Scaling the Peaks
Washington State’s winemaking ranks are well populated with ex-dentists, pharmacists, engineers, media producers and a physicist or two. The decision to veer away from a stable career to start a winery may have been the biggest gamble of their lives.
But for a small coterie of professional mountain climbers, making wine has been a safe refuge from the perils of their other work. Eric Murphy (Ott & Murphy), Rob Newsom (Boudreaux Cellars) and Chuck Reininger (Reininger Winery) have all reached the summit of their exhilarating, dangerous profession.
What can climbing mountains teach them in the seemingly mundane world of grape wrangling? Are the risks any less worrisome when it’s your bank account on the line, rather than your life? What’s the most terrifying challenge each has faced?
Meet the men who have traded their pitons for puncheons.
Photos by Patrick Bennett
Before becoming a winemaker, Louisiana native Rob Newsom worked for many years as a professional alpinist, ice-climbing pioneer and developer of the Gore-Tex fly-fishing wader.
He’s led 16 expeditions into the Alaska Range, and two Himalayan treks into the Everest/Khumbu region.
Newsom, who bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Peter Coyote, has built his home and winery off the grid in the Cascade Mountains, outside the town of Leavenworth, Washington.
Follow a winding road into wilderness, cross a rustic wooden bridge over Icicle Creek, and arrive at his rock-strewn, Icicle Canyon property. It makes you believe that Grizzly Adams must be his next-door neighbor.
Since retiring as a mountain guide, he’s focused on winemaking, fly-fishing and guitar-picking. When asked, an avalanche of thoughts spill on how his two careers have intertwined.
“It’s all about taking what nature gives you, and making something aesthetically pleasing from it,” Newsom says.
“We can all go out and grow grapes at eight tons per acre and make some wine,” he says. “And we can all go climb Mount Rainier. But to go to some badass mountain, pick out the most striking, beautiful line and ascend that line to the top—that is like trying to create the finest wine in the world. Something elegant, with a lot of finesse.
“It’s about what it takes to create it, and how you get there.”
Although the dangers are of a different scale, the fears are often comparable.
“You’re always scared, always worried about the weather,” Newsom says. “You’re always having to repair your gear. But if the goal is to create this beautiful thing, making wine is much like climbing mountains. It’s about getting from Point A to Point B.
“You crush your grapes and make the wine, and you’re not back at base camp until somebody is drinking the wine,” he says. “And when you’re at the summit, you still have to get back down.
“It’s just about making the next move in as good a form as you can. You can’t make the whole climb all at once. You make one move, then the next move. But you’d better be thinking of the whole picture all the time—where you are in that huge landscape. If you don’t, you’ll get killed—or make mediocre wine.”
Chuck Reininger’s love of the mountains began as a child, joining his father and older brothers on extended camping and climbing trips throughout the West.
At 17, he summited Mount Rainier with his older brother, and two years later, began guiding others up the mountain.
Other climbing expeditions took him to Alaska and South America, often worked around time in the family transportation business.
Romance brought him to Walla Walla in 1992, where he planned to begin a brewery. He helped out at Waterbrook first and tried home winemaking. He found, to his surprise, that he felt more of a connection to wine than brewing.
“I think it evoked the same feelings as my passion for climbing,” he says. “I didn’t see that in brewing.
“It’s a really powerful thing, mountaineering,” says Reininger. “You’re at 17,000 feet with a big storm coming in, trying to survive the forces of nature, hunkered down. And then it all blows away, and you look into the vastness of these incredible mountains, and the forces that created our world, and you feel how insignificant you are.
“It’s a really invigorating feeling that makes me understand it’s up to me to make what I will of my time on earth.”
Reininger opened his winery, playfully dubbed Shackteau Reininger, in 1997. It was just the 10th winery in the Walla Walla Valley.
Since then, it’s grown significantly, moved to a prime location west of town and now provides him with the same sort of satisfaction that scaling the peaks once did.
“I can sit there,” he says, “with a glass in my hand, thinking about making wine, and looking out into the Blue Mountains, and I’m awestruck by the same forces of nature—the soils, the sun, the rain.
“I think the word ‘spiritual’ gets thrown around a lot, but that thankfulness for being alive is there with wine. That’s what really created my passion for winemaking—understanding the process and making the connection to the mountains.”
Eric Murphy remains committed to doing extreme mountain climbing and guiding, and making wine for Ott & Murphy, in which he’s a founding partner.
But during the last 15 years, the Whidbey Island resident has spent more than 1,200 field days on more than 30 climbing expeditions in Alaska, Canada, Antarctica, Nepal, Tibet, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Kenya and Tanzania.
“A distinct focus of mine has been high-altitude ascents,” says Murphy, who’s reached more than 80 summits over 19,000 feet, including Mount Everest, Mount Lhotse, Denali and the highest summits in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Antarctica.
His interest in winemaking evolved gradually. He first worked crush at Napa’s Chateau Montelena and Barnett Vineyards, practiced with friends on Whidbey, and finally, seven years ago, bonded Ott & Murphy.
“The partnerships, intensity, passion and focus that climbing expeditions require remind me a lot of harvest, and the overall winemaking process from vineyard to bottle,” says Murphy. “Winemaking is hard work that requires passion, dedication and focus.”
Murphy doesn’t downplay the dangers of mountaineering—he’s seen many friends die over the years. Yet, the most difficult aspect of guiding, he believes, is being responsible for another person’s well-being in a very dynamic and dangerous environment.
“The mountains are always changing—you never really know what you’ll get for conditions until you’re there,” he says. “If you’re taking that kind of risk, it’s because doing those kinds of things is burning in your soul. Otherwise, you won’t have the focus it takes to do it.”
What is similar about winemaking, he says, is the focus on working with the earth.
“You’re very connected to nature and your environment,” says Murphy. “Great wines are made in the vineyard. If you don’t have that focus and connection to the beginning of the process, growing the fruit and being involved in a very gentle way in the evolution of the wine to bottle, you won’t make great wine.”
- 2Rob Newsom
- 3Chuck Reininger
- 4Eric Murphy