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Washington Wine Month Stop #8: Guardian Cellars

Guardian Cellars, our 8th stop on our Washington Winery tour, is a winery that displays heart and passion. Especially for this venture being the couple’s second job.

Both are professionals in other fields but they still pour valuable time and effort into their dream and of course, wine.

Their Story:

“Like most great things, our winery got started after a night of big talk over a few beers. Starting a winery was a natural progression for owner/winemaker Jerry Riener – but if you would have asked him about it back in 2003, he would have probably laughed hysterically at the idea.

After volunteering at Matthews Cellars for two years then helping start Mark Ryan Winery, Jerry knew exactly what it took to start your own winery. The cost, the risks and the time were incredibly daunting – especially for a guy who already had a full-time job as a cop. But, fortunately, for all of us, Jerry is one of those guys who loves a challenge.

When we finally opened our tasting room doors in the fall of 2007 it was one heck of a crazy party. It seemed like everyone in town showed up to congratulate Jerry, who, after nearly a decade of grunt work at some of Woodinville’s finest wineries, had opened his own place.

From that first release day – when we poured and sold out of our 2003 Cabernet, 2004 Gun Metal and 2004 Syrah – it was obvious the risks were worth it.

While our production has grown, from three wines and about 300 cases to nine wines and nearly 5,000 cases for harvest 2012, the party has kept going. We’re still producing the juice in the same Woodinville industrial complex, Jerry is still working as a police officer and he is still an army of one when it comes to making all of the wines. The secret? Lots of caffeine and a supportive wife, who on top of her full-time job as a newspaper reporter, runs the tasting room.

As you could probably guess, we’re incredibly devoted to our winery. We love showing guests around the place and sharing story after story about, wine, grapes, barrels, crime, food, fashion… you name it.”

About the Power Couple:

Jerry Riener, winemaker/owner/janitor/police officer- Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area you would think wine would be coursing through Jerry’s blood. But, no, a love of agricultural equipment, crops and the smell of diesel fuel has been his obsession since he was a kid. Jerry comes from a family with deep farming ties in Kansas and Nebraska and he spent the bulk of his summer vacations driving combines and, tractors during harvest. A chance police ride-along convinced this East Bay kid to trade in his University of Washington chemistry degree and medical school dreams for a slot at the police academy.

It was pure curiosity that drove Jerry onto the gravel driveway at Matthews Cellars in the late 1990s. The place consisted of a strange building, lots of stainless steel and all those French oak barrels.. Jerry had to know what was going on. The volunteer crew at Matthews was bottling wine the first day Jerry showed up, so he hopped in to help. The 23-year-old detective had such a good time that the next time he saw a few cars there he stopped. It was harvest and Jerry, again, jumped in to help. Frustration, exhaustion, purple-stained hands, swarms of fruit flies and the really cool winemaking equipment proved too much for Jerry to handle… he was in love. He was soon volunteering 40-hours a week, basically whenever he wasn’t working at the police department.

Jennifer Sullivan and Jerry Riener

While working for winemaker Matthew Loso, at Matthews, Jerry became fast friends with a guy named Mark Ryan McNeilly, who was working as the distributor of Matthews wines. Mark was starting his own winery in Woodinville and Jerry left one volunteer job for another. Jerry worked alongside Mark until 2007, in return Mark worked with Jerry at Guardian Cellars from 2003 until 2007. The two shared warehouse space, equipment and a lasting friendship.

Since those first few vintages, Jerry has added a slew of new wines, developed relationships with the finest vineyards in the state and continued his love of ageing his wines on almost 100 percent new French oak. Always the wise guy, the taunt that Jerry offered his winemaker pals when he opened – that all of the premium reds will bottle age at least a year bottling before they are released – has become their standard. While all the shiny equipment, beautiful barrels and elaborate winemaking terminology is part of a day’s work, Jerry has kept his focus on having fun while making consistently delicious and approachable wines.

Jennifer Sullivan, owner/tasting room referee- Who knew that a long evening talking about winery dreams, family and crime scenes would result in love, marriage and owning a winery?

When Jennifer met Jerry, she was getting to know the ropes as a new reporter at The Seattle Times. Jennifer was fresh from working at newspapers in Baltimore and South Florida, home at last to work in her dream job – as a crime reporter at her hometown paper. A few discussions over many months finally resulted in a date where Jennifer knew she met her match – a guy who loved family, 90s hip-hop music and wine.

Since the Guardian Cellars tasting room opened in 2007, Jennifer has made the tasting room, release parties/events and winery social media her focus. Fun music, delicious food and a team of wild volunteers are always in style in the rock-inspired winery/tasting room. When not out helping The Times win another Pulitzer Prize, Jennifer can be found in the tasting room on Saturdays and Sundays.

About the Wines:

When Jerry started the winery he told his winemaker friends that he planned to bottle age his premium red wines at least 12 months before release, a comment that was met with laughter and disbelief.

Now, going into their 10th vintage, they are aging their premium reds more than 20 months on almost completely new French oak and have held true to Jerry’s rookie taunt – they cellar each premium red at least one year before release.

“Being patient is a pain, but it sure does create some delicious wines.”


Their wines range from a 100 percent merlot, 100 percent sauvignon blanc, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and red blends.

About the Vineyards:

“Our vines are strained and stressed in Columbia Valley’s bitter cold and blistering heat before being handpicked and unloaded at our Woodinville winery. The best soil, the best vines, the finest French oak and plenty of attention from the winemaker are principles we take to heart.”

Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
AVA: Red Mountain
Managed by: Jim Holmes

Blistering summertime heat, a craggy landscape and centuries worth of crazy geological formations all go into the yearly success of this legendary vineyard.

Planted by Jim Holmes in 1991, this Red Mountain hot spot takes full advantage of its southwestern-facing slope and shallow, sandy soils. Every harvest the fruit is big, complex and concentrated. Killer Cabernets hail from these parts.

Ciel du Cheval has become a coveted spot to source grapes from. A who’s who list of the state’s finest wineries use fruit from this vineyard.

Conner Lee Vineyard
AVA: Columbia Valley
Managed by: Jerry Bookwalter and Tom Thorsen
Onsite manager: David Ayala

Established on 152-acres just outside Othello, Bill Conner’s and Rhoady Lee’s goal was clear: create one of the best vineyards in Washington State. After a series of weather set backs, their efforts did produce what is widely accepted to be among the top ten Washington State vineyards.

Planted in the 1980s, Conner Lee is located on Radar Hill, just to the northeast of the Wahluke Slope. This sandy soil vineyard has a gentle slope from 1164′ to 1085′. The site is somewhat cooler, allowing for longer hang time to produce extremely rich merlot and cabernet that has beautiful bright notes.

Kiona Vineyards
AVA: Red Mountain
Managed by: Scott Williams

It was a roll of the dice and a lot of luck for John Williams and Jim Holmes (owner of Ciel du Cheval) back in the 1970s. The young guys had a plan to build a spectacular vineyard, and come hell or high water they were going to make it work. Williams and Holmes found the most remote, desolate and downright awful 84-acre patch of land, nestled between Red Mountain and the Yakima River. After bringing in electricity and digging deep to find water they went ahead with their plan and planted the first grapes in 1975.

Since those wild beginnings, Kiona has become one of the best-regarded vineyards in the state. Growing, of course, Cabernet, but also, Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling and other varietals. The Williams family now manages over 300 acres of vineyard land.

Klipsun Vineyard
AVA: Red Mountain
Owner: David and Patricia Gelles
Managed by: Julia Kock

This is Red Mountain at its finest. This hot, arid and stubborn landscape produces fruit that wows us with its tannin, structure, dark fruits and sheer beauty each and every year.

When you talk about Klipsun, it’s tough not to talk about founder and owner Patricia Gelles. With her fire red hair and her fantastically boisterous personality, Gelles is a key figure on the Red Mountain wine scene and she knows her vineyard as well as each of the winemakers pulling fruit from each row. This is one sought after spot for fruit.

Obelisco Vineyard
AVA: Red Mountain

This vineyard has proven one thing: don’t underestimate the smaller guys when it comes to Red Mountain. This 30-acre site was planted with the sole purpose of producing intensely complex and rich red wines. It is located on a southwest facing slope creating long hot days. The night time temperatures cool off quickly with the help of Yakima River below. The grapes are noted for their structure, acidity and intense varietal character.
As if location was not enough, Obelisco was planted so intensely that production is limited to just four pounds per plant. This tiny production per plant allows for intense fruit flavors from relatively you plants.

Stillwater Creek Vineyard
AVA: Columbia Valley
Managed by: Ed Kelly

Located in the lush, rolling Frenchman Hills of Columbia Valley, Stillwater Creek Vineyard walks the line when it comes to premium quality grapes – structured, yet delicate and earthy, yet floral. For a winemaker, this is one of the most beautiful spots to sit down, catch your breath during harvest.

The soils are a combination of sandy to silty loam with large amounts of fractured basalt. The 22 degree sloped hillsides make for horrible walking, but phenomenal sun exposure.

StoneTree Vineyard
AVA: Wahluke Slope
Managed by: Ted Wildman

Nothing can compete with a trip to see Ted at StoneTree.

This smart as a whip farm boy can tell you everything there is to be known about his vineyard, meterology and about anything else you might have on your mind. Ted runs great, no-nonsense program – something Riener and Sullivan love. While they can’t say enough about Ted, the fruit they pull from StoneTree is nothing short of amazing.

StoneTree began in 2000 on about 250 acres leased for 25 years from the Washington Department of Natural Resources. The gently sloping site, located northwest of Mattawa, is home to sandy silt loam. As is pretty common in the area, the underlying sediments are nearly 20,000 year-old glacial outwash that were likely deposited by catastrophic floods. StoneTree, just like the rest of the Wahluke Slope, averages only a few inches of rain each year.

Guardian Cellars

19501 144th Ave NE #E600
Woodinville, WA 98072


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    Theresa Dillon

    Theresa Dillon
    Theresa Dillon earned her bachelor’s degree in print journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU. In her spare time she enjoys reading, attending concerts, weekly trivia nights, watching movies (especially her favorite The Wizard of Oz), and of course wine.