California's most interesting new terroir has been a movie set, a buffalo grazing spot, a playground for the Hollywood elite and a baseball spring training site.
Until six years ago, nobody ever planted wine grapes on Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles (35 km) offshore from Los Angeles, because economically it didn't make sense. And maybe it still doesn't. Rusack Vineyards is charging $72 a bottle for its pinot noir and zinfandel from there, and that doesn't come close to covering the cost of production.
"I was against planting there," says vineyard manager Larry Finkle. "I told Geoff [Rusack], we're swimming upstream here."
All the equipment and workers have to be flown to the island; at harvest time, all the grapes have to be flown back to the mainland.
It's not easy land for grape growing, either. The climate is very cool because fog sits over the vineyard spot almost all year, lifting only in August to allow the grapes to ripen. The soil is so saturated with salt from the sea air that it has to be leached out constantly. "We actually over-water the grapes," Finkle says.
But if you're Alison Rusack, the sole heir to the Wrigley chewing-gum fortune, you can spend money on ventures like this. And the Wrigley family has been spending money on Santa Catalina Island since patriarch William Wrigley Jr. bought the entire island, sight unseen, in 1919 for $3 million.
For his money, Wrigley got a long, thin, mostly undeveloped island of about 75 square miles (194 square km) shaped something like a dart gun. Silver had been mined from it in the 1800s, and ranchers had cattle and sheep there. The tiny town of Avalon, the only settlement on the island, had been badly damaged in a fire, which is why the island was for sale.
Wrigley installed street lights and sewers and brought the island to life. He also attracted the attention of baseball fans nationwide when he started bringing the Chicago Cubs, which he also owned, to the island for spring training in 1921.
Because Santa Catalina was a short boat ride away, Hollywood was already using the island as a set, standing in for exotic locales. Classic 1930s films shot there include "Mutiny on the Bounty," "Treasure Island" and "Captain Blood." The buffalo that now graze wild are believed to have escaped from the set of a Hollywood Western.
Once Wrigley had built comfortable hotels and the world's largest dance hall (which is still there), the movie industry really moved in, for both work and play. Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable and others came over to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.
William Wrigley died in 1932; the Cubs stopped coming in 1951. Hollywood paid fewer visits once shooting in foreign locations became less expensive, although "Chinatown," "Jaws" and even "Rosemary's Baby" were shot there.
In 1975, the Wrigley family donated 86 percent of the land to a conservancy. But the family has never stopped trying to steward and promote the rest of the island, and the new wine venture is part of that.
"Wine is something new for Catalina," Rusack says. "We see it as drawing more people to the interior. That was something my grandfather was focused on: getting people to come and see how incredibly beautiful it was."
Building the horse ranch was part of that push – "to give people a place to go. The combination of the wine and the horses give people a new reason to go."
The horse ranch is being extensively renovated, and while that building is going on, Rusack says she still hasn't decided what kind of winery, if any, will be built. She also says she has more vineyard land that can be planted, but isn't sure yet whether she will.
The vineyards are planted with chardonnay and pinot noir, which makes sense given the foggy, cool conditions and Rusack Vineyards' experience with the varieties. But they also planted some zinfandel.
"There were some zinfandel vines on nearby Santa Cruz Island, where the conditions were similar," winemaker Steven Gerbac says. "We read that 100 years ago, the Santa Cruz Island wines had a good reputation and people paid a premium for them, but the winery was shut down at Prohibition and never reopened."
The zin vines were still there, straggly and untended. Fortunately, as with Santa Catalina Island, "We don't have to deal with traditional vineyard pests, they just don't live there," Finkle says. The Rusacks transplanted some zin vines from Santa Cruz Island to their new vineyard.
At a release price of $72 for the 2011 vintage, Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards Zinfandel is one of the most expensive zinfandels in the world, but here is where paying more gets you something special. The long, cool summer helps create a wine that is like zinfandels used to be: earthy, spicy, complex, fresh, balanced. Only 62 cases were made of the 2011. "This is the one people go nuts for," Gerbac says.
The Pinot Noir, also $72 on release, is equally outstanding, with a light body but the sensation of fullness on the palate, a mushroomy, complex aroma and a noticeable salinity. Only 118 cases were made. There's also a Rusack Santa Catalina Island Chardonnay ($60, 145 cases), a 100-percent barrel-fermented, leesy, rich wine, but not as distinctive as the reds.
The prices are high in part because of the production costs mentioned earlier. At harvest time, the wine team has to make three flights a day just to bring the grapes to their mainland winery in Santa Barbara County's Ballard Canyon. Of course, building a winery to make fewer than 350 cases of wine a year isn't exactly cost-effective either.
"You can't look at wine just by how much the startup costs are," Gerbac says. "Sometimes it takes years to begin to pay off."
And Rusack points out, "Sometimes when you have a rare wine, the prices go through the roof."
California wine doesn't get much rarer than Rusack.