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Laurie Jervis: At Rusack Vineyards, California’s History Is Proudly in Its Roots

Winemaker Steve Gerbac traces the story of historic zinfandel grapes from Santa Cruz Island, a Catalina Island vineyard and the Rusack family’s Ballard Canyon headquarters

Rusack Vineyards winemaker Steve Gerbac with pinot noir aging in barrels inside the cellar at the winery on Ballard Canyon Road near Solvang. Click to view larger
Rusack Vineyards winemaker Steve Gerbac with pinot noir aging in barrels inside the cellar at the winery on Ballard Canyon Road near Solvang. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara resident and winemaker Steve Gerbac regularly commutes to Ballard Canyon Road for work — but some days, he also hops a plane to Catalina Island, where his employer, Rusack Vineyards, has another vineyard.

From his start in the cellar at Rusack in 2003, Gerbac now oversees winemaking for the winery, owned by Geoff Rusack and his wife, Alison Wrigley Rusack, heir to the Wrigley chewing-gum fortune.

Gerbac’s lengthy winemaking career started at Whitcraft Winery in Santa Barbara, where he helped Drake Whitcraft with the 2001 harvest, followed by Brander Vineyard in Los Olivos.

He was hired at Rusack as a production assistant, and worked his way up to cellar master, assistant winemaker under longtime winemaker John Falcone, and, in 2012, to winemaker, when Falcone moved on to Gainey Vineyard.

After six years at Rusack, Gerbac launched his own label, Dolina Wines, which focuses on pinot noir and chardonnay sourced from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills. His wife, Lisa, a publicist, markets the label from their Santa Barbara home. The two are parents to Maddie, 4½, and Sean, 2.

I toured Rusack with Gerbac on March 22, a rainy Wednesday. We drove through two of the estate vineyard properties, both off Ballard Canyon Road, and tasted through a flight of wines.

It’s not a leap to trace Rusack Vineyards’ local winemaking history to the late 1880s via a businessman named Justinian Caire. He is the fellow who first introduced grapevines to Santa Cruz Island, according to a history of the island property.

Nearly a century later, Rusack met the ranch manager for Santa Cruz Island, who showed him some gnarled grapevines growing amid the scrub oak and other plants.

Rusack collected samples, Gerbac told me, and had them identified as zinfandel by DNA experts at UC Davis.

Enter the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy, which were determined to return the 97-square-mile Santa Cruz Island to its native state. The historic vineyard there did not mesh with their plans, and The Nature Conservancy reached out to the Rusacks: Would they like the cuttings?

With The Nature Conservancy’s blessing — it owns a majority of the island, including the site from which the cuttings were taken — the Rusacks in 2007 transplanted cuttings from Santa Cruz’s historic zinfandel grape vines to a one-acre vineyard plot on Catalina’s El Rancho Escondido, a working ranch owned by the Wrigley family since the early 1930s.

The Catalina Island vineyard today also includes pinot noir grapes and some of the chardonnay bottled for the Rusack label; more chardonnay is sourced from Santa Maria vineyards such as Bien Nacido, Gerbac said.

In 2010, more of the zinfandel vine cuttings from Santa Cruz Island were planted on four acres amid the rolling hills of the 600-plus acre Rancho Colina, the Rusack family property located across Ballard Canyon Road from the winery and tasting room.

Four acres of head-trained vines comprise the Rancho Colina vineyard on Rusack family property across Ballard Canyon Road from the Rusack Vineyards winery. The vines were cuttings from historical vines growing on Santa Cruz Island in the late 1880s. Click to view larger
Four acres of head-trained vines comprise the Rancho Colina vineyard on Rusack family property across Ballard Canyon Road from the Rusack Vineyards winery. The vines were cuttings from historical vines growing on Santa Cruz Island in the late 1880s. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

Caring for those local head-trained vines is “a fun project,” Gerbac said. The soil on Rancho Colina is a rich clay, evidenced by the thick mud we drove through on that March day.

“It’s an opportunity for us to make what a zinfandel should taste like,” he explained.

Famed vineyard manager Ruben Solarzano, aka “the grape whisperer,” manages both Ballard Canyon vineyard sites for the Rusack family, Gerbac said. Solarzano manages several other Ballad Canyon Road vineyards, among them Stolpman and Jonata, and is familiar with the local soils, composed largely of well-drained sand.

Before the Rusacks bought their winery property in 1995, it was known as Ballard Canyon Winery. The original vines, planted on a hillside between the road and the winery/tasting room, were mostly cabernet franc and sangiovese grapes, Gerbac said.

Today, the 17-acre vineyard is more than half syrah, the grape on which the relatively new Ballard Canyon American Viticultural Area has staked its claim. The site also contains smaller blocks of sauvignon blanc, semillon and petite sirah, and a few rows of merlot and petit verdot, Gerbac said.

But it’s the syrah grape that the Rusacks and Gerbac favor: the estate vineyard now contains six different clones of that grape, he said.

Rusack’s total production is about 8,000 cases per year, Gerbac told me.

“That number is a better fit for us, as our biggest tank is 2,000 gallons,” he noted.

The winery itself is built into the hillside above the vineyard and adjacent to the tasting room, which offers a deck shaded by oak trees.

New Zealand native Amy Paynter is assistant winemaker and runs the on-site lab, Gerbac said. Winery production and storage space includes three levels, with the barrel room on the first floor and a third-floor room largely unused because it’s too warm most of the year, he said.

The estate vineyard adjacent to the Rusack Vineyards winery is comprised mostly of various syrah clones, but also grows sauvignon blanc, semillon and petite syrah, and a few rows of merlot and petit verdot. Click to view larger
The estate vineyard adjacent to the Rusack Vineyards winery is comprised mostly of various syrah clones, but also grows sauvignon blanc, semillon and petite syrah, and a few rows of merlot and petit verdot. (Laurie Jervis / Noozhawk photo)

The bulk of Rusack’s pinot noir is sourced from John Sebastiano Vineyard in the western Santa Rita Hills (“We were one of the first grape contracts there,” Gerbac said.), as well as from Fiddlestix and Mount Carmel, and Solomon Hills in the Santa Maria Valley, Gerbac said.

Gerbac and I tasted a flight on nine of the 18 wines Rusack currently produces. A snapshot of the tasting follows:

» 2016 Rosé of Pinot Noir (500 cases produced): Gerbac makes this rosé in the saignee (juice bleed) style. It’s got one of the prettiest, most aromatic noses I’ve encountered with a palate to match. Think rose petals.

» 2014 Mount Carmel Chardonnay (200 cases): Solarzano also manages Mount Carmel Vineyard, and Gerbac calls this chardonnay “a fun addition” to the winery’s lineup.

» 2015 Catalina Island Vineyard Chardonnay: The Catalina Island vineyard contains 1½ acres of chardonnay, he said. The 2015 vintage there was a good one for Rusack, even though 2015 was a lighter vintage elsewhere in California due to the ongoing drought, he added. This wine is very mineral driven, light and elegant.

“The Catalina chardonnay ripens early, and shows its acidity,” he said.

» 2014 Catalina Island Pinot Noir: This wine is lighter in color than a “standard” pinot noir, and I found it to be bright, “sassy” and earthy. Gerbac calls this pinot noir “exactly my goal from Catalina: It has a hint of fruit with earth tones of cranberry, raspberry and cedar.”

» 2014 Mount Carmel Vineyard Pinot Noir: Quite a different animal than the Catalina Vineyard pinot noir before it, this is a more fruit-forward wine that comprises three clones, 2A, 667 and 828. The palate is ripe fruit. The elevation of Mount Carmel is much higher than that of Catalina, and the latter is a very windy site, Gerbac said.

We next tasted two zinfandels: First, the Catalina Island, and second, Rancho Colina on Ballard Canyon Road. Both were 2014 vintages. Catalina is a cool site, and Ballard Canyon is warm.

The Catalina zinfandel displays “a different zinfandel direction than what is typically seen in California,” Gerbac said. Its palate has minimal fruit and lots of black pepper notes typical of a cooler climate wine.

“This goes really well with food,” he noted.

The santa ana winds blow out on the island, and help to push late-season ripening.

“We pick this about one month after the pinot noir grown there, and not at a ridiculous brix level — more like 22 degrees,” Gerbac said.

The Rancho Colina zinfandel is that site’s third vintage, and is dry-farmed. This wine also showcases black pepper, but with more of the “classic dark fruit” and tannins for which zinfandels are known.

“The first vintage, 2012, was tiny, but we hope production from this site will eventually be up to 700 cases,” he said.

Rusack Vineyards is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at 1819 Ballard Canyon Road near Solvang. Click here for more information.

— Laurie Jervis blogs about wine at www.centralcoastwinepress.com, tweets at @lauriejervis and can be reached via [email protected]. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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