When Chuck Reininger decided to get into winemaking rather than brewing, the Walla Walla Valley still was a bit of a backwater in the Washington wine industry, home to just a handful of high-quality producers.
He and his wife, Tracy, launched their eponymous winery in 1997 in a World War II-era building at the Walla Walla Valley Regional Airport -- the first winery in the now-bustling "airport district."
Since then, the Reiningers have moved west of town, rehabilitating a couple of potato packing buildings into a classy winery across the road from Three Rivers Winery.
After graduation, the University of Puget Sound graduate was more interested in scaling mountains than climbing the corporate ladder. The avid outdoorsman was a professional climbing guide who has summited Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount Baker and many other West Coast peaks.
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Today, he makes wine under two labels. The flagship Reininger Winery brand focuses exclusively on grapes from the Walla Walla Valley, while Helix by Reininger uses fruit from top vineyards in the broader Columbia Valley.
Here are a few Reininger wines we've tasted in recent weeks. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact the winery at 509-522-1994.
Reininger Winery 2009 Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, $44: This is a gorgeous red with aromas of plush dark fruit, including cordial cherry and Marionberry, along with hints of toasted marshmallow. On the palate, it provides a smooth entry that gives way to flavors of black pepper, dark chocolate, ripe dark fruit and rich, round tannins. This wine was so delicious, it had us reaching for a thesaurus to come up with more descriptions.
Reininger Winery 2008 Merlot, Walla Walla Valley, $39: This Merlot includes a touch of Cabernet Franc for complexity. It opens with aromas of oak, black currant jam and dark cherry, followed by a rich entry that leads to flavors of ripe dark fruit, vanilla and spice.
Reininger Winery 2009 Carménère, Walla Walla Valley, $48: This rare red Bordeaux variety is probably best known in Chile, where it has been grown for more than a century, and now it is seeing a revival in Washington. The grapes for this wine come from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley, and it opens with aromas of red currant, cherry tomato, Dr. Pepper and black pepper. On the palate, it reveals austere dark fruit that melds with oak, spice and peppercorns. Tannins brighten up all the fruit.
Helix by Reininger 2008 Syrah, Columbia Valley, $30: Much of the fruit for this delicious Syrah comes from the Walla Walla Valley, including Seven Hills, Ash Hollow and Pepper Bridge vineyards. However, Reininger added grapes from warm sites such as Phinny Hill (Horse Heaven Hills) and Stone Tree (Wahluke Slope). The result is a red that opens with aromas of black currant, crushed black walnut, black licorice and something that reminds us of a pizza parlor -- perhaps oregano? On the palate, it focuses on president plum, dark chocolate, oak and spice. Plush tannins make room for all the fruit through the lengthy finish.
Helix by Reininger 2008 Stone Tree SoRho, Columbia Valley, $33: This red blend includes Mourvèdre (42 percent), Grenache (31 percent) and Cinsault from Stone Tree Vineyard on the warm Wahluke Slope. It opens with aromas of ripe plum, nutmeg, black olive and red cherry, followed by juicy, hedonistic flavors of pomegranate and red cherry, all backed with lively acidity and moderate tannins.
Helix by Reininger 2010 Phinny Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $29: This starts with aromas of black currant, allspice, black olive, black licorice and a hint of oak. On the palate, it carries dark, juicy flavors of boysenberry and black licorice. Sturdy tannins provide structure and don't get in the way of all the gorgeous fruit.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman own and operate Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. For more information, go to www.greatnorthwestwine.com