If we were playing “Jeopardy,” the Final Jeopardy clue under the category California wine could go like this: “This Palisadian-bred winery owner made one of the most audacious decisions in California history in 2007 by planting a vineyard on Santa Catalina Island.”
If you said “Who is Geoff Rusack?” you would win the prize. But you would not know the full story behind that risky endeavor.
Geoff Rusack moved to Pacific Palisades with his family when he was 8 years old in 1964. His father was an Episcopal priest who rose in the ranks to be elected Bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles.
All the while, the family lived in The Riviera near Sunset and Amalfi Drive. Rusack played Little League baseball in Rustic Canyon, attended St. Matthew’s Parish Day School and as a teenager, worked at the car wash next to Ralphs supermarket.
He went to high school at The Harvard School before heading off to Bowdoin College, but he returned to the Palisades to live while studying law at Pepperdine. While in law school he met his future wife Alison Wrigley, who was connected to the family that bequeathed most of Catalina Island to the land trust that still owns it.
Rusack established a practice as a defense attorney and got a commercial pilot’s license, which would serve him well in the wine business.
Through professional connections, Rusack met several important winery owners, among them Brooks Firestone and Donn Chappellet. He and his wife joined their ranks when they bought a winery in Santa Barbara County in 1991 and renamed it Rusack Vineyards in time for the first releases in 1995.
The winery specializes in Syrah that it grows on 17 acres, part of a 48-acre spread in Ballard Canyon that the family—including three sons—lived on for many years.
They took another large leap in 2007 when they planted four acres of vines on part of a former horse ranch on Catalina Island. Since Prohibition, no grapes had been grown on any of the offshore islands; a defunct vineyard on Santa Cruz had some neglected old Zinfandel vines.
Rusack obtained some of these and sprouted them, along with some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which seemed suited to the cool climate of the west-facing slopes.
With no neighbors to turn to for advice, the Catalina vineyard faced a great many hazards in the early years. Rusack enumerated some of them: “Crickets, quail, foxes, birds, wasps, mold, high winds: We had it all,” he told the Palisadian-Post.
And then, of course, you have to factor in the high cost of labor, which you have to fly out to the island regularly. Fortunately, he can often piggyback those flights with his own travel there to his work as chairman of the Catalina Island Company.
Though some island tourists visit the vineyard, by itself economically, “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, which means that the island vineyard is more a labor of love than a bankable asset.
Yet it thrives. The wines have earned many favorable reviews for their restrained style and spicy notes.
The most distinctive is the Zinfandel, a grape that normally flourishes in warmer regions. On Catalina, the wine shows cranberry and clove notes, along with fine balance and elegant tannins that portend a good future in the cellar.
All of the Catalina Island wines are scarce, available only at a handful of retail outlets, the winery and through a mailing list, but they are worth seeking out.