Catalina in a Bottle: Rusack’s Santa Catalina Island Wines Make a Big Splash

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Rusack’s Santa Catalina Island Vineyards

Santa Catalina Island has always made for a great getaway for Angelenos.  The crystal clear waters, gorgeous beaches and rugged terrain, not to mention its close proximity, make the island the perfect place for a relaxing day trip.  Will island wine tasting soon be added to the list of attractions?   Quite possibly, if Geoff and Alison Rusack, owners of Rusack Winery, have anything to say about it.

The Rusack Winery, located in Santa Ynez, CA, is well-known for producing renowned Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Chardonnay throughout Santa Barbara yet in 2007 undertook an entirely new project: planting vineyards on Santa Catalina Island.  The first winery to ever plant on the island, the Rusacks began by planting several acres of Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines.

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Rusack Winemaker Steve Gerbac

The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties were matched to the climate of Catalina, explained winemaker Steve Gerbac, who described the island as windy and foggy during berry set, often resulting in smaller clusters.  The harsh climate serves to naturally limit yields, resulting in a higher concentration of fruit while the fog serves to imbue the wine with somewhat earthy tones

The Zinfandel, on the other hand, is a unique case and is one of the few California cool-climate Zins produced.  The Zinfandel vines grown on Catalina were actually collected from Santa Cruz Island, an island with a history of winemaking and Catalina’s sister island.  After scouring the island for remnants of vineyards planted in the 1800’s that were destroyed during Prohibition, three vines were discovered.  Thought to be a result of birds taking the seeds of the original vineyards elsewhere, the vines were then examined by UC Davis which identified the first as a native mission grape but the other two were Zinfandel.  The Zinfandel was then cut and replanted on Catalina Island alongside the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.   Rare to find restrained Zins in California, the Catalina Island Zinfandel is an elegant expression of the variety, displaying aromas of cedar and tobacco leaf.

What ties all three wines together is the unique citrusy note they all share, unique to the island, as well as their higher acidity, minerality and salinity.

First harvesting in 2009, the experience has not always been easy.  Dealing with gophers, foxes and yellow jackets who seemed quite excited to enjoy the fruits of their labor, the Rusacks labored on.  Gerbac describes the process as an ongoing learning experience, and while having eradicated these problems, are still readying themselves for any unforeseen challenge.

Perhaps the largest challenge facing the Rusacks is cost.  While winemaking is rarely viewed as a profitable enterprise, making wine in Catalina brings with it extremely high expenses.  Currently, all of the grapes are harvested on the island then flown back to Rusack’s winery in Santa Ynez to crush.  While the process is extremely expensive, Gerbac says it’s worth it if the result is making great wine.

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In 2012, the Rusacks began another costly project on the island: rebuilding the El Rancho Escondido in the hopes of creating a winery and tasting room on the island.  While the project isn’t slated for completion for several more years, the hope is to make the tasting room a destination for tourists visiting the island.

While currently the production is too small to keep a tasting room properly stocked, as of today only five of their allotted eighteen acres have been planted so a plan to expand the vineyards is also underway.

Production is still low, kept to around 100-300 cases per year and as such, distribution is scarce, with the Zinfandel sold entirely through direct sale.  Finding the Pinot Noir outside of the winery is a rare treat as the Chardonnay, having higher yields, is really the only wine widely distributed.

Despite the small releases, the reception of these wines have been entirely favorable.  Other wineries have recently begun making requests to purchase fruit, all of which have been denied.  According the Gerbac, there just isn’t enough to part with.  At least not yet.

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Click here for information on visiting Rusack Winery in Santa Ynez, CA

To purchase Rusack’s Santa Catalina Island Wines, visit http://catalinaislandvineyards.com/

WSA/NASA Silver Pin Certified Sommelier, Central Coast wine enthusiast and overall travel junkie

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