The ‘soft wisdom’ of Reininger Walla Walla Valley Merlot

Chuck Reininger of Reininger Winery was not always destined for a life of wine.

“My dream was to start a brewery,” Reininger recalls. However, fate soon took him in a different direction.

Having grown up in Bellevue, Washington, Reininger subsequently married a woman with a five generation Walla Walla Valley history. The family moved to the valley in 1992, with Reininger planning to pursue his dream.

However, he had been assisting the Rindals at Waterbrook Winery off and on since 1984 when visiting the valley. After moving there, Reininger began working at Waterbrook as a cellar hand. In 1993, he made his first home wine.

“That was my ‘Aha!’ moment,” Reininger says. “It just really, really caught my attention.”

Having a long love of mountain climbing, Reininger was drawn to the connection of the soil to the wine.

“It became very evident to me that the vine is an umbilical cord between the soils and the wines we make,” Reininger says.  “That’s the exact reason that I climb, being in awe of the forces that created our world.”

He soon began to focus his efforts on starting a winery. Audaciously, Reininger decided to focus exclusively on Walla Walla Valley fruit.

At this time, the valley was still only home to several handfuls of wineries, with most focused on fruit from the larger Columbia Valley, supplementing that with Walla Walla fruit. Reininger, along with Cayuse with the release of its 1998 Syrah, would focus exclusively on Walla Walla Valley fruit.

“Some of the early winemakers told me I was absolutely insane and crazy for doing that,” Reininger recalls, laughing. “They said, ‘Chuck, every seven years or so you’re going to end up with no fruit!’ And they were smart. They were right!”

Indeed, in 2004, as if on schedule from when he started the winery, the valley suffered a major freeze event. However, Reininger pressed on and simply built potential fruit loss into his business plan.

“To me, it was really important that our wines told the story of Walla Walla, the soils, and our family history here,” Reininger says. “It’s our home.”

Initially, Reininger made Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. In his first year as a commercial winemaker, 1997, he was unable to source Merlot from Walla Walla, and so made it from Canoe Ridge fruit, the only time this has been the case.

Reininger says Washington in general and Walla Walla Valley in particular are special spots for Merlot.

“I think there’s really two places in the world that grow exceptional Merlot. That’s the Right Bank and Washington State, and I think in particular Walla Walla.”

Over the years, Reininger has made his Merlot a blend of Seven Hills and Pepper Bridge Vineyard fruit.

“Seven Hills, the soils are a little sandier. The tannins I think are a little bit finer there. Pepper Bridge has a little more clay content to it, so I think we get a little more rounder tannins out of that. I think we get a little more cherry aspect out of Seven Hills and a little bit more plum out of Pepper Bridge, generally speaking.”

Part of what makes Walla Walla Valley Merlot special, however, is that it’s not just all fruit.

“There’s big fruit, but then there’s also some really nice earthiness too I think that we can get out of it, and a little bit of cocoa or chocolate that I find particular in Walla Walla,” Reininger says.

For Reininger, a key to making successful Merlot in Washington is not just getting great fruit, it is also how that fruit is treated in the winery.

“I think the use of oak on [Merlot], you have to be careful,” he says. “You have to be really judicious with it.” The winery generally uses about 30% new oak, depending on the vintage, with much of that American.

“I enjoy the way American oak compliments the subtle Walla Walla Valley Merlot cocoa notes in particular but also enjoy a touch of French exotic spice and tannin in the mix as well,” Reininger says.

I started drinking Reininger Merlot in the 2000 vintage at the recommendation of my local winery store owner. At the time, Two Buck Chuck wine from Trader Joe’s was the rage. When I asked my local retailer about the Reininger wine, he told me it was affectionately known as ‘22 buck Chuck,’ a play on the Trader Joe’s wine, the price, and winemaker’s name.

I remember being mesmerized by that wine, smelling something I never had before. The Reininger Merlot was also the first Washington wine I remember going back to the store and buying a second bottle (and then a third) rather than just continuing on my journey of vinous exploration. I liked it so much I saved the label in a book I kept.

The 2017 Reininger Walla Walla Valley Merlot was my 2020 Washington Merlot Challenge wine for May. It has everything there is to love about Walla Walla Valley Merlot, with coffee and raspberry aromas with graphite and spice accents. The palate is dominated by structure right now, but there’s plenty of fruit behind it, with chocolate notes lingering on the finish. It’s one for the cellar with plenty of rewards.

The 2017 vintage represents the winery’s first label change, with the image representing mountain ranges in Washington state.

“You can see the Olympic Mountains, the Cascade Mountains that I call the great squeegee,” Reininger explains. “In the upper right corner are the Selkirks, which are the northern part of the Northern Rockies. Then in the lower righthand corner is the Blue Mountains.”

While Reininger's long love of the mountains was part of the inspiration, there was another intent as well.

“All of those mountains have specific effects on the climate of eastern Washington and help make eastern Washington have the consistent vintages that it does.”

More than 20 years after he made his first commercial wine, Reininger remains a champion of Washington Merlot.

“It certainly deserves to be on a pedestal,” he says. “It’s a fantastic wine. It has a soft wisdom to it, if that makes any sense.”

Photo of Chuck Reininger by Richard Duval. 

Sean P. Sullivan

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