“Family. Good Livin’. Damn Fine Wine.” So reads the tagline at Sparkman Cellars in Woodinville, Washington. A bold statement by any winery let alone one that makes 29 different wines! But with a serious background in wine combined with a skillful winemaker situated in one of the up-and-coming wine regions in the world, they certainly seem to have all the ingredients to live up to that statement.
As a Sommelier, Christian Sparkman spent many years at some of the top restaurants in the United States including Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, Louisiana, Michael’s in Santa Monica, California, and Waterfront Seafood Grill in Seattle, Washington (now Aqua by El Gaucho) where he was named by Seattle Magazine as “Sommelier of the Year” in 2010. While starting and running a winery is both capital intensive and risky, it was the birth of their first child that became the catalyst for Chris and his wife Kelly to take the leap and establish Sparkman Cellars in 2004, “We wanted to create a family business that would enable me to be a Dad who was present. Simple as that.”
We pulled up to Sparkman’s wine tasting room in the Hollywood District. If location is any indication of success, it’s well positioned sitting between the tasting rooms of àMaurice Cellars and Mark Ryan Winery, and across the parking lot from Delille Cellars – some of the top producing wineries out of Washington State. Operations Manager Rhonda Polidori greeted us and sat us down at one of the tables for two, the last one available as the tasting room was buzzing with several guests that were clearly enjoying their experience. The tasting room is casual and welcoming with wooden chairs and tables, and an L-shaped bar. On the wall is a large chalkboard listing all 29 wines which include Riesling, Roussanne, Chardonnay, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, four different Cabernet Sauvignons, and even a Souzão. While the majority of the 29 wines have received consistent scores in the ‘90’s, the 2010 Malbec (aptly named “Preposterous”) remains the highest ever scoring Washington State Malbec with a lofty 94 points bestowed by Wine Spectator. This extraordinary diversity in grape varieties not only highlights the region itself for it’s incredibly unique and varied soil, it also demonstrates the talent of Sparkman winemaker Linn Scott to be producing so many different wines at such a consistent and high quality.
A native of Seattle, Linn attended universities in both France and Germany eventually earning a Master’s Degree in Viticulture and Enology. According to Chris, Linn joined Sparkman as an intern for the 2010 and 2011 harvests, “He was such a great fit for our culture and family that we asked him to head up winemaking in 2012. We are at a totally different level with him behind the wheel.” Making 29 different wines is a monumental amount of work. We asked whether this was due to curiosity in terms of grape varieties or if Chris and Linn are just suckers for punishment, “Today’s wine lover is more sophisticated and demanding than in any time in human history. To compete in this extraordinary market we want to stay fresh, always challenging ourselves and rewarding our followers with new stuff, as well as make the core wines better in so doing. I mean who doesn’t love a Touriga Nacional from Snipes Mountain?”
Our overall impression from tasting Sparkman wines (see tasting notes below) is that they are very approachable early but have a terrific structure to seemingly age well. Chris tells us that this is definitely something they’re aiming for, “We want our wines to be delicious upon release, but be structured well enough to deliver for a generation—even the whites.” As with all great wines, the quality of the fruit is key. Sparkman sources from the very best vineyards in Washington State including Boushey, Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval. Chris reveals the secret behind getting fruit from the most prominent (and hard to come by) vineyards in the State, “As with most of life, it is about relationships, trust and lifting those around you. We are blessed to be partners with the finest farmers in our part of the world.”
As if having a family and running winery aren’t enough to keep him busy, Chris also happens to be Chairman of the Washington State Wine Commission’s Board, and a Board Member for Auction of Washington Wine, and Visit Seattle. Given the phenomenal growth in the region the past three decades, we were curious about his perspective given his heavy involvement in Washington’s wine industry outside of owning and running his own winery, “I think we just keep getting better every day. But so does the rest of the world. We have to learn how to play on the world stage and we are the toddlers in that regard. Things this good take a lot of time. We are on our way!”
At the very heart of Sparkman Cellars is family. A family which includes not just their blood relations but everyone who works at the winery, is a fan of their wine, or has anything to do with supporting the Washington wine industry. With two young daughters that help out at the winery we had to ask whether Chris thought he might have future winemakers in Stella Mae or Ruby Leigh, “We pay close attention to what they want their lives to be about. If that has anything to do with wine, that’d be fine too. I expect they will change the world in some ways that we have yet to imagine.” Spoken like a true Dad.
2016 Riesling Birdie
Aromas of crisp, green apple. Medium+ body with medium+ acidity give presence to the apple and pear flavours. There is a nice mineral streak on the finish. Very refreshing!
Very Good ($18 at their tasting room)
2015 Wonderland Grenache
Plenty of spicy dark cherry and black forest cake notes are to be found on this blend of 88% Grenache and 12% Syrah from Yakima Valley’s top-ranked Boushey, Olsen and Sagemoor Vineyards. Flavours of red cherry, cracked pepper, baking spice and a hint of anise. Medium+ body with dry, polished tannin.
Very good+ ($32 at their tasting room)
Here’s the crowd pleaser! A blend of 84% Malbec and 16% Syrah from Klipsun and Angela’s Vineyards in Red Mountain. The nose is quite floral with cherry and vanilla. Flavours of plum, dark cherry gain added complexity from the pepper notes on the finish. This is a big, full bodied wine with mild tannin and mild acidity. Very approachable now.
Very Good+/Excellent ($38 at their tasting room)
94% Cabernet Sauvignon from Klipsun with 6% Petite Verdot from Olsen. A beautiful nose of black currant and black cherry gains further complexity from the vanilla and floral notes. On the palate we get black currant, mocha, vanilla bean, pepper and a touch of mint. Very complex! There is medium+ body with medium tannin and medium acidity. There is a smooth approachability to this wine; a wonderful combination of power and elegance!
Excellent ($62 at their tasting room)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon all from Dionysius Vineyard, holding some of the oldest vines in the state. Well above the glass we pick up aromas of blackberry, black currant, baking spices and menthol. The aromas follow on to the palate where they are joined with subtle notes of forest and minerals. The palate shows a medium+ body with medium tannin and medium acidity. This is a powerful wine while at the same time it is smooth and sophisticated. Definite wow factor. $100 is a lot to ask fro a Washington Cabernet. This one is worth it.
Excellent ($100 at their tasting room)