for years, shown throughout the United States.  Until recently, and for some 70 years, the property was open to the public and became an effective attraction to get visitors off the beach and into the island’s unspoiled interior which, to this day, is marked by rocky roads, meandering canyons and wildlife.  Breeds of foxes, quail and shrews unique to the island are still readily spotted, as are more than 200 bison which were brought in as extras for a movie back in the 1920s and which, today, are allowed to roam free.   Native mahogany and ironwood trees dot the landscape.

The ranch is now closed, as the Rusacks begin the process of restructuring the property into what will one day reopen as “a spectacular visitors’ center,” says Mr. Rusack as he takes the News-Press on an exclusive tour.  “We’re envisioning this as a destination for weddings, concerts and corporate events.”

The property’s stable still houses expertly maintained carriages that, decades ago, would whisk VIP guests in from Avalon, as well as hand-crafted silver saddles owned by generations of Wrigleys.  Numerous black and white photos depict the family’s history; some, dating back to the late 1940s, show the Wrigley family arriving on the island for visits aboard their private DC-3.  And an old ranch house still abuts the stable; it’s home to dozens more old photos (one shows Phil Wrigley making music alongside Walt Disney), various taxidermied catches and a bathroom done entirely in that coveted Catalina tile.

But the most exciting part of the Rusacks’ project may be what Mr. Rusack animatedly outlines in pantomime fashion as he exits the stable.  “Here, here’s where we’ll put a winery,” he declares.  “And here, a tasting room with a deck,” pointing to a plot overlooking the ocean in the distance and -- and this is where the project’s uniqueness is most evident – a beautifully manicured vineyard in full bloom.

Prophetic notion fulfilled.

The Rusacks began to explore in earnest the idea of planting grapevines on Catalina Island in 2002.  They flew in experts from as far away as Australia to help study things like soil conditions and climate.  On the soil front, the initial news was not good; unrelenting ocean exposure had resulted in the presence of boron and, mainly, salt at significant levels.  The Rusacks would go on to do intensive soil flushing and rinsing; they would also plant vines at elevated heights to promote water flow, build a sophisticated drain system under each vineyard row and install a drip irrigation system.

At first, they considered planting syrah, a varietal with which they’d already had great success on the mainland, in Santa Barbara County.  “But all the data that was coming back was telling us that the conditions were so good for Bungundian grapes, that pinot noir and chardonnay became a no-brainer,” says Rusack.

In 2004, Mr. Rusack and two of their sons, Parker and Austin, flew out to neighboring Santa Cruz Island to hand-pick rugged grapevines that had long been growing wild.  Nature protection groups on both islands already enjoyed a collaborative relationship in myriad species recovery and environmental restoration projects, so when the Rusacks requested access to the vines, the Nature Conservancy’s Santa Cruz Island project “was happy to do so,” explains Rusack.  Cuttings were sent to UC Davis, where two grape varieties were identified: Mission and zinfandel.  The former enjoys little caché in the wine business, but the Rusacks made the call with little hesitation to include the newly discovered zin in their budding Catalina wine project.

In March of 2007, the Rusacks, themselves, joined members of Buellton-based Coast Vineyard Care in planting the very first vineyards on Santa Catalina Island: one acre of zinfandel, two acres of chardonnay and three acres of pinot noir; the pinot vineyard was quickly dubbed the “View Block” for the generous glimpse of ocean it offers.

It’s unusual to see pinot noir and chardonnay, which thrive in cooler environments, planted in such close proximity to the warmer-weather zinfandel.  “But we have the zin on a south facing slope,” says winemaker John Falcone, “and it’s amazing to see how different the conditions there can be.  It works!”

Falcone has two digital weather stations positioned throughout the vineyards, which he can check electronically even from the comfort of his Ballard Canyon home.  During harvest season, he flies out to Catalina at least weekly to check on growing conditions; usually, he tags along on flights aboard the Rusacks’ personal plane that are already carrying other employees on important family business.  When the grapes are harvested, they are transported to Catalina’s Airport in the Sky (it sits at an elevation of 1600 feet above sea level), packed inside oversized bins and loaded on a jet engine Cessna Caravan that’s been outfitted as a cargo plane.  They arrive, often in the early morning hours, at the Santa Ynez Airport, before being trucked to the Rusack Vineyards winemaking facility.  “I’ve never had grapes arrive by plane before,” admits Falcone with a chuckle.

The first harvest from the new vines took place in autumn of 2009.  There were, naturally, several challenges; among them, vastly different yields between the varietals and uneven bud break on the zinfandel.  “That’s common with zin,” says Falcone, “but here, it was definitely exacerbated.”  The 2010 yields were considerably smaller, due in large part to an unforeseen infestation by tens of thousands of yellow jackets.  The harvest for 2011 is going on now; no buzzers have been spotted in the horizon.

“When we planted, we really didn’t know what to expect,” admits Rusack as he meanders through the vines, inspecting grape clusters quickly nearing pick-ready conditions.  “But what’s really great to see now is how healthy the vines look.”

The 2009 debut crop resulted in 265 cases of chardonnay, 125 cases of pinot noir and just 60 cases of zinfandel.  A very small production for a truly unique wine project.  Real wine merits aside, these are bottlings that are, naturally, already generating buzz among the wine curious; prices are still being set and a waiting list is growing quickly for exclusive allocations of the first ever Santa Catalina Island Vineyards releases within a few months.  (You can find more information and join the waiting list at www.catalinaislandvineyards.com.)

But novelty aside, these wines are remarkably noteworthy and decidedly distinct.  “They were made the same way we make the Rusack wines” that use Santa Barbara County fruit, says Falcone, “but they are very different.”  What the industry defines as the expression of terroir – how a sense of place translates to flavor in the bottle – may be especially alive here.  The chardonnay is rich and tropical on the nose, with great acidity in the mouth.  The pinot noir is especially unique, with dark, earthy aromas but delicate red fruit flavors.  And the zinfandel displays wonderful elegance, generous in fruit and refreshingly lower in alcohol than many popular California zins. 

Distinctiveness is allowing the Rusacks to find real thrill in what started as an experiment and bona fide leap of faith.  For Falcone, the project has balanced a fair share of anxiety-producing unknowns with the type of professional satisfaction that may only come from doing something truly special.  “We’re making wine – really good wine -- in a spot in the world where no one else has ever done it before,” he says as he swings shut the gates to the vineyard than have been erected to ward off wandering bison.  “And that’s pretty cool.”

And so, with the investment and commitment of another generation, the Wrigley legacy continues.

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