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Rusack Wines - Beating the Odds to Make Island Wines

It’s been said that the Santa Catalina vineyard owned by Geoff Rusack and Alison Wrigley Rusack is among the “world’s most challenging vineyards,” and frankly, the husband-and-wife duo behind Santa Barbara County’s Rusack Vineyards would have to agree. They are the first to admit that growing grapes on an island is no easy feat; challenging conditions include protecting the vines from natural wildlife and the sometimes harsh marine influences of strong winds and heavy fog. Then there are the logistics of flying in a vineyard crew and making sure the grapes, once picked, are transported to their mainland winery in a timely manner. Despite how arduous this undertaking may be, to the Rusacks this island vineyard is, quite literally, a dream come true. Established in 1995, Rusack Vineyards is a small boutique vineyard and winery nestled in the picturesque Ballard Canyon region of the Santa Ynez Valley. Dedicated to hands-on farming and winemaking, Rusack produces a range of acclaimed wines from select vineyards throughout Santa Barbara County, including from their own estate vineyards in Ballard Canyon and on Santa Catalina Island, located 22 miles off the coast of Southern California.

While planting a vineyard on an island far in proximity from their winery may seem like an unnecessary endeavor, it is actually the realization of an idea decades in the making. After their first date over 35 years ago, Geoff and Alison daydreamed of planting vineyards on the Santa Catalina Island ranch, El Rancho Escondido, Alison’s family founded in 1930. Years later, after establishing Rusack Vineyards together, the duo started looking into making that one-time dream a reality. Part of the Channel Islands of California archipelago, Santa Catalina Island (often referred to as just “Catalina”), is widely known as a tourist destination, drawing visitors to experience its quaint charm, pristine ocean views, and natural beauty. Though the island had no history of wine making, the Rusacks knew of neighboring Santa Cruz Island’s past tradition in grape growing, where wine grapes were introduced in 1884 and where Zinfandel thrived until Prohibition. Recognizing that Catalina’s mostly mild conditions and steady temperatures could be ideally suited to growing grapes, the Rusacks hired a team of soil experts and vintners to explore the viability of establishing a vineyard on their ranch, which for decades was a working Arabian horse ranch. After determining it would be challenging, yet doable, they located cuttings from one of the last surviving Zinfandel vines on Santa Cruz Island and planted three varieties—Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir—on 5.5 acres throughout the ranch.

Since their first vintage in 2009, the Santa Catalina wines have been made at Rusack Winery in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley. Each year during the harvest season, Winemaker Steven Gerbac visits the island vines weekly and determines when it’s time for the grapes to make their way to the mainland (via a retrofitted Cessna from Catalina’s Airport to the Santa Ynez Airport), where they are then carefully transported to the winery for production. It may be a painstaking, and costly, effort to make wine, but it seems to be working out in their favor, as the resulting wines have garnered high scores from critics and earned a loyal following. Noted for their unique aromas, complex flavors, and naturally high acidity, these one-of-a-kind wines translate the true essence of Catalina’s character into each bottle. While their vision for a winery on the island is still in the works, where the Rusacks hope to develop a tasting room overlooking the ocean and former horse pastures, the wines can be tasted amidst the beautiful setting of their Ballard Canyon winery, surrounded by rolling hills, vineyards, and ancient oak trees.


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