A few miles from the town of Solvang, in north Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon area, lies the estate vines of Rusack Vineyards, a small boutique winery producing well-reviewed syrah, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc and other varietals. Established in 1995, Geoff and Alison Wrigley Rusack have developed a reputation for consistency and innovation. However, it was an idea and an opportunity years ago that lead to a project truly unique to the wine community.
Alison’s great grandfather, William Wrigley Jr., of chewing gum fame, headed a company that owned Santa Catalina Island. While the property was deeded over to the Santa Catalina Island Conservancy years ago, the family retained ownership of a few parcels, namely the old Rancho Escondido horse ranch site on the west side of the island. It was there, after some study and research, that the Rusacks decided the terroir, similar to California’s other Burgundian-style growing regions like the Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills, was ripe for pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay. In 2007, they established a five-acre vineyard on the old site with 2.5 acres of chardonnay and two acres of pinot noir, leaving a small sliver for something totally out-of-the-box.
Geoff caught wind of a story about some old vines that had survived on Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara. He received permission to take some cuttings which were sent to the UC Davis and determined to be zinfandel. Apparently, the vines, planted around the turn of the century, produced wine until Prohibition. More cuttings were taken and planted in the remaining half-acre and, in 2007, an experiment that reached far beyond most people’s imagination began.
In 2009, amid much anticipation, Rusack released the inaugural vintage of their Santa Catalina Vineyard wines and, those willing to take a risk on a brave idea, committed to an Isla Wine Circle membership, receiving one bottle each of chardonnay, pinot noir and old-vine zinfandel in a monogrammed wooden box. While the entire story is intriguing, the gauge of success would be the quality and sustainability of the wine. Recently, the seventh rendition in the wooden box was released and, by all accounts, their experiment has been a huge success.
An earthy quality distinguishes the Rusack Catalina Island Pinot Noir 2014 ($72) from many other fruit-forward pinots. Citrus and cinnamon aromas lead to tart, full flavors of cherry and cranberry that soften during the finish. Wine Enthusiast magazine, awarding the 2014 release 92-points, described a “strong sagebrush quality” that, in my mind, does not distract, but nicely balances the expression of fruit. Fermented in macro bins and aged in French oak, 50 percent new, only 1,500 bottles of this unique wine exist.
The island’s highest-rated chardonnay release to date is the Rusack Catalina Island Chardonnay 2015 ($60), granted 92-96 points by the major periodicals. Barrel fermented with 100 percent malolactic fermentation and multiple lees stirrings, it has a wonderful silky texture that expresses flavors of vanilla, oak, nuts and butterscotch. Those preferring citrus and tropical fruit qualities might be disappointed except for complexity of the flavors and the rich, soft finish that this wine delivers.
There are numerous fine California zinfandel releases on the market, none with more history and backstory than the Rusack Catalina Island Zinfandel 2014 ($72). In this vintage, the small half acre planted in zinfandel produced only 205 cases. Aged 16 months in a combination of French and American oak, there are strong spice notes in the bouquet followed by flavors of plum, cedar and various spices. Once the wine opened up, the tannins softened and the lush texture came to the surface. As with much zinfandel, this wine can be enjoyed immediately or within the next decade.
I recently paired the 2013 vintage of the zinfandel with a diverse cheese plate of chèvre goat cheese, smoked gouda and Roncal, a sheep’s cheese from Spain, and it was compatible with each.
The seventh vintage, including the 2015 pinot noir and zinfandel along with the 2016 chardonnay, was released last November. Rusack’s Santa Catalina Island project has been a success and answered any questions regarding the vineyards ability to produce sustainable, high-quality fruit.