Monday, February 19, 2024

Introducing Sparks*

James Sparks excitement. James Sparks great wine talk. And now James Sparks scrumptious sparkling wine.

But I guess for some of you I need to back-up. Let me introduce you to Kings Carey, another tiny winery that could and can in Santa Barbara County. It's pretty much all James Sparks, with tasting and marketing assistance from his wife Anna Ferguson-Sparks, and that's how you get the winery's unusual name: the couples' hometowns were (respectively) Carey, Idaho and Kings Point, New York. Sparks is better known as the winemaker for SB stalwart Liquid Farm, crafting some of our county's best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus an annual killer rosé of Mourvèdre. (More on rosé in a bit.)

As with many winemakers working for someone else, Sparks also wanted to follow his own muse too. Hence, Kings Carey, producing a tiny 600-1200 cases a harvest, almost always single vineyard, single varietal. It can get tricky, as Sparks has no vineyards of his own, and he's also meticulous about what grapes he chooses to work with. He insists on organic fruit--as he puts it, "organic is proactive, not reactive"--and that means from year to year what he gets to make might change. But whatever he makes, you will want to drink, promise.

Even better, you can taste at his small winemaking facility that just celebrated its first year in a spot just past the Welcome to Solvang sign (after you leave the town going west) on the 246. Yes, he's the tasting room person, too (most of the time), so you need to book ahead, but it's worth checking out the spot that was a motel in the 1970s (one room in the space was clearly a large shower at some point, and perhaps a chilling room in Kings Carey's future) and most recently where Broken Clock Vinegar Works did something very different with grapes. 

What Sparks does is minimal, and that's why his wines tend to sing of site and varietal. It's fun to be able to side-by-side his two Chardonnays, a 2021 MarFarm from SLO with bright lemon curd loveliness and creaminess, alongside a 2021 from Spear (he's got a soft spot for this vineyard and who could blame him?) in the Sta. Rita Hills, a bit richer than the wine from a bit further north (more heat?) even if made with no new oak. Another difference between the two Chardonnays--the Edna Valley had some residual sugar, so Sparks filtered that out. So he will intervene when he has to. But that's always up to what each wine and vintage suggests he needs to do to let it shine.

Sparks particularly has an affinity for Grenache. His talent is to let the grape sing tenor without merely burying its brightness in dark berry baritone. Take the 2021 To Market Grenache he's pouring right now. At 12.5% ABV it's up to you how and when you hope to love it--give it a quick chill, and it's your warm weather red if you don't want to rosé; serve it cellar temp, and it's a versatile red for apps and cheese or weightier fish or lighter meats. 

And I promised to discuss rosé, didn't I. The Liquid Farm each year is one of our county's standouts, made from Mourvèdre, walking the knife edge of lean and fleshy to the point you keep drinking it trying to decide. That kind of balance isn't easy. But Sparks replicates it with a different but equally pleasing rosé for Kings Carey, made from Grenache, 4-hours skin contact, foot stomped, aged on the lees for 6 months in neutral 400L barrels. So steely and bright it asks where the heck the sun is, and why aren't you out in it and imbibing this delight? 

While I won't walk you through the full lineup--there's equally enticing and lively Syrah and Semillon too--Sparks' most exciting current project is sparkling. To create bubbly in small production is truly a labor of love, as you're not making enough to buy machines to riddle your bottles for you, to point out just one labor-intensive process. While his blanc de noir is still in production--méthode champenoise wine is sort of like trying to make aged bourbon, as it's going to be a many year investment until you release round one--he has released a 2021 Kings Carey Sparkling Pinot Noir Rosé from Spear Vineyard. (See, great grape source is back again.) Of course, it's been a ten-year thought process, he insists, to get to making bubbly. All that thought shows in the glass, that breadiness you want without any heft, that lift from the effervescence, and then the sweet/sour fruit tumbling like a coin that will land the way you placed your bet, every time. If this is just the "simpler" first effort, it's hard to imagine how terrific that blanc de noir will be upon release. 

Then again, Kings Carey was meant as the place where Sparks could play. You'll know that as soon as you glimpse one of the bottles, all sporting busy for a wine label art from Philadelphia-based Hawk Krall. Sparks admits to his love 1960s and '70s art with a Vegas neon feel, hence the art choice that's as bold as his wines are refined. Kings Carey teaches us about a perfect balance we never even imagined existed.

* And, yes, instead of making it clear this post is about a talented winemaker, I had to make a reference to an album title from 1977. Sorry, James! At least Sparks are having a moment again, now.

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