Chuck Reininger knows a little something about reaching new heights.
The winemaker for Reininger Winery in Walla Walla, Wash., is an avid outdoorsman who has scaled Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount Baker and other Cascade peaks a number of times.
Now, he has his eye on the summit of the Washington wine industry. In many consumers' and critics' minds, he's nearly there. You won't hear that from Chuck, though, whose demure nature deflects praise for the success he's achieved in his first three vintages.
"I can only make wine as good as the fruit's potential," he says in his humble winery - he refers to it as his "shack-teau" - a World War II-era runway "crash house" at the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
Chuck was the first of the Walla Walla Airport wineries when he opened in 1997. Today, no fewer than eight wineries inhabit the old Army Air Corps buildings.
More About Reininger
In the past five years, the Walla Walla Valley has rocketed from being a backwater in the industry with a few premium producers to one of the hottest wine regions in the United States. Built on the foundation of such top winemakers as Rick Small (Woodward Canyon), Gary Figgins (Leonetti Cellar) and Marty Clubb (L'Ecole No. 41), the small appellation now has about 30 operating wineries. And more seem to appear almost daily.
Chuck gives all credit to those pioneers who continue to raise the quality bar.
"I'm waterskiing on their coattails," he says.
And doing it well. In a region built on super-premium red wines in which every vintage brings increasingly outrageous quality, Reininger is, arguably, the valley's hottest winery. Considering how quickly success has come, its story is that much more compelling.
After graduating from the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, a winemaking career didn't cross Chuck's mind - which mostly was on his future bride, Tracy, who now runs the winery's marketing and business efforts. He was a climbing guide on Mount Rainier, worked in his family's charter bus company and had dreams of starting a microbrewery. One day in 1992, Tracy announced she was driving to her native Walla Walla to look at houses and wanted to know if he'd come along. They ended up buying a house, which quickly led to their engagement and nuptials.
Their good friends Eric and Janet Rindal of Waterbrook Winery gave them their first winery experience with the '92 crush, and Chuck began to help around the cellar. In 1993, he crafted his first homemade wine.
"I absolutely fell in love with it," he says. "If there's one thing that reflects Mother Nature, it's wine. It's a pretty complex beast."
In 1997, he turned pro, making a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, all of which continue to show very well. The '97 Merlot is his only wine that didn't come from Walla Walla Valley fruit - he purchased it from Canoe Ridge, an area 70 miles west.
His quick success has hinged on contracting grapes from some of the Walla Walla Valley's top vineyards, including Pepper Bridge, Seven Hills and Spring Valley. He purchases by the acre, which gives him greater control over yields and, therefore, quality.
Since he began, quality fruit hasn't been a problem as Washington has had a run of strong vintages that goes back at least to '97. Each has had its challenges, and because Chuck, 42, recognizes his youth and relative inexperience in the industry, he's enjoyed learning about the fruit and expanding his winemaking abilities.
The first is judicious use of wood. He uses a mixture of American and French, usually with about 35 percent new.
"We're not running over the fruit with a logging truck," he says with a grin. "We don't want to hide the fruit's nuances. We do everything we can to let the fruit express itself."
That excellence was recognized early and often. His '97 Cab won gold and Cab Franc won silver at the 2000 NorthWest Wine Summit. His '98 Cab won gold at the 2001 NorthWest Wine Summit and a double gold in Wine Press Northwest's Platinum judging. His '98 Merlot won golds at the NorthWest Wine Summit and prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition.
The '99 vintage, however, affirmed his ascension to elite status. Chuck's Cab earned high marks in national magazines. The Merlot won the Northwest Enological Society's Grand Award, first place in the annual Ray's Boathouse Retrospective of Northwest Wines and a double gold from Wine Press Northwest. And the Syrah - Chuck's first - earned a double gold in San Francisco and was named "American Example of Greatness" in the renowned Jefferson Cup Invitational.
With this kind of success, it's hard to be humble. But Chuck and Tracy manage with ease. They're shy, almost embarrassed, by the accolades and prefer to focus their energy on the wine.
The winery reveals the Reiningers' attitude toward quality. The tasting room was a ramshackle hut when they moved in a half-decade ago. Lots of ingenuity and sweat equity have transformed it into a cozy, classy room. A mural covering much of one wall, painted by local artist Jeffrey Hill, shows a harvest scene with workers picking grapes and Chuck checking sugar levels with his children, Tessa and Reid, playing at his feet.
Outside, Chuck regularly is in awe of the landscape. To the north are the beginnings of the Palouse hills, to the east are the Blue Mountains, and to the south are the Horse Heaven Hills. "Look at those colors!" he marvels.
The geology of the Walla Walla Valley is more than merely appreciated. Chuck is fascinated with the land and how it was shaped. Just get him started on the glacial Lake Missoula floods that swept down from Montana and North Idaho at the end of the last ice age. He could teach a class on the subject.
The soil and how it developed are vital to the quality of Chuck's wines. While many other Walla Walla wineries purchase grapes from throughout the vast Columbia Valley, the Reiningers are firmly focused on the fruit of this little valley. Last fall, they harvested their first grapes from Ash Hollow, a south-facing 40-acre vineyard in the west end of the valley that they planted with several partners.
The future of Reininger Winery is bright and might even include a white wine. Chuck would love to make Riesling or Viognier. And one thing is certain: He plans to keep the operation small. The '99 vintage was about 2,200 cases, and Reininger will keep growing slowly until it reaches 4,000 cases.
"I don't want to manage people. I want to manage wine," Chuck says. "When we get to the point where we can't hug every barrel, we've gotten too big."
Chuck Reininger's journey to Walla Walla was serendipity. The Bellevue, Wash., native's in-laws, who live in Walla Walla, got interested in wine about the same time he did. He and his wife moved to Walla Walla in 1992, and he began to make his own wine in 1993, starting his winery in 1997. His '99 vintage will be about 2,000 cases, and he'll eventually top out his production at 4,000 cases. Already, Reininger has gotten into the viticultural side: He has planted 37 acres of cabernet, merlot and syrah vines in the western Walla Walla Valley.
WineSquire.com says : "A newer wine I can recommend is the 1998 Reininger Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla Walla. A nice drinking wine with chocolaty notes, strong color and nicely priced."
"Bucko" says on the venerable Wineloverspage.com":
"Chuck originally had plans to open a microbrewery. He got the bug for winemaking by assisting long time friends, Eric and Janet Rindal, with operations at their winery, Waterbrook. This progressed to home winemaking, then founding the present winery. He went to UC Davis for formal classes in winemaking.
Chuck has quite an unusual background and is very modest about it. He was a mountain climbing guide on Mount Rainier. He likes to say that his thirst for adventure changed to a thirst for wine, and his enthusiasm shows.
Already outgrowing the winery that is housed
in a renovated movie theater, expansion plans are on the horizon. "
The winery's small but functional 1,700 square foot facility has a unique past as a WWII Army Air Corp Runway "crash house" and movie theater. The floor is the only part of the original structure that still remains.
With a commitment to staying small to guarantee the highest care and quality, the Reiningers plan to limit production in this facility to 3000 cases per year.
Their dedication to bringing out the best in the Walla Walla fruit has been well-rewarded. They've received rave reviews and awards for their Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Wine critic, Bruce Sanderson of the Wine Spectator pronounced that Reininger wines demonstrate 'power and elegance'. And their 1999 Merlot scored "The Grand Award" at the Northwest Enological Society wine competition - an award not always given in this particular competition but given when the judges unanimously decree a wine is of exceptional merit.."
Along with attending winemaking courses at University of California - Davis, Chuck began his informal training at the early age of six. Chuck's family planned and took annual summer vacations to various national parks around the country. These summer excursions seeded in Chuck, a deep connection and fascination with the outdoors. Seeking a way to harness his passion for nature and adventure, Chuck spent many years as a mountaineering guide on Mt. Rainier. Chuck sees several parallelisms between winemaking and climbing. Both require patience, the ability to assess the medium and the environment, anticipation and in Chuck's vision, both have a common goal- "To experience the journey and to reach the top."
Hard Work and a Gifted Palate
Chuck is convinced that his early exposure to nature taught him to pay attention to the unique details that make up the whole. It is his gifted palate and past experiences that make Chuck the very intuitive winemaker he is today. He strives at all times to ensure that his wine is the best that it can be. It is this dedication that has made Reininger one of Washington's top wineries.
A Philosophy of Winemaking
Chuck's goal is to capture and enhance the essence of each vintage by exposing its terroir - that is, the physical and non-physical elements of the vineyard habitat. The true concept of the meaning is not easily grasped by most. The French define it as the vine, the subsoil, siting, drainage, microclimate as well as the spiritual aspects of the vineyard's history. Chuck feels that you must always be aware of these factors when making wine. "Wine is a reflection of everything that's happened to the grapes, a time capsule, I enjoy bringing out the flavors locked in the grapes and making them shine."