Two more Santa Barbara County producers I visited last month whose wines greatly impressed me possess winemakers who are highly respected by their peers. Both winemakers–Longoria’s Richard Longoria and Rusack’s Steven Gerbac–are modest, low key, high achievers who constantly experiment, searching for ways to improve their already excellent wines.
As it happens, Longoria and Gerbac’s careers intersected long ago: Gerbac’s eighth grade science project involved studying malolactic fermentation with Longoria.
Richard Longoria has been making wine for nearly 40 years. He’s a self-described product of the Sixties counterculture, who graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1973. He feels this led him early on to a “non-establishment” kind of career, winemaking.
Longoria is gentle and soft spoken, and seems to have a boundless interest in new techniques and experiments going on in the winemaking world: from ocean-submersion wine aging experiments to the Italian Ganimede fermenter, which utilizes the CO2 gas that builds up during fermentation to gently percolate the grape must. Longoria now employs a Ganimede for a portion of his Pinot Noir and Tempranillo.
Longoria, known as Rick in Santa Barbara’s winemaking community, found his first job in wine at Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery. There he met famous pioneering California winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff who was consulting there. Tchelistcheff told Rick about Firestone’s new winery in Santa Barbara where he was also consulting, and shared with him his excitement about Santa Barbara’s wine producing potential.
Rick had spent some of his teen years in Santa Barbara when his father, an enlisted serviceman, was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base. When Tchelistcheff let Rick know that Firestone was looking for a cellar foreman, Rick interviewed, got the job and moved to Los Olivos in 1976.
Rick left Santa Barbara for a job as Cellarmaster at Napa’s Chappellet Vineyards in 1978, but soon returned when he heard about a position at a new small winery, J. Carey Cellars, where he came on as winemaker in 1979.
Rick and his wife Diana, whom he had met while working at Firestone, launched Longoria Wines in 1982 with a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Those were two grapes he wasn’t working with as winemaker for J. Carey, and he felt those grapes were showing particular promise in Santa Barbara County.
Rick moved on in 1985 to become winemaker for The Gainey Vineyard, a new state-of-the-art winery on the 3600-acre Gainey Ranch. He continued in that position for 12 years before deciding, with Diana, to devote their full efforts to their own wine business in 1997.
The Longorias relied entirely on purchased fruit until Rick had a chance to plant his own vineyard, a partnership with Hank and Brenda Klehn, on the Klehns’ 40-acre ranch located on a small mesa at the western end of the Santa Rita Hills. After discussing and planning the project for two years, they planted 7.75 acres in 1998 to three clones of Pinot Noir: Pommard, 115 and 667.
They named the vineyard Fe Ciega, Spanish for “Blind Faith.” The name is partly a tribute to a favorite band—Rick is a huge music lover, and there is a musical reference in another of his wines’ names (“Lovely Rita”). In 2008, they planted an additional 1.25 acres of Pinot Noir, Mount Eden clone, and three-quarters of an acre of Chardonnay.
I had a chance to try the very first vintage from Fe Ciega, the 2000, over lunch with Rick at Avant, a delightful tapas restaurant that co-occupies and shares a long glass wall with a custom crush facility in Buellton. Rick had salvaged a relatively small amount of grapes that year from the birds–they hadn’t yet installed netting–picking at only 22.4 brix. He aged the wine in neutral, 30 gallon barrels and only made 12 cases.
The wine was a powerful beauty, with a great deal of complexity and a lot of life to it yet. At 13 years of age, it still had fruit, but has also taken on tertiary aromas and flavors, like mushroom, iodine and dried cherry. It also has a sweet green herb note to it that Rick believes is a signature of the vineyard. Rick himself confessed to being surprised as to how the wine had developed, especially at the sweetness and richness it had taken on with age which he hadn’t anticipated from tasting it in its youth.
Over the years, in addition to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Rick has also become a fan of Spanish varieties, like Albariño and Tempranillo, so has sought out the few vineyards containing those grapes in the Santa Barbara area. He also makes a Syrah and a Bordeaux blend, called Evidence.
In December 1998, Longoria was the very first to site his winery in the Lompoc industrial park now affectionately known as the “Lompoc Wine Ghetto.” Having planted Fe Ciega in the Santa Rita Hills, Rick was looking for someplace closer to bring the SRH grapes after harvest than all the way up to the wineries in Santa Ynez, where most of the available facilities were. Having gone to high school in Lompoc he was familiar with the area, and knew it was an inexpensive place to rent space. When he saw the Sobhani industrial park, he knew he’d found Longoria Wines’ new home.
This industrial park, together with another park owned by Steve Zotovich that recently opened next door, is now home to about 20 wineries. It’s sort of like a large campus devoted to the study and creation of wine, and Longoria is, for many there, its beloved dean and counselor.
Tasting through about a dozen of Rick’s wines at the winery reinforced my conclusions from many other tastings of Longoria over the years. These are very consistent, well made wines that are significantly lower in alcohol than most other wines from the region. Despite their lower alcohols, they typically have a lot of power and structure, giving them great aging potential.
For me, Rick’s most striking and successful wines are the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, especially those based on fruit from his Fe Ciega vineyard. The 2011 Lovely Rita Pinot, from Pommard clone vines at Fe Ciega, with relatively little new oak (20%), is a terrific value for high quality Cali Pinot Noir at $32. The 2011 Rita’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay, his first vineyard designate Chard in 10 years, also stands out for its crystalline acidity and minerality, and its long finish. The Tempranillo is also a very good effort–one of the better domestic Tempranillos I’ve had, bringing to mind a delicious Rioja Crianza from a ripe year.
I’m also delighted by the fact that Rick doesn’t believe in using whole cluster, or grape stems, in his Pinots. For him, that’s a technique that “obscures the site expression and adds an element, like new oak.”
This is an intentionally small production operation at about 3,000 cases a year, so Rick can stay hands on and keep the quality high. The wines may therefore be harder to find outside of the California market, but they are well worth seeking out.
Rusack Vineyards is likewise a relatively small operation, with annual production at about 7,000 cases, aimed at making very high quality wines. Steven Gerbac was named winemaker there this year, after having worked his way up, starting in 2003, from production assistant, to cellar master and then to assistant winemaker under John Falcone, who has since moved over to direct winemaking at Gainey.
Prior to coming to Rusack, Gerbac had worked for both Whitcraft Winery and Brander Vineyard.
Rusack’s owners are Geoff Rusack, an aviation lawyer, and his wife Alison Wrigley Rusack, a Disney exec and descendant of the Wrigley chewing gum family, which also owned the Chicago Cubs and, through their purchase of the Santa Catalina Island Co. in 1919, all the developable land on Santa Catalina Island, which is located 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.
The two had long dreamed of starting a vineyard and winery, and purchased a 48-acre property in 1995 in Ballard Canyon that now has 17 planted vineyard acres.
This estate vineyard is planted primarily to Syrah and Sangiovese, with smaller blocks of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Petite Sirah. They also grow one-half acre each of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, with meter by meter spacing, for their Bordeaux blend called Anacapa. The vineyard was substantially replanted in 2002-2003 with realigned rows, following the contours of the land and running 11 degrees off from a north-south direction, to allow for balanced sun exposure on both sides of the canopy.
The Rusacks also source grapes from other top growers in Ballard Canyon as well as, for their Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, cool climate vineyards in Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. This includes the Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills vineyards that I highlighted in my last blog piece on Santa Barbara County.
Having gained substantial experience in grape growing and winemaking in Santa Barbara County, the Rusacks turned in 2007 to a project they’d been thinking about since their first visit to Santa Catalina Island together in 1982, planting an “extreme” vineyard on Wrigley family land on the island’s southwestern coast.
The challenges here are many, including very saline soils and grape-loving foxes, quail and yellow jacket wasps.
They have so far planted 4.5 acres there–2.5 acres of Pinot Noir, 1.5 of Chardonnay and half an acre to a heritage clone of Zinfandel that Geoff Rusack obtained from nearby Santa Cruz Island.
It turns out that back in 1884, a San Francisco businessman named Justinian Caire also had dreams of an island vineyard. He built a red brick winery and planted vines on Santa Cruz Island off the coast of Santa Barbara, turning it into a very successful winery until Prohibition brought the business to an end in 1932.
David Dewey, ranch manager on Santa Cruz Island, located one of the last remaining vines on the island growing on a willow tree on a hillside. Rusack, with two of his sons, collected cuttings and had the vine identified as Zinfandel at U.C. Davis. He then took 200 cuttings for propagating into vines. Another last vine on the island was found to be the Mission grape, and Geoff Rusack has taken cuttings from that too, with the intention of ultimately planting a half acre plot of Mission vines from those cuttings in Ballard Canyon.
With help from an Australian soil scientist, Alfred Cass, who has expertise in planting on highly saline soils, the Rusacks planted their Catalina vineyard in two rows, side by side, on mounds. The mounds are used to double up the top soil and permit more salt drainage, with mist being sprayed on a regular basis to keep the salt moving downwards.
Steven Gerbac flies to the island once a week after veraison to monitor the progress of the vines. He told me that they are working to keep the foxes out by building a low voltage electric fence with advice from the island conservancy’s fox expert. They are also trying to redirect the foxes elsewhere using Calvin Klein’s Obsession, to which the foxes are highly attracted.
Steven explained that they have to fly workers from Santa Barbara to the island during harvest, and that they then fly the grapes, one ton at a time, from Catalina to Santa Ynez to make the wine at the Rusack winery in Ballard Canyon.
As you can imagine, the Catalina vineyard project currently has some of the highest production costs–if not the highest–of any vineyard in the country. The Rusacks plan to eventually build a winery and tasting room on the island, and could eventually expand the vineyard to 18 acres.
Hearing this story about the Catalina Island project, I was dying to try the wines. They did not disappoint. The 2010 Chardonnay is quite complex, with highly unusual salty caramel aromas and flavors, along with more typical lemon, mineral and almond notes. The Pinot Noir also had very unusual, but appealing, aromas and flavors, including salty and dried cherries.
The best of the island wines of all, however, for me, was the Zinfandel from the Santa Cruz Island heritage clone. Steven only had one bottle left of this elixir, of which only a small amount had been made–half of the first crop was decimated by yellow jackets–and quickly sold out. I am so glad he ultimately decided to open this bottle for me, as I’ve never tasted a Zin quite like it. As Steven said, this was a Zin “made by a guy who makes a lot of Pinot.”
To start with, this wine is intensely aromatic, with dried currant, saline and iodine aromas. The palate includes salty dried plum, lavender bath salt and dried blueberry flavors. That may not sound like the most appetizing description, but believe me, this is a very tasty and unusual wine. It could also benefit from three years or so of additional bottle age.
I am very hopeful that they will plant more of this Zin and produce a lot more of this extraordinary wine. I think there should be a seminar devoted to it at an upcoming ZAP tasting.
Turning back to Rusack’s Santa Barbara-based wines, this is also a very strong lineup. I like everything they make, but am particularly a fan of their Anacapa Bordeaux blend, two of their Pinots–the 2011 Sta. Rita Hills Reserve and the 2011 Solomon Hills Vineyard, and both of their Syrahs. The 2011 Ballard Canyon Estate Syrah, which includes 9% Petite Sirah in the blend, is a particularly good value. I gave it 93+ points and it sells for only $25.
Like Longoria, Steve entirely destems his Pinot Noirs. As a strong advocate of destemming Pinot myself, I appreciated meeting two kindred spirits who happen to be great winemakers on this trip.
I was so excited by my visits with these and other Santa Barbara producers that I’ve returned for a couple more days this week, to taste with a few more recommended producers in this area. I hope to report soon on the results of those tastings, and of a special event at Sanford & Benedict I will be attending tomorrow.
For my tasting notes on all of the wines I sampled at both Longoria and Rusack, see below.
2012 Longoria Albariño Clover Creek Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley (4/5/2013)
Very light yellow color; appealing, tart peach, ripe pear nose; clean, rich, ripe pear, tart peach palate with good acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 points)
2011 Longoria Chardonnay Cuvée Diana – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills (4/5/2013)
Light yellow color; appealing, white jasmine, ripe pear, vanilla nose; rich, round but balanced, ripe pear, ripe lemon, ripe grapefruit palate with vibrant acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (an acid lover’s treat at 3.07 pH; 13.7% alcohol; 13-14 mos in barrel, 30% new) (91 points)
2011 Longoria Chardonnay Rita’s Crown – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills (4/5/2013)
Bright light yellow color; appealing, light hazelnut, almond nose; tasty, rich, hazelnut, ripe pear, lightly saline, mineral palate with crystalline acidity; long finish (Clone 96; 13.6% alcohol; Rick’s first vineyard designated Chardonnay in 10 years) (93 points)
2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley (4/5/2013)
Very dark cherry red color; appealing, sous bois, tea leaf, tart cranberry, rosehips nose; tasty, Pommard-like, tart cranberry, rosehips, sous bois, mineral palate with good acidity; could use 2-plus years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (13.6% alcohol) (91 points)
2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Lovely Rita Sta. Rita Hills – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills (4/5/2013)
Medium dark ruby color; appealing, ripe cranberry, strawberry, light sous bois nose with a sense of salinity; delicious, well delineated, poised, ripe raspberry, strawberry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (an elegant Cali Pinot for $32; 3.24 pH; 20% new oak) (93 points)
2010 Longoria Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills (4/5/2013)
Very dark ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, dried cranberry, roses nose; tight, ripe cherry, baked raspberry palate with light salinity and roses on finish; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (13.9% alcohol; 30% new oak for 14 mos) (92 points)
2011 Longoria Pinot Noir Block M Fe Ciega Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills (4/5/2013)
Saturated very dark ruby color; very appealing, tart cherry, ripe raspberry, roses nose; youthful, ripe and delicious cherry, ripe raspberry palate with fine tannins and good acidity; needs 2-3 years; long finish 93+ points (14.5% alcohol; 30% new oak for 14 mos) (93 points)
2011 Longoria Pinot Noir La Encantada Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills (4/5/2013)
Very dark ruby color; sous bois, forest floor, tree bark, light cinnamon nose; tight, powerful, complex, juicy, ripe cherry, orange oil, cinnamon, nutmeg palate; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (13.6% alcohol) (93 points)
2010 Longoria Syrah Alisos Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County (4/5/2013)
Opaque purple red violet color; ripe, bright, cinnamon, plum nose; ripe but poised, ripe plum, cherry palate with bright fruit and good acidity; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (22 mos in 25% new French oak) (91 points)
2010 Longoria Tempranillo Santa Ynez Valley – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley (4/5/2013)
Dark ruby color; baked berry, ripe red berry nose; youthful, plush, juicy, ripe red berry, cherry, vanilla palate reminiscent of a Rioja Crianza from a ripe year; medium-plus finish 90+ points (13.6% alcohol; 22 mos. in 33% new American oak; with 6-7% Merlot) (90 points)
2010 Longoria Evidence – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County (4/5/2013)
Saturated very dark ruby color; tart red currant, black currant, loamy nose; tasty, ripe red currant, cassis palate with firm sweet tannins and nice balance; good now but could use 2 years bottle age; medium-plus finish 90+ points (14.4% alcohol; 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 5% Malbec) (90 points)
2000 Longoria Pinot Noir Blind Faith Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley (4/5/2013)
From 375 ml – slightly cloudy dark cherry red color; mature, mushroom, iodine, ripe cranberry, dried cherry nose; tasty, mature, complex, ripe cherry, iodine, sweet green herb, dried cherry, mineral, mushroom, cinnamon palate with power, intensity and great acidity; medium-plus finish 93+ points (1st vintage from Fe Ciega Vineyard; picked at 22.4 brix to beat the birds from getting everything) (93 points)
2012 Rusack Sauvignon Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley (4/4/2013)
Very light yellow color; clean, tart grapefruit nose; precise, tasty, tart lime, saline, minerally palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.5% alcohol; stainless steel; no malolactic) (91 points)
2011 Rusack Chardonnay – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County (4/4/2013)
Bright light canary yellow color; appealing, white jasmine, tart pear nose; rich, tasty, ripe lemon, ripe pear, white jasmine palate; needs 1-plus year of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; barrel fermented with lees stirring) (91 points)
2011 Rusack Chardonnay Reserve – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley (4/4/2013)
Bright light canary yellow color; appealing, tart pear, white jasmine, light vanilla nose; ripe, rich, vanilla, ripe lemon palate with density, balanced for a ripe style, with good acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14.2% alcohol; pH 3.2; barrel selection of the best 12-20 barrels) (91 points)
2010 Rusack Chardonnay SCIV Catalina – USA, California, Central Coast (4/4/2013)
Light lemon yellow color; appealing, tart pear, salty caramel nose; tasty, unusual, ripe lemon, light salty caramel, mineral, almond palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points (clone 4; 14.2% alcohol) (92 points)
2010 Rusack Pinot Noir SCIV Catalina – USA, California, Central Coast (4/4/2013)
Dark ruby color; intriguing, roses, tart salty cherry, dried raspberry nose; tasty, unusual, intense, salty dried cherries, mineral, dried cranberry palate with medium acidity; needs 2 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.2% alcohol; 3.7 pH; clones 4, 667 and 777) (91 points)
2010 Rusack Pinot Noir – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County (4/4/2013)
Very dark ruby color; appealing, aromatic, baked cherry, black raspberry, incense nose; rich, youthful, baked black cherry, black raspberry, spice palate with a touch of orange acidity; needs 2-3 years bottle age; medium-plus finish 91+ points (14.2% alcohol; 30-40% new oak) (91 points)
2011 Rusack Pinot Noir Reserve – USA, California, Central Coast, Sta. Rita Hills (4/4/2013)
Very dark ruby color; appealing, tart cherry, roses, loamy, earthy nose; delicious, rich, ripe raspberry, roses, tart cherry, ripe cranberry palate with good acidity and structure; could use 2-3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish 93+ points (14.3% alcohol; 3.5 pH) (93 points)
2011 Rusack Pinot Noir Solomon Hills Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley (4/4/2013)
Dark ruby color; roses, dried roses, dried cherry, saline, earthy nose; tasty, rich but poised, tart cherry, ripe cranberry, mineral, rosehips palate with density and good acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points (14.3% alcohol; clones 667 and 777) (92 points)
2010 Rusack Syrah Reserve Ballard Canyon – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley (4/4/2013)
Very dark ruby color; green peppercorn, roasted plum nose; tasty, rich, dense, complex, tart plum, charcoal palate showing salinity and good acidity; medium-plus finish (92 points)
2011 Rusack Syrah Ballard Canyon – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley (4/4/2013)
Saturated, very dark ruby color; roasted black fruit, roasted meat, pepper, oregano nose; tight, dense, roasted black fruit, tart black fruit, savory, pepper, dried cured meat palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points (good value at about $25; with 9% Petite Sirah; 2% American oak) (93 points)
2010 Rusack Sangiovese Ballard Canyon – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley (4/4/2013)
Very dark ruby color; tart dried berry, charcoal nose; smoky oak, roasted tart black fruit, tart red berry palate with medium acidity; could use 2-3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.5% alcohol; 20% new oak) (89 points)
2010 Rusack Anacapa – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Barbara County (4/4/2013)
Saturated very dark red violet color; tart black currant, loam, fresh oregano nose; tight, tart black currant, loam, tart berry palate with a light sense of salinity and good acidity; needs 3-plus years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (14.7% alcohol; 46% Cabernet Franc; 27% Merlot, 27% Petit Verdot) (92 points)
2010 Rusack Zinfandel SCIV Catalina – USA, California, Central Coast (4/4/2013)
Dark ruby color; intense, lifted, aromatic, dried currant, saline, iodine, dried salt nose; unusual, intense, salty dried plum, lavender bath salt, dried blueberry palate with good acidity; could use 3 years of bottle age; medium-plus finish (from cuttings of Zin taken from Santa Cruz Island) (93 points)