Wine as an expression of a specific locale, or terroir, is what countless skilled winemakers strive to achieve. A noble goal, to be sure. One winery has taken the task a step further, specifically 22 miles further, offshore on Santa Catalina Island. Buffeted by salty ocean air, the island makes for tough growing conditions for any plant, much less non-native species such as grapevines. “Catalina has its challenges,” agrees Geoff Rusack, who along with wife Allison Wrigley Rusack is behind the island vineyard project, a dream since their first date on the island 27 years ago.
The couple founded their Rusack Vineyards in 1995; it's set in the oak-studded hills of Ballard Canyon in the Santa Ynez Valley. Their offshore vineyard, close to Catalina's Airport in the Sky, occupies fields once used to grow feed for Arabian horses at the historic, 1920s-era El Rancho Escondido. Some history: Alison Rusack's great-grandfather, William Wrigley Jr., once owned almost all of Catalina Island; today, the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy holds 88% of the island in trust and is dedicated to conserving the rugged wild terrain and coastline.
Distinct from L.A.'s other grape-growing areas — Malibu, Bel-Air, Topanga Canyon and Sierra Pelona Valley — how do these wines reflect the island's unique terroir?
“Each particular block of vineyard is distinct in terms of exposure,” explains Geoff Rusack regarding the vineyards' angling toward wind and fog on the backside of Catalina Island.
Temperatures are similar to the Santa Rita Hills and Russian River Valley grape-growing areas, hence the decision to plant chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. A third varietal, zinfandel, was propagated from cuttings from 100-year-old vines found on nearby Santa Cruz Island.
Catalina's soil is somewhat volcanic, although broken down by endemic plants over the course of millennia. Salt, carried by the sea air, was the element that had to be reckoned with.
“Before we planted, we had to re-evaluate the soil, amend it and build a mound system with [water] misters to help leach salt out,” explains Rusack's winemaker, Steven Gerbac.
Another variable: Catalina's endangered wild foxes, who quickly developed a taste for pinot noir grapes. Closer to harvest, netting will cover the vines all the way to the ground to discourage the pinot predators.
There is not yet a winemaking facility on the island — although that may change someday. After grapes are harvested, they are flown from the nearby airport to Santa Maria and then processed at the main Rusack Vineyards facility in Ballard Canyon.
Although there have only been three vintages (the 2011 release is scheduled for May), Gerbec finds, “The Catalina wines are really highlighted by the acid in the wines. Overall in every vintage, the citrus is apparent.” These citrus notes and minerality are distinct from Rusack's mainland-made wine.
“As the project grows, we learn more about the vineyard and something new each year,” Gerbec says. What has stayed constant is the scenic location. “There is nothing around: You can't hear anything but the wind and leaves on the vine,” he adds.
The Rusacks plan to reopen the ranch to visitors, who will be able to sample the product of the island-grown grapes but also take in those stunning vineyard views, arguably the best in Los Angeles County — yes, Catalina Island is part of L.A. County. The ranch and surrounding vineyards have been designated as agricultural lands and Rusack expects the vineyard will demonstrate how agriculture and conservation can co-exist, as well as educate visitors on the Channel Islands' age-old history.
Today, select bottles of the wine are available on the island in Avalon at CC Gallagher and at the Avalon Grille, where the 2009 Santa Catalina Vineyard Chardonnay pairs well with chef Paul Hancock's fresh sea bass ceviche. Tasting them is one memorable take-away from a Catalina Island visit.
“We're doing our utmost to try and keep Catalina relevant: make it a dynamic destination for people to go to,” says the vintner, who along with his wife is deeply involved in the island's management through the Santa Catalina Island Company.
“The wine is 100% Catalina Island,” Rusack says proudly, adding, “What they're drinking in their glass is a form of art that came from Catalina.”