Guardian Cellars' Cop Turned Winemaker

An unlikely vintner turns out a lineup of luscious wines and a lively tasting room.
guardian cellars winery

Jerry Riener fell in love with the fruit flies, barrels and tanks before he fell in love with wine. Working as a police officer in Lynnwood in 1997, Riener happened upon Matthews Estate in Woodinville on a day a troupe of volunteers was bottling the latest vintage. He joined in, and by the end of that very hard, noisy, messy workday, he was hooked. He became a regular volunteer for Matthews, and also became friends with another young winemaker, Mark McNeilly, who had launched Mark Ryan Winery in 1999, one of the first wineries in the early days of the Woodinville Warehouse District. Riener helped McNeilly—learning how to work crush and tend barrels—and through this process, fell in love with the wine itself, and felt a new appreciation for the farming roots of his family in the Midwest.

When Riener opened Guardian Cellars in 2004, McNeilly repaid the favors, consulting on winemaking through the first four vintages. Riener began to appreciate the quality of the fruit and the vineyards McNeilly worked with, and developed relationships with growers from some of Washington’s best, including Ciel du Cheval, Conner Lee, Kiona, Klipsun, Obelisco, Stillwater Creek and StoneTree vineyards. Like Mark Ryan Winery, Guardian produces big, lush but balanced red wines, focusing on blends that age in the bottle for at least a year, giving them time to develop and mature before releasing them.

Read about the Best Washington Wine Award Winners of 2012

When Riener met his wife, Jennifer Sullivan, a crime reporter for The Seattle Times, they bonded over their love of wine and crime, giving them plenty to talk about in both realms. It almost seems logical that some of the wine names sound like film-noir essentials—The Alibi, The Informant, Chalk Line and The Rookie. A great team with a sense of humor, Riener and Sullivan are always enthusiastic about their projects, and eager to draw visitors out and make new friends with wine lovers. “We love to make wine, we love to talk about wine, and we love to talk about making wine,” says Riener, who continues to be a police officer. Sullivan took on the tasting room and has helped make the Warehouse District a vital, fun center for lively parties and great music.

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Shannon’s Picks from Guardian Cellars

Photo by Hayley Young

2009 The Alibi ($39)
This Bordeaux-style blend (54 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 31 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc) sourced from Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Kiona and Obelisco vineyards on Red Mountain, is intensely aromatic, with blackberry and dark plum, roasted coffee and crushed anise seed aromas. On the palate, it is full-bodied and rich with black fruit, sweet spice and intense tannins and good acidity. Pairs with: Braised oxtail in red wine with roasted root vegetables.

2010 The Informant ($30)
This full-bodied Syrah (96 percent) has a bit of Viognier (4 percent) added to brighten up the deep fruit of the Syrah. StoneTree and Stillwater Creek fruit blend to create a warm, sunny, earthy aroma, with intense black plum and black fruit on the palate. Pairs with: Balsamic-marinated grilled lamb.

2009 The Rookie ($42)
This 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from Ciel du Cheval and Klipsun vineyards on Red Mountain is a beauty. Aromas of leather, meat, dried herbs and pepper, and lush black fruit and vanilla, with full-bodied mouthfeel and silky tannins. Pairs with: Grilled beef tenderloin with blue cheese sauce.

2011 Angel Sauvignon Blanc ($20)
This 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc from Klipsun Vineyards on Red Mountain and Spring Creek Vineyards in Columbia Valley shows the ripeness of Red Mountain, but retains good acidity and freshness with lemon zest and ruby grapefruit aromas, and ripe peach and a bit of fresh herb notes. Pairs with: Cold roasted chicken with herbs and lemon.

2010 Chalk Line ($25)
My favorite: a balanced, bright wine. Aromas of sweet spice, raspberry and leather, with excellent acidity, silky tannins and a long finish. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot from Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Kiona, Obelisco, Conner Lee and Stillwater Creek vineyards. Pairs with: Grilled lamb chops with delicata squash.