It’s a little stretch of paradise off the coast of busy Los Angeles.
My first glimpse of the island came as the big Catalina Express vessel entered Avalon Bay and we passed the iconic casino building at the water’s edge.
The Catalina Casino, of course, was never planned for gambling; as its Italian name suggests, it’s a place where entertainment is offered, such as Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman and Harry James playing to crowds in the Big Band era.
Avalon itself is just one square mile in size with a population of 3,736 people, surrounded on one side by the clear blue waters of the bay and, on the other, by rugged hillsides with homes that offer spectacular ocean views and the distant, hazy California coastline.
Crescent Avenue, the town’s small, main artery filled with shops and cafes that hug Avalon Bay, can give the impression that you’re on some faraway island, yet you’re only about an hour away from the crowded freeways of Los Angeles.
William Wrigley Jr.’s name is synonymous with Catalina Island, which over the years he devoted so much loving attention to preserving.
Wrigley also built the imposing casino building, the largest circular theater in the world constructed without beams in 1929.
Of course, he also created a chewing gum empire and owned the Chicago Cubs baseball team, which he brought to Catalina Island for spring training.
Alison Wrigley Rusack, his great-granddaughter, noted that the Cubs were “cherished by my family up until they were sold in 1981 . . . everyone loved being a part of the Chicago Cubs.”
Once, when the Cubs were doing spring training here, a young radio sports announcer named Ronald Reagan had to rush to the mainland for a screen test, and Catalina Express co-founder Doug Bombard was the one who ferried him over there in his speedboat.
Alison said she would love to have known her great-grandfather “because he did so much and he had such personality.”
Wrigley’s wife, Ada, for whom the island’s Mt. Ada is named, built a memorial to her husband surrounded by a botanical garden, now managed by the Catalina Conservancy.
Catalina has figured prominently in the motion picture business for many years, going all the way back to the silent movie era with movies like “Treasure Island” in 1918. Because Hollywood used Catalina as a South Seas setting, it even planted palm trees at the isthmus near Two Harbors, and these trees are still seen today!
When sound came to film, Catalina continued to be a popular movie venue, with productions like “Mutiny on the Bounty” featuring Charles Laughton and Clarke Gable in 1935. The aerial scenes for “Pearl Harbor” were actually shot here.
Today, Catalina is opening up a new chapter in its storied history – this one connected to wine – thanks to Alison and her husband Geoff.
For the Rusacks, interest in wine goes back to 1983, when they went horseback riding on the island and Geoff remarked that the hills would be a great place to plant grapes.
They “didn’t know the slightest thing about running a vineyard and winery at that point,” Alison confided, but they purchased an old winery in 1992 and “knew we’d regret it if we didn’t try.”
Quite successful today, their Rusack Vineyards, located in California’s Santa Ynez Valley between the Danish-themed town of Solvang and the town of Los Olivos, is known primarily for “the incredible Rhone varietals that we’re able to grow in the Ballard Canyon area.”
Wines produced under the guidance of winemaker Steven Gerbac include Chardonnay, pinot noir, syrah, semillon dessert wine, petit syrah, petit verdot and Cabernet Franc.
With their strong family attachment to Catalina Island and their wine-making experience in the Santa Ynez Valley, the couple was inspired to plant grapes on the island.
Prior to Prohibition, vineyards and a winery had existed on Santa Cruz Island, which is part of California’s eight Channel Islands, including Catalina Island, stretching across the coastline from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara counties.
Seeking to “plant a little bit of . . . history,” Alison and Geoff contacted the Nature Conservancy and got permission to take cuttings from some of the surviving vines – zinfandel and mission — which “had escaped into the hills.”
With Gerbac as winemaker, they planted the zinfandel grapes along with pinot noir and Chardonnay in March 2007 at El Rancho Escondido, an old horse ranch in Catalina Island’s beautiful interior, about 45 minutes from Avalon. That was where Alison’s grandfather, Phillip K. Wrigley, raised Arabian horses.
The soil at the ranch, Alison said, is actually better suited to growing Burgundy varietals of Chardonnay and pinot noir, rather than the warmer-climate zinfandel.
“But it’s made a wonderful zinfandel,” Alison said of the first harvest in 2009 under the Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards label, “and it has a totally different type of taste than other zins . . . more earthy and less fruity.”
According to the winery’s tasting information, the Chardonnay, fermented and aged in French oak for 11 months, has caramel and mineral notes with citrus and apple flavors, while the pinot noir is fermented in “small, ¾-ton containers and gently transferred to French oak barrels, where it undergoes malolactic fermentation and aging for 12 months.”
The pinot noir has “distinct aromas and flavors of tobacco, along with earthy notes and a hint of cherry and raspberry.” The zinfandel, aged in American and French oak for 15 months, has “characteristics of black pepper with berry aromas and flavors.”
Everything about the new Catalina Island wines is quite unconventional, not the least of which is the way the grapes get to the Rusack winery in the Santa Ynez Valley: they’re harvested at night and flown to Santa Ynez Airport on the mainland!
Right now, Alison and Geoff also have plans for restoring the old horse ranch and “keeping all the wonderful historical elements.”
“It was built a long, long time ago,” she said, “and it hasn’t really ever been completely restored . . . ” Plans include having space for tasting rooms and wine storage, all the while keeping the “old, wonderful California feel,” like the historic stagecoaches her family owned.
“It’s just wild to see photos of these stagecoaches,” Alison remarked, “being pulled by six horses careening up and down these steep mountain roads. I can’t even imagine . . . ” One plan also in the works is to take people on carriage rides, though not into Avalon itself.
Alison and Geoff work closely with the Catalina Island Company to take things “to a new level” and bring back a new golden era, like the newly added zip line adventure and the biofuel Hummer tours, the Descanso Beach Club and the addition of new restaurants like Blue Water Avalon and Avalon Grill.
One of the best ways to sample the wonderful simplicity and romantic feel of the island is a leisurely walk down Crescent Avenue, which is exactly what we did after checking into the Casa Mariquita Hotel.
Passing through the Via Casino portal, we strolled near the newly upgraded Descanso Beach Club and arrived at the Casino, where the Santa Catalina Island Company gives a “Discover the Casino Tour.”
The imposing Casino has two wings, a museum, an overhanging balcony and a 25-foot lantern cupola above a tiled roof. It was actually the first theater designed for talking films, and engineers studied it to design the famous Radio City Music Hall in New York.
Movies are still shown in the Avalon Theatre on the Casino’s ground floor. The theater has the original 4-manual, 16-rank pipe organ, built by the Page Pipe Organ Company of Lima, Ohio, and is played every Friday and Saturday evening.
One of the most unexpected things you notice about the island is the scarcity of gasoline-powered automobiles, and for good reason: the idea is to keep the number of cars down to a bare minimum.
In fact, if a local wants to bring a car onto the island, there’s a 15-year waiting list, and if you do have a gas-powered car, well, the cost of filling up is a little over $7 a gallon at the island’s one gas station!
So how do most people get around here? By electric golf cart, that’s how.
Back along Crescent Avenue, we stopped at C C Gallagher, where we found a display of Rusack Santa Catalina Island Vineyards wine. The shop has hot espresso in the morning and a daytime menu including muffins, scones and croissants, a selection of “evilly decadent desserts,” wines, sandwiches, focaccia bread and 100 percent vegetarian soups, while the evening menu offers sushi, sake and beer.
On one of our days on the island, we enjoyed the happy hour at the Bluewater Seafood restaurant on Crescent Avenue. Our small plates were more than we expected in terms of size and featured tasty grilled fish tacos with garlic fries.
To get a peek at what lies along the hillsides of Catalina, we took the “Avalon Scenic Drive,” an hour-long bus tour given by the Catalina Island Company.
The company offers a wide range of other tours, too, including but not limited to golfing, a sundown isthmus cruise, a flying fish voyage and a tour to Two Harbors, the quaint village at the west end of the island with dining, swimming and shopping.
“It is a magical place,” Alison said of Catalina. “It’s hard to describe what it is. . . . It just has this beautiful, old historical natural feel to it where you can do exciting things like the zip line, you can do relaxing things and sit on the beach, or you can go and experience nature and learn about things or hike or bike.
“It’s a wonderful combination of things, and we’re working constantly with everybody – the conservancy and the island company – to make sure it stays that way.”
On our spacious boat, we enjoyed airline-type seating in the Commodore Lounge, with upgraded leather-trimmed seats, overhead storage, priority boarding, large viewing windows and beverage-and-snack service.
For more information, visit www.catalinaexspress.com or call 800-481-3470.
• The 22-room Casa Mariquita Hotel offers comfortable lodging close to Crescent Avenue. Our cozy room came with a nice continental breakfast.
For more information, visit www.casamariquitacatalina.com or call 800-545-1192.
• For more information about the winery, visit www.catalinaislandvineyards.com.
• For more information about the Santa Catalina Island Company, visit www.visitcatalinaisland.com.