Geoffrey Rusack ’78
Vintner, Rusack Vineyards
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 72, No. 3, Spring 2001
What thou youth gave love and roses,
Age still leaves us friends and wine.
In the dead of winter, when most of the nation is blanketed under a layer of snow, a tremendous amount of outdoor work is being done in Santa Barbara's wine country, often under sunny skies and 70°-plus temperatures. While the 2000 harvest is over and most of the wines are aging in oak, the vines must be pruned to prepare for the next vintage's bud break. Geoff Rusack and his wife, Alison, are farming, making wine, running a retail tasting room and selling their wares in California, Arizona, and Idaho.
After graduating from Bowdoin, Geoff spent a bit of time traveling by motorcycle around Europe and working at an occasional vineyard. Once back in the U.S., he took a job as an NBC page and later as an editorial assistant for NBC Network News. Then, it was on to law school and ultimately to practicing medical and legal malpractice and aviation law in Santa Monica, California. While in the legal business, he married Alison and, after the couple had their first son, Hunter, it became apparent that any more children would necessitate a larger house. Little did they expect that a springtime trip to Santa Barbara County's wine country would result in the purchase of a bankrupt 48-acre vineyard and winery.
What followed were intense lessons in agriculture, remodeling costs, county politics and permits, wine making and equipment, ("Ordering various types of French and American oak barrels was itself an eye opening experience," says Geoff) and starting a tasting room. All the while raising two young boys with a third on the way.
Geoff soon discovered that the winery business is one hidden expense after another and the anticipated costs of re-starting an old one gradually increased. He missed an aspect from his years of practicing law-the new jokes continually told about that profession. Nowadays someone tells Geoff the same old vintner joke at least once a month-How do you make a small fortune in the winery business?...Start off with a large one-"a joke, which, at least in principal, seems to be proving itself more true than funny," he admits.
Despite the politics, costs, physical labor, and long hours, one thing has remained a constant with Geoff-"Rusack Vineyards would always aim toward making wines that are not only ultra premium, but also the very best that could be had." Achieving that aim has been an evolving process. Increasingly clear to Geoff is that to make the best wines in the world, one has to start with the very best grapes. To that end, the Rusacks have focused more and more attention on their own vineyard, including purchasing "truly special fruit" and meeting often with other growers to discuss viticultural techniques. "Once harvest arrives," explains Geoff, "every step is taken to preserve the flavor of the grape. This often means processing the fruit as little as possible, including hand harvesting and grape sorting and, in the case of white grape varieties, whole cluster pressing. Further, after pressing, the wines are gently transported via gravity flow to tank and barrel-eliminating the damage that can occur by pumping."
While the process of making wine has been involved, at times amusing, and ultimately very satisfying, selling it has also now become a major part of Geoff's life. Departing from what was the pleasant rural life of farmer and vintner, he is now often on the road selling his wares, entering wine competitions, and seeking reviews in various wine publications. The time, labor, and money, however, appear to be paying off at last. Rusack Vineyards has a fulltime staff of ten and has received numerous awards and favorable reviews, including a recent 99 out of 100 points and a double gold medal at the California State Fair, and a write up in the April 2001 Wine Enthusiast magazine.
To read more about Rusack Vineyards, visit www.rusackvineyards.com.