Rusack Vineyards is a Santa Barbara County winery, based in the Ballard Canyon AVA. The primary Rusack estate vineyard includes 16.5 planted acres straddling Ballard Canyon Road on the valley floor. Its varieties include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Sauvignon Blanc (including the Musqué clone). There is another small vineyard further north and uphill, devoted to a fairly new planting of Zinfandel. Rusack sources additional fruit from other growing areas, including its own plantings on Santa Catalina Island.
Rusack considers itself a boutique winery and only makes about 10,000 cases annually. All wines are made on-site at the estate. The tasting room is there too, currently the only one in the AVA.
I was invited to taste recently with Rusack’s winemaker, Steve Gerbac. He’s been with the winery for about 15 years now and has been head winemaker for about half that time. It’s always great to meet up and taste with Steve, but I especially appreciated his time on this visit.
With raging fires threatening the city of Santa Barbara, where Steve lives, air quality in that town was bad. He and his family had evacuated to a motel in southern San Luis Obispo County, so his young children could safely play outside. He was commuting to the Ballard Canyon winery from there. (A few days later, the fire was brought under control without heavy damage to the city.)
2016 Rusack Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County 91+ 14.4% 750ml $21
Gorgeous and effusive aromas of sweet guava, grapefruit, nectarine, lemon-lime and tropical flowers in this barrel-feremented Sauvignon Blanc compel you to take a sip. The medium-bodied palate features the same notes, but with more grapefruit and more tartness to the fruit overall. Very fine texture and a touch of oak add interest. The finish is very long.
This wine is 57% estate. The balance is from Vogelzang in the Happy Canyon AVA. Rusack recently grafted over their estate Semillon to Sauvignon Blanc though and, as of the 2017 vintage, their SB will be 100% estate (Musqué clone and clone 11).
The wine was barrel fermented, for complexity and texture. It was moved to stainless tanks for aging though, to limit the woody flavors and astringency. Half of the barrels are acacia, rather than oak. Gerbac says the acacia adds lift and opens up the aromatics.
2016 Rusack Chardonnay Mt. Carmel Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills 91 14.2% 750ml $55
Made from very old, Wente clone vines high up in the central spine of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, this Chardonnay presents a nose of poached yellow apple, lemon, pear and appetizing baking spices. The palate has medium-plus body with very fine texture and mouthwatering acidity which carry the very nice, tangy fruit and accents of cream and toast.
The juice was 100% barrel fermented in oak, 50% of which was new. Lees stirring for the first one-to-three months added richness and helped integrate the acidity.
2015 Rusack Chardonnay Santa Catalina Island Vineyards 92 13.8% 750ml $60
Homey, welcoming aromas of baked yellow apple, toast, baking spice and green apple are mirrored by the palate, which emphasizes the green apple more. The medium-plus body and intense flavors are neatly balanced by brisk acidity and very fine, structural texture. The finish is very long.
Santa Catalina Island lies in the Pacific Ocean about 22 miles south-by-southwest of Los Angeles. The climate is quite cool, with mean temperatures during the growing season ranging from the high 50s to high 60s and high temperatures that rarely break the 70s. The viticultural result is grapes with moderate sugars and high levels of malic acid. Rusack flies the grapes in from the island and they sometimes arrive faster than those being driven from Santa Maria Valley. These grapes were picked at 21 Brix and the juice underwent 100% malolactic conversion.
2015 Rusack Pinot Noir Mt. Carmel Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills 92 13.5% 750ml $65
Sta. Rita Hills trademarked dark red cherries sing the lead on the nose and palate while a chorus spice, toast, orange pith and pomegranate add depth and complexity. The cherry flavors are less ripe in the mouth and are joined by a lemony lift which, along with ample acidity, testify to the AVAs delightfully cool climate. Body is medium-plus and the finish generous.
2015 Rusack Pinot Noir Santa Catalina Island Vineyards 92+ 13.5% 750ml $72
While sugar ripeness, as represented by alcohol percentage, is identical between this wine and the Mt. Carmel, the effects of wind and fog on phenolic ripeness are evident here with notes of strawberry and sweet herb having greater prominence than the just-ripe red cherry. Christmas spice and dry, twiggy, forest floor accents add attractive complexity. The palate is juicy and very long with medium body and a dusting of very fine tannins.
2014 Rusack Pinot Noir Solomon Hills Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley 92+ 13.5% 750ml $48
The nose is a melange of red fruit (cherry, pomegranate and ripe strawberry) plus white raspberry, spice, and dewy, fallen leaves. The attack on the medium-bodied palate is soft but an appetizing, very fine-grained texture with some grip develops, providing structure for the long, fruit-centric flavors.
2015 Zinfandel Ballard Canyon Estate 91+ 14.5% 750ml $48
This is classic Zinfandel, showing a mix of red and blue fruit with spice and a smattering of oak and green leaves. The palate of medium-plus body is well balanced between the fruit, very fine, gently grippy tannins and mouthwatering freshness.
2014 Rusack Zinfandel Santa Catalina Island Vineyards 91+ 13.5% 750ml $72
Rusack has one acre of Zinfandel on the island, all descended from a single vine they found that dated back to the 19th century. Winemaker Steve Gerbac uses a little American oak and some whole-cluster fermentation to create an engaging, somewhat exotic, cool-climate Zin.
There are red berry and cinnamon aromas and flavors along with a very attractive note reminiscent of a wooden pipe that’s been used to smoke cherry-flavored tobacco. Body is medium-plus. The very fine, grippy texture dominates the juiciness right now. Give this wine a few years in bottle to soften the tannins and gain even more complexity.
2014 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate 90+ 14.4% 750ml $30
This Syrah, with 17% Petite Sirah, comes from the lower, flatter part of the vineyard and is crafted to be approachable when young. One bin of whole-cluster fruit contributed happy fruit notes with limited tannins. One month of post-fermentation maceration softened texture in the rest of the wine.
The wine is dark purple in the glass with aromas of dark plum, spice, cocoa, dry leaves tastefully framed by oak. Body is medium-plus and the moderate tannins are fine and fairly soft, yet structural. The flavors have greater depth of fruit than the nose, blackberry being most prominent. Best now through 2020.
2014 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Reserve 92 14.4% 750ml $44
The reserve is 100% Syrah, plucked from vines in higher, more sloped vineyard blocks. The result is a more savory, structured and age-worthy wine that will please fans of Rhone Valley wines.
Black and purple fruit, spice, dark flowers and leather make up the aromas. The very long, rich, flavorful, and full-bodied palate tastes of blackberry, black cherry, black plum, spice, and dry leather. Tannins are medium-plus in weight with fine, grippy texture. Very good now but will be at its best from 2020 to 2025.