August 2012 Fla

Extreme Winegrowing . . . in Mid-Ocean

story and photos by Randy Caparoso


Cold-climate winegrowing well beyond the coast: Santa Catalina Island Vineyards, on the most famous of Southern California’s Channel Islands.

Twenty-six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is a-waiting for me, goes the old hit song; glamorizing the romance, romance, romance of Santa Catalina Island, the most storied of Southern California’s Channel Islands and strikingly reminiscent of Capri in Italy’s Bay of Naples.

With its celebrity history—Clark Gable and much of Hollywood played and filmed here, Natalie Wood mysteriously went under its waters and even Marilyn Monroe once lived in Santa Catalina’s main town, Avalon—and slew of hotels, yacht clubs, trails, beaches and water sports, there is plenty of romance to be found by visitors to this 75-square-mile island, which glistens like a jewel on sunny days as you approach it on a ferry from Los Angeles or, better yet, in a small plane coming from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.

The early 2012 release of the first three wines under the Santa Catalina Island Vineyards label has only added to the luster, especially for connoisseurs of totally unique, discernibly distinct terroirs. The island’s one and only vineyard went into the ground only in 2007, planted by Geoffrey and Alison Rusack, whose solid record of success already included Rusack Vineyards in Santa Barbara’s Ballard Canyon (est. 1995), producing Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Syrahs second to none in the state.

Alison Rusack’s great-grandfather was the legendary chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr., who took majority ownership of Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919 (the same year he purchased the Chicago Cubs). In 1975, Ms. Rusack’s grandfather, Philip Wrigley, deeded 88% of the island to a conservation group, Catalina Island Conservancy, keeping 11% of the island in the family, including a remote, wind-swept ranch in the rugged interior where the Wrigleys maintained a longtime home and Arabian horse ranch called El Rancho Escondido.


Winemaker John Falcone (front) and founder Geoff Rusack on the estate.
In 1999 Alison Rusack took control of Santa Catalina Island Company at the death of her father, William Wrigley III, and immediately initiated multiple projects towards restoration of the island’s image as a visitor attraction in both the main harbor town of Avalon (population 3,700) and El Rancho Escondido.

The Rusacks first looked into planting wine grapes on the ranch in 2002, bringing in the usual battery of climatologists and soil analysts to assess their chances. The verdict: With degree days approximating upper Region I/low Region II, and growing season temperatures hovering ideally between highs of 67°–75° F and lows of 53°–63° F, “going with Burgundian grapes seemed like a no-brainer,” according to Mr. Rusack.

Occasional gale-force winds whipping in from an Eternity Beach–like cove just two miles away on the north side of the island adds further debilitating effect—for good or bad—and salt and boron contents (necessitating flushing and mounding) in the predominantly clay, schist and sand-laced soil contribute further to the perils of extreme winegrowing on an island. This is not cold-climate coastal winegrowing: It’s cold-climate winegrowing well beyond a coast, smack dab in the middle of an ocean.

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate the six-acre vineyard. On a south-facing slope, one acre is planted to an unknown clone of Zinfandel, culled from of one of the smaller Channel Islands (Santa Cruz), where vines were left to grow wild at the onset of Prohibition. Top-notch Santa Barbara–based viticultural consultants Jeff Newton and Larry Finkle of Coastal Vineyard Care were enlisted to maintain the vineyard—literal “flying winegrowers,” popping in and out of Santa Catalina Island’s so-called Airport in the Sky (elevation 1,550 ft.) all year round.

“Of course, we had no real idea of what to expect when we first planted,” says John Falcone, who is the winemaker of note (in partnership with wife Helen Rusack) for all the Rusack wines. Happily, besides intense varietal character, Falcone has found a distinct minerality, laced with oceanic salinity, in the Catalina-grown wines from the beginning (their first vintage was in 2009), particularly in the Pinot Noir and to some extent in the Zinfandel. The reds show surprisingly more transparency than the Chardonnay. “There are terroir-related nuances,” says Falcone, “very light in the nose, but definitely dancing around in the mouth, and lingering in the finish.”

The setting may be idyllic, but the wine production? A hair-graying exercise (judging from Geoff Rusack’s mane) in defiance of the usual vineyard protocols and winemaking comfort zones. But isn’t that what cutting-edge wine should be about?

Tasting Notes

Due to small production, very little of Santa Catalina Island Vineyards’ will be sold on the open market, but here are my notes on the inaugural—and across the board, outstanding—releases. Because Santa Catalina Island is not (yet!) an AVA, the wines carry a California appellation. —R. C.

Rusack 2009 Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Chardonnay ($75)
Pale gold; sweet toned nose of creamy apple, lemon peel and subtle toasty edges tinged with mineral sensations; all the above manifested in a zesty medium-full body, broad in the middle, finishing with a lip smacking dryness.

Rusack 2009 Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Pinot Noir ($85) Emphatically perfumed, exotic nose of violet/lilac floral notes and sandalwood spices with smoky touches; on the palate, a crisply defined medium body, with the floral notes intertwined with dried/burnt-edged/brushy (coyote, manzanita, sage) and saline/mineral sensations—reflecting a terroir that appears to excise tertiary rather than primary fruit qualities from the grape.

Rusack 2009 Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Zinfandel ($65) Black-purplish pigmentation and lush, sweetly ripened fruit qualities mixed with the flinty saline/mineral notes; solid medium-full body with a balancing sense of levity (notwithstanding 14.3% alcohol), giving a flavorful yet restrained, chiseled, elegant feel.

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