Here's an arresting story: A full-time Lynnwood police sergeant who is also a full-time winemaker and winery owner. And not just any police sergeant--a police sergeant with a degree in organic chemistry. This odd scenario is the thread that weaves the exhausting life tapestry of Jerry Riener, the owner of Guardian Cellars in Woodinville.
Barbara Kinney Photography
After being on the force for 16 years and juggling two full-time jobs for the last eight, Riener says he's seriously toying with the idea of ditching his day job as a badge-carrying member of the Lynnwood P.D. in favor of spending more time not just with his winery, but with his reporter bride of nearly a year, Jennifer Sullivan, whom he met while she was reporting crime stories. As someone drunk on adrenaline and multi-tasking, Riener swears that's a serious pledge and not an off the cuff(s) remark.
Jennifer and Jerry, how did you two meet?
Jennifer: I used to cover crime in Snohomish County for The Seattle Times. I still work for the Times.
Jerry: We met probably nine years ago. We kind of knew each other for a couple of years.
Jennifer: I was covering police in Snohomish County and occasionally I'd call him like I'd call other people for stories. We got to be friends and then, how long did it take before we went out?
Jerry: A long time. Just trying to go out the first time took about six months. The second date took another four months to happen.
Jennifer: He was busy starting a winery and I was busy working all the time
How did you end up a police officer?
I got my degree in chemistry. I was going to become a doctor. That's all I ever wanted to be.
Did you go to school here?
UW and UCLA.
After graduating, I started on the police force. Then in about 1999, I started volunteering at a winery. I would drive from Lynnwood to Redmond where I was living, back and forth every day. I'd drive through Woodinville a lot and there was this property I had no idea what it was. It was obviously something more than just a house. It was about five acres of pretty well cut hillside, a house on top and an enormously over-sized garage and barn; you couldn't quite tell what it was.
Matthews Cellars. Where the winery is, there were no signs, the place wasn't open to the public. It appeared there was nothing ever really going on there. But a couple of days a year, all of the sudden you'd see a bunch of people there or semi-trucks. I just never knew what was going on. I was 26 at the time and I wasn't a wine drinker because most of the wine I had at that point was what my parents drank and it was awful! One day I saw a semi-truck and a whole bunch of cars and pulled in just to find out what was going on. I found out it was a winery with a bottling truck and a whole bunch of volunteers. They let me help out the next day. It was just bottling and then nothing for about a month until more semi-trucks pulled up. I figured it must be more bottling, but it was actually the beginning of harvest. I really just stood around. They didn't particularly need or want volunteers because it's hard to train somebody. You need to be there a lot. It's not like you come and work for one day. I stood around and watched forever and figured out what they did and then jumped in when I thought I could help and then jumped out and got out of the way. I kept doing more, stepping deeper into the pool, and pretty soon it got to where I was there all day. I started showing up every single day either after work, before work or on my days off.
And then with my chemistry background I'd ask a lot of questions. I offered some suggestions, "Have you ever thought of doing this?" and processes that came easy to me, like the lab work and calculations--stuff I could just do in my head. I'd make little corrections once in a while. It was kind of funny because everyone there knew me as an officer and would just look at me like, "How the hell do you know this?" They'd be like, "Nothing personal, but you're a cop" and then I'd tell them about my degree in organic chemistry and they just told me to have at it. So then I started working on a lot of winemakers' wines around Woodinville. I started to get to know everybody. Mark from Mark Ryan Winery, which hadn't started up yet, later got hired by Matthews to sell the wines. He and I became really good friends and he was starting his own winery at the same time [I was working at Matthews], so then the two of us would just go work on his winery a little. I was volunteering 40 hours a week at Matthews Cellars at that point.
Jennifer: He likes to work.
At certain times of the year, yes. At other times, no. When it's harvest time, bottling time, I don't sleep. I have things calculated out to where I know how many minutes of sleep I can sneak in: "If I don't drive to here, I can sleep this many minutes more." I'm a little Type-A.
Jennifer: Before the winery, he didn't drink coffee. Now, it's a requirement. There's a mini-espresso machine at the winery.
So, you helped Mark start his winery?
He owned it outright. We just kept growing it and in 2004 we started getting really good press. We came on pretty strong right from the get-go and getting great scores [from Wine Spectator] and that's when he said, "I owe you." We talked about sharing ownership, which wasn't really quite right. He finally said, "We have so much space here, make your wines here." He told me it was time for me to start making my own wines. In 2003 we made a wine called Gun Metal from Conner Lee Vineyard. He gave me the vineyard. Once he told me that, it was game on. As soon as he made the offer, I knew instantly I wanted to be a winemaker. It was totally what I wanted to do. It's funny because all the other winemakers would always ask me when I was going to start my own winery and I'd say, "Never. I know what a bad business proposal these things are. They're all money pits!"
Winemaking is totally different from my day job. I love my day job too, but they're night and day different.
How did you come up with the name Guardian Cellars?
That took me forever. That took me damn near two years. I couldn't come up with anything good. First, it was ego, you try to use your name, and I'm like, "My name does not work."
Jennifer: His official name is Jerome Edward, which nobody calls him.
Jerry: I was somehow trying just to tie a little bit of the police work into it, but I didn't quite know how.
Jennifer: We didn't want it to be too obvious.
Jerry: Finally, Mark and I were just sitting down--a lot of things get solved over a beer--and throwing names out and finally I said Guardian, kind of thought about it for a second, and then started thinking about what my requirements were and it fit.
What was the worst name you came up with?
I think P.D. Vineyards was the worst one, because I even had a picture of the label.
Jennifer: The label was terrible!
Jerry: I was using the outline of a badge. It was all-in-all horrific.
Jennifer: And we had just started dating at this point and I was really trying to be on my best behavior and trying to be nice, but...
Jerry: It was so kitschy and dumb. At the time, I was thinking, "I don't want something too over the top, so I'll have a badge!" And where the banners are on the badge, where it usually says Police Officer and the agency, the seal was going to be the state of Washington or a grape cluster.
Jennifer: At that point, you have to have people working at your events dressed as cops.
Jerry: Stripper cop outfits. It was awful.
How did you come up with the names of your wines?
With Chalk Line, I was at a homicide back in 2005 and some of the reporters were asking questions and somebody made a comment about a body chalk outline and I told them we didn't really do that anymore, but when they said "chalk outline" it stuck with me.
What are the other names?
Gun Metal, which came directly from Mark Ryan, so I didn't even name that one.
Jennifer: But it fits perfectly.
Jerry: So, Gun Metal, The Wanted, The Rookie, The Alibi, The Informant, Chalk Line, and then in a few years I have a Bordeaux blend that's going to be all five of the Bordeaux varietals and call it 5-0 for my time in uniform. So, I have The Informant because I was undercover for a few years and Chalk Line because I was a detective for six years and then 5-0 for my patrol time and then Rookie because your first year, you're a rookie and it was the first wine we ever made. The first wine I sold was actually a 2003 vintage, even though I didn't start until 2004. Under Mark Ryan's label, I was making three barrels. We were going to make them my personal barrels but they accidentally got counted into the winery and reported to the ATF, which made them commercial wines, so I couldn't just take the barrels. It wasn't until we decided to start the winery that Mark said he could transfer those three barrels out of his winery and into mine. So, I did have a rookie vintage in 2003 that was cabernet, so my cabernet is always called The Rookie.
When you started the winery, how did that affect your job on the force?
It just made me busy. The police department has to come first. I've done really well just having a few people behind me to where if I really get into a pinch I can call them and explain what I want them to do.
The biggest thing is that I'm the winemaker with the oddest hours. Most of the winemaking generally at wineries seems to get done between 9 a.m. to noon and then 1-4 p.m. and I just don't have that luxury. For me, if I get off work and it's 6 p.m., it's time to start working. I'll go to the winery and work until 5 or 6 a.m. and then go home. When I was working swing shift, I'd get off at 10 p.m. and it was pretty common to go out to the winery afterward and work for five hours.
They think it's cool. The funniest part is that the police officers go, "Wait, you're also a winemaker?" and the winemakers go, "You're a cop?" Actually, the police officers don't understand why I chose to become a cop after getting my chemistry degree.
Why did you become a cop?
I have a brother who is a police officer. He was the first one to step out into a non-traditional career. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers--that describes my mom's side of the family.
Jennifer: [Jerry's brother is] a police officer in Kent. During college, Jerry did a ride-along.
That was it.
Right from the get-go, I was hooked. Screw this being a doctor. I just like a job where you've got some excitement. I wanted to be a trauma surgeon. My mom was a nurse down in the Bay area. I got to go into trauma surgery and watch. I loved it. I loved the high-stress, thinking on your feet.
Jennifer: He dreamed of working at Harborview.
Jerry: But when I did the ride-along, I thought it was even cooler! Your job is different all the time. One of the big things is that I have to deal with people, whether I like them or not, I want to deal with people. I'm not a person to sit behind a desk and be quiet.
Do you eventually want to focus on the winemaking full-time?
It's not necessarily that I want to quit being a police officer. It's a great job. But if you look at wine production, I believe the 2010 stats were 90-percent of all wineries in Washington produce under 3,000 cases. I did about 4,200 last harvest and about 5,000 this year. I don't have employees, either. I'm stretched. So, it's more out of necessity that I'll need to go full-time on the winery. My hope is to go full-time on the winery and volunteer as a police officer, because I don't want to stop.
Is this in the near future for you?
Probably within the next year or so. Relatively soon. I'll try to stretch out [both jobs] as long as I can, somewhat out of fear. It's a big step to decide to run your own company by yourself, so there's a little fear and trepidation there.
Jennifer, were you a wine drinker before you met Jerry?
I liked wine, I loved it, but I didn't know much about it. There were nights where I studied it. The reporter side of me wanted to be up and know my subject, so I was really trying to learn quickly. I think there were a couple of times I completely messed up the terminology...
Jerry: A time or two.
Jennifer: ...but I tried. I don't try to jump into the actual wine making. I stay in the front of the house. We had one minor disaster when I helped rack wine. I over-filled barrels.
Is that bad?
Jennifer: Big time.
Jerry: It was the most amazing waterfall you've ever seen.
Gun Metal is a perennial favorite of mine. It's cabernet dominant with a lot of merlot in it and a tiny bit of cab franc.
My focus is to show people the areas of the state and the different AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). I have a blend out of Red Mountain and then further to the north, I have a blend out of Conner Lee Vineyard (near Othello) and then even further to the north I have a blend out of Royal City, the Stillwater Creek Vineyard.
You're a cop and a winemaker. Any other crazy thing you do?
I don't have time for anything anymore! I used to mountain bike all the time. What I used to do on my days off, before the winery, is put on headphones, go out mountain biking first thing in the morning and come back at night. I'd have no idea where I was going and I'd never have maps, I'd just take off. I would like to get back into that more. There are a lot of little things I'd like to do.
Sounds like you're close to having more time to do those little things.
Jennifer: Like, sleep!
Jerry: Sleep would be good.