The Tasting Panel magazine

JULY 2012

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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 plant- ing wine grapes on the ranch in 2002, bringing in the usual battery of clima- tologists 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 whip- ping in from an Eternity Beach–like cove just two miles away on the north side of the island adds further debilitat- ing effect—for good or bad—and salt 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 wine- maker 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 Winemaker John Falcone (front) and founder Geoff Rusack on the estate. 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 sandal- wood 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. and boron contents (necessitating flushing and mounding) in the pre- dominantly clay, schist and sand-laced soil contribute further to the perils of extreme winegrowing on an island. This is not cold-climate coastal wine- growing: 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 to some extent in the Zinfandel. The reds show surprisingly more transpar- ency 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? 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 (notwith- standing 14.3% alcohol), giving a flavorful yet restrained, chiseled, elegant feel. july 2012 / the tasting panel / 39

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