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Tasting the Wines of Rusack Vineyards in Ballard Canyon

Last week, I tasted through the line up of Santa Barbara County wines from Rusack Vineyards. Rusack is located in the pending Ballard Canyon AVA but makes wine from other areas as well. Those include the Sta Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley and even Santa Catalina Island.

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, Sauvignon Blanc (including the Musqué clone) and Semillon. There is another small vineyard further north and uphill devoted to a new planting of Zinfandel.

Total production in a typical year, including wine made from non-estate grapes, is 8,000-10,000 cases. But typical has been hard to come by in California recently. Rusack made just 6,000 cases in chilly 2011 and 12,000 in bounteous 2012. All the wines are made on-site at the estate. The tasting room is there as well.

The tasting room at Rusack Vineyards on Ballard Canyon Road. Photo: Fred Swan

The patio at Rusack Vineyards looks inviting, even on a foggy summer morning. Photo: Fred Swan

My host for the tasting was Rusack Vineyards winemaker Steven Gerbac. He’s been at Rusack Vineyards for ten years and was very informative about the vineyards, vinification, etc. However, his ascent to head winemaker from assistant has just been in the last year or so. John Falcone, now at Gainey Vineyards, was head winemaker for the wines I tasted.

Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac, August 12, 2013. Photo: Fred Swan

2012 Rusack Sauvignon Blanc Santa Barbara County, $17
Though simply labeled Santa Barbara County, this is more specifically a Santa Ynez Valley AVA blend. The estate vineyard provided 42% of the fruit, nearby Stolpman 35% and Valley View the balance. The grapes, clone 1 and Musqué clone, got a couple of hours skin contact before being pressed and fermented in stainless steel tanks. There was no malolactic fermentation.

Ballard Canyon’s cool evenings and morning fog are evident in the cool-climate aromatics that rush from the glass: green apple, white flowers, limestone, lime pith, grapefruit and nearly-ripe stonefruit. Its fresh in the mouth and a generous medium body with citrus-focused flavors, principally lime, lime pith and grapefruit. There’s some herb and peppery spice as well. The finish is clean with a saline minerality. 13.6% alcohol. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Chardonnay Santa Catalina Vineyard California, $55
Santa Catalina Island is almost literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s only twenty-two miles south-southwest of Los Angeles, but that distance is all over water. That isolation, along with the island’s small size, low population and lack of cell towers promote what residents like to call “island time.” Grape harvests require a skilled labor and a sense of urgency though, so Rusack flies vineyard workers onto the island and flies the fruit back out.

Rusack's island vineyard is on the windward side. Even during the peak of summer it’s temperatures are moderated by miles of 70° water, cold ocean breezes and persistent fog. The result is Chardonnay with surprising body. That’s due not to high alcohol but the conversion of copious malic acid during ML. Lees stirring prevents buttery flavors from getting out of hand.

The nose is mildly buttery golden apple, yogurt and baking spice. Those flavors lead the palate as well but quickly transition to steely yogurt and, eventually, a taut, mineral finish. It’s a nearly full-bodied wine but there’s still acidity and a light talc-like texture. The Rusack Santa Catalina Island Chardonnay will be released around November of this year. Recommended+.

2011 Rusack Chardonnay, Santa Maria Valley Reserve, $32
Gentle baking spice aromas mingle with baked yellow apple, green apple and a touch of pineapple in this Chardonnay made from an even split of Bien Nacido Vineyard and Sierra Madre Vineyard fruit. Full-bodied with a silky mouthfeel, the palate is fruit-focused but refined: pear, yellow apple, pineapple, peach and baking spice. Mouthwatering finish. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Pinot Noir Santa Catalina Island California,
Catalina’s uber-cool climate delivers an earth-forward Pinot here. Spice, sandalwood and dark flowers add interest. The fruit is dark red and earthy. The attack is creamy on the palate with medium-plus body and flavors of earth, brown spice, barrel char (40% new oak it turns out, with medium to medium-heavy toast), dark red fruit and caramel. Not yet released. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Pinot Sta. Rita Hills Reserve, $40
A cold year and Sta. Rita Hill’s wind-tunnel of a growing zone resulted in tiny little grapes and a deeply layered, savory and masculine wine. The tannins, moderate and fine, are more than matched by acidity. The nose offers tangy spice, tangerine peel, drying herb, dark spice, a grind of pepper and whiff of licorice. A sip brings long-lasting flavors of dark fruit, spice and licorice. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Pinot Noir, Solomon Hills Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley, $45
Aromatic and bequiling, a perfume of brown and dark spice, rose petal, tea and clove precedes the blood orange core. The palate is elegant up front and boldly spicy on the finish. Light, fine-grained tannins accompany tangy spice and zesty dark fruit. Highly Recommended +.

2011 Rusack Sangiovese Estate, $32
California Sangiovese does not often resemble that of Tuscan producers. Our fruit is frequently too ripe, the body to heavy and the oak too obvious—though the latter is not uncommon in Italy either. Ballard Canyon’s mild climate is well-suited to making a more traditional Sangiovese and that’s what I found at Rusack. The nose and palate evince earthy, leathery cherry and plum accented by spice and dark flowers. The body is medium-plus and balanced by both acidity and grippy, light-grained tannins. Best from 2014 - 2018. Try it with a thin ribeye steak cooked directly on hot coals. Recommended +.

2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Santa Barbara County, $25
Syrah is the variety that put Ballard Canyon on the map. Rusack’s estate vineyard hold three clones: old-vine Estrella, 174 and 877. Petite Sirah, less than 10%, is added to the blend to bump up the fruit profile. The results are delicious. The wine is deeply-colored and highly aromatic with plum, leather, grilled meat, sweet and savory herb plus a scattering of black pepper. Nearly full-bodied in the mouth, there are fine-grained and powdery tannins. The flavor profile is predominantly savory with dark fruit, old leather, dark spice and earth. This is a great buy at $25. Drink now through 2018. Highly Recommended.

2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon Estate Reserve Santa Barbara County, $36
Dark and purplish this wine is a best barrel selection of Syrah intended to show a somewhat riper style while keeping plenty of savory flavors. Pardon the laundry list, but the nose is complex: dry earth and grass, grilled game, toast, white and black pepper, dark fruit and spice plus a little camphor. It starts creamy in the mouth, follows with very fine, chalky tannins and then finishes clean and juicy. Flavors are aligned with the nose: dark fruit and spice, licorice, game, savory herb and leather. Now through 2018. Very Highly Recommended.

Rusack Zinfandel
This is going to be an interesting project to watch. There’s an island called Santa Cruz, the largest off the coast of Santa Barbara. It's interior valley used to be home to a big winery. Long abandoned, some vines still grow there untended. Among them was a unique clone of Zinfandel that Rusack now calls the Santa Cruz Island clone. Rusack took 87 cuttings and has planted them on Catalina and in Ballard Canyon.

The propagated vines are still quite young. I’m looking forward to trying upcoming vintages when the vines are bit older, especially those from Ballard Canyon which I suspect should be a good area for complex and balanced Zinfandel.

2010 Rusack “Anacapa” Ballard Canyon Estate, Santa Barbara County, Sold Out
This is Rusack’s red Bordeaux-variety blend. It’s 46% Cabernet Franc with even doses of Merlot and Petit Verdot making up the balance. There are cherry, red currant, cocoa, sweet spice, drying leaves and coconut on the nose and palate. Body is medium-plus and the moderate tannins very fine-grained and a little chalky. Recommended.

2010 Rusack Late Harvest Semillon “Soul of the Vine,” Santa Ynez Valley (all Rusack Estate), $45
When I visited Santa Barbara County last week, a substantial portion of the vines were covered with bird netting. Starlings love ripening grapes. But Rusack had an even finer mesh over their Semillon. It's bee netting. Botrytis is encouraged to form by using gentle overhead sprinklers on warm days. The Noble Rot sticks its little fingers into the grapes, sucking out moisture and turning the grapes into super-sweet, flavorful bee bait. Hence the nets.

Juice from those concentrated grapes is fermented in stainless steel tanks (which I would not want to clean) and then aged in French oak for 14 months. The wine is a vivid lemon-gold in color, the scrumptious nose offers brown sugar, baked pineapple, tart apricot and baking spice. Sweet sips taste of pineapple upside-down cake. Generous acidity keeps Soul of the Vine from being cloying. Highly Recommended.


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This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Disclosures: The FTC has tightened its guidelines with respect to online ads, reviews, blogs, etc. in response to people who are passing paid ads off as personal recommendations or who accept samples of expensive hard goods in exchange for reviews. My lengthy disclosure here is meant to address those guidelines.

The review above reflects my personal experience with the product. It is not a paid ad, nor do I accept ads or compensation for reviews from wine producers. Reviews may cover products that I have purchased, received as samples, or tried under other circumstances I consider to be good tasting conditions. Receiving a product as a sample does not obligate me to review it positively (or at all) and I do not consider samples to be compensation or “free wine.” I have purchased plenty of wine over the years and have more of that than I can drink. Samples are opened for review purposes, not added to my personal cellar or taken to restaurants.