Christian Sparkman, Sparkman Cellars
Interview with Christian Sparkman, Director of Winemaking and Owner of Sparkman Cellars
As part of our tribute to Washington Wine Month, we have another fantastic interview with a big name in Washington wine, Christian Sparkman. It is an arduous task for a winemaker to make both excellent red and white wines but Sparkman Cellars is one of the few wineries that can make quality wines from Riesling to Cabernet -- and everything in between (http://www.sparkmancellars.com/). Chris Sparkman has a huge hand in the Washington Wine Industry. Sparkman holds a Master’s Degree in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, he has worked a wide variety of jobs, from being in the Peace Corps, to leading a group of students in building a school in Gambia, Africa.
Sparkman boasts an impressive a history of working in high end restaurants and served as general manager of Seattle’s Waterfront Seafood Grill from 2003-2011. In 2010 he was named ‘Sommelier of the Year’ by Seattle Magazine. Previously, Sparkman headed service teams at Olives in Washington, D.C.(1999-2000), The Orangery in Knoxville, TN (1991-94), Michael’s in Santa Monica, Calif. (1986-87), and the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans (1984-86) which has received worldwide acclaim for their wine list.
While at the Waterfront Seafood Grill, Chris Sparkman and his wife, Kelly, decided to start Sparkman Cellars in 2004. Since that time the winery has expanded exponentially. Sparkman has an impressive range of wines from Washington and even produce a Pinot Noir from Oregon. Christian currently serves as Chairman of the Washington State Wine Commission’s Board. He also currently sits on the Boards of Directors of the Auction of Washington Wine and Visit Seattle. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk wine with him. Here is my interview with Chris Sparkman, co-owner and director of winemaking at Sparkman Cellars.
WWB: I think you have hit a home run with your 2012 ‘Evermore’ Cabernet. I was very impressed with the structure and purity of fruit to this wine. Can you talk about that wine and that great vintage?
CS: I have been pursuing fruit from Dionysus Vineyard fruit for a few years and have been a fan of old vine Washington Cabernet. This is one of the oldest vineyard in the state and was planted in 1972. For many years I have wanted a chance to get the fruit from Dionysus and in 2012 we were able to procure some of their Riesling, which I called our ‘Birdie’ Riesling. That Riesling ended up being the number seven wine in the world from Wine Enthusiast and we were really proud of the project. There is something special about old vine wine from Washington. This ‘Evermore’ Cabernet, comes from two different blocks in the Dionysus Vineyard -- one planted in 1998 and one planted in 1972. We already had two Cabernets in our Sparkman lineup and our intention was not to make a new wine with Cabernet. But there were six barrels that sat in new wood and they all stood out to such a degree that we started bringing in colleagues, wine club members, and industry folks to taste this great wine. We thought we had something different and exciting with this wine.
I have a background as a sommelier. The restaurant guy in me said that we needed to have the quality in the bottle to sell for this at a high price. After folks kept on telling us ‘yeah this Evermore is special stuff’ we chose to give this one a higher price. Linn Scott was in charge of the 2012 Evermore Cabernet and is in charge of producing all of the wines. He did a fantastic job. At the end of the day I say whether we need a little more of something or not in the wines. We made 150 cases of this wine and have had very nice support for it. I thought somewhere along the line someone was going to call me a greedy bastard but people wanted more of the wine.
The 2012 vintage in Washington was the most average growing season that you can ask for, which means that it was perfect. If you can’t make wine in this vintage then you should think about going something else. With the picking we let it sit a bit and we believe that there are some things that you can measure and some of the things you can’t taste. PH and sugar and acid are all great markers but flavor is the only thing you taste. If the flavor is not wall there then we don’t want to pick it. That is sort of our overriding philosophy. We try to do that with all our Bordeaux varietals. We have four old blocks of Cabernet and this is sort of our firs go around with this. People tend to really enjoy the old single vineyard blocks. We source from Upland Estate which was first planted in 1971, the Bouchey Vineyard, planted in 1980 and the Klipsun Vineyard which was planted in 1984. At Sparkman we now have four different blocks which were all 30 years or older. In the future we are considering doing four different wines, all called ‘Evermore’, and so far in the barrel the wines are telling us this project might be a good idea. Each wine has their own personality. These individual wines tell the story of the place which his really cool. This Evermore idea is really compelling and it is not out of the realm of imagination that we would have four old vine Cabernets with the 2015 vintage.
WWB: I recently had the chance to run through a number of your impressive white wine releases and was impressed with your 2014 white wines, including the excellent ‘Luminere’ Chardonnay. I was very impressed with the structure in those wines, despite the heat of the vintage. Can you talk about how you were able to obtain such nice structure in those wines?
CS: The Stillwater Creek vineyard is the key to the ‘Luminere’ Chardonnay. We find that vines from Stillwater Creek produce wonderful minerality. This is not near Chablis but Chardonnay from Stillwater Creek tends to act differently than some of the hotter sites in Washington, like Cold Creek. I have to give the vineyard a lot of credit. We also do a native fermentation on that and have experimented with multiple yeasts for that wine. The flavors and profile are drawn from the yeast in the winery. It is difficult because the fermentations that we do take longer and are unpredictable but what they yield at the end of the day is what we want. The 2014 vintage I think was really a piece of cake with the winemaking. We have now been wrestling with 2015 vintage white wines and I am interested to see how this thing turns out. What happens is other things come in there with the vintage and you have to control it the best you can. I think we are going to have some really great Chardonnay in ’15, even though ’15 was less easy to work with. People have said this to us, forever, before we got into making wine -- that white wine is way harder to make than red wine. I think that is true. We have noticed that with Washington Sauvignon Blanc, as we have had to track down balance and structure to the wines. But in other, more cool, vintages, white wine is made more easily. It is also bizarre how varietals and barrels that will be in the same yeast and treatment will decide to do things differently. That keeps you humbled. You are on your toes when you work with white wines.
WWB: You make an Oregon Pinot Noir from the famous ‘Temperance Hill Vineyard’. What got you interested in making Oregon Pinot Noir? Can you talk about some of the challenges of working with that varietal and the challenges that you faced in the 2013 vintage in Oregon?
CS: We are privileged to work with some great vineyards at Sparkman Cellars. Not everyone gets into Klipsun or Dionysus vineyards. Our friend, Rob Stewart, helped us out with getting some good Oregon Pinot Noir. We were sold some really good Oregon Pinot in 2009 and it turned out to beautiful wine. It is starting to peak right now and is exactly where you want to drink Pinot Noir. Pinot is finicky to work with. In 2010 it was a really tough vintage down there and we were unable to get any fruit from Oregon. We declined to do it and it was hard to find supply that year. We had a cold growing season in Washington and wanted to focus on the Washington fruit in 2010. 2011 was also a hard vintage in Oregon and I was able to secure a younger block, [Dijon] clone 777, and we wanted to work with that. In 2011 we cold soaked the Pinot Noir for eight days just to make it have some color in the wine. There was even some dry ice involved and we had to watch out what was going on there. The 2011 Pinot turned out to be some really nice wine, like a Beaune wine from Burgundy. The wine is something more light and elegant. As it rounds in form here we are curious what happens to this wine. In the near future we will take a harder look at that wine and will re-release the wine later. I know a lot of people did that in Oregon with the 2007 Pinots. The 2012 Pinot Noir from Oregon made itself and the alcohol was low, only 12 percent. I think that the wine might be cresting right now. My opinion is that the alcohol levels are not that important with wine. 2013 in Oregon was really a nice and easy vintage. The fruit was as fine as we have seen but the last two vintages, 2014 and 2015, have been really good as well. Temperance Hill [vineyard] is at 750 feet. It is a cooler site for Pinot and it makes more elegant and earthier wines than Ribbon Ridge in Dundee. Folks are digging it. The 2013 Pinot Noir tastes best early than any of the Pinot that we have made.
WWB: Other than Sparkman Cellars wines, what other Washington wines or wines of the word do you enjoy?
CS: I enjoy the wine in my glass! Being in the wine industry makes me kind of ruined and you can’t drink crap wine when you are ruined. We had a bottle of Grand Cru Champagne last night for our anniversary which was fantastic. We just signed with Noble wines and that is our new distributor. We have been revisiting Italian wines and have been able to try some great Brunello. We like checking out Noble Wine’s impressive portfolio and doing some research on those things. We like a lot of white wines. Erica Orr’s wines are fantastic. She makes an old vine Chenin Blanc that is just delicious. She does a great job at Baer. If it is well-made then I want to taste it and I don’t have any prejudices. I think Washington has so many great flavors in their wines. One of the things that we are trying to capitalize on, being the chairman of the Washington Wine Commission, is that we have a wide variety of high quality wines. It is not one producer or one vineyard or one varietal. Washington has a dizzying array of world class wines. Some of the wines from Kevin White are great. W.T. Vintners are great as well. It is nice to see a new wave of winemakers, trying to figure it out and some of them have already had some great success.