story published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on 5/25/17
The newest player in the Santa Barbara wine scene in someone who, actually, has already made a significant mark in it. James Sparks has been winemaker for the celebrated Liquid Farm label since 2009, crafting beautiful chardonnays that combine fruit from multiple vineyards as a way to encapsulate the Sta. Rita Hills region in each bottle; the about-to-be-released 2015 Golden Slope Chardonnay, a blend of six vineyards, is floral and racy. Liquid Farm recently expanded into pinot noir production, too.
But Sparks’ Kings Carey wines are totally new, with the first three bottlings just now hitting the marketplace. “It can be challenging, finding that balance,” Sparks says of juggling his full-time gig at Liquid Farm with his pet project. But the focus of Kings Carey is precise – grenache only, for now – as a way to both eliminate competition and explore something totally personal.
Sparks’ foray into winemaking is relatively new, itself -- and fascinating, when you consider his background. One of a dozen children raised in rural Idaho, Sparks, 41, left the Mormon religion a little over a decade ago – a totally new way of life, and an introduction to the world of alcohol consumption and creation. His brother-in-law, Brandon Sparks-Gillis, now became an important connection; a former employee at an L.A. wine shop, he’d helped found Dragonette Cellars in 2005, and as the label began its quick climb to becoming one of Santa Barbara’s premiere boutique wine labels, it also became James’ foot in the door.
Serendipity is a powerful thing. But there’s no denying Sparks’ own knack, which saw him transitioning as assistant winemaker at Dragonette to winemaker at Liquid Farm within a year. Just a handful of vintages later, his presence and influence established, Kings Carey becomes Spark's next chapter.
Interestingly, the label’s name pays homage, in part, to Sparks’ upbringing; he hails from Carey, Idaho, a river valley ag town with a population of about 600. “Kings” is a tip of the hat to Sparks’ wife, Anna Ferguson-Sparks, a marketing whiz from Kings Point, on New York’s Long Island. The pair lives in Solvang with their beautiful three-year-old daughter, Bea.
“Why grenache?” I ask him as we sit and sip. The Kings Carey launch features a 2016 Rosé of grenache, a 2015 Sta. Rita Hills grenache and a 2014 Santa Ynez Valley grenache. I ask him, in part, because word on the street is that grenache, like syrah and other Rhone wines, is a hard sell.
“I want to do what I like, first and foremost,” he says.
Grenache also allows him to explore a new winemaking avenue: whereas Liquid Farm is a study in blends, Kings Carey sheds the spotlight on single varietals and single vineyards, with a push for minimal manipulation and lower alcohols.
The 2016 Rosé ($20) is fresh and juicy, with floral aromas and red berry flavors that scream afternoon sipping. “I love café,” says the winemaker. “It can go with almost anything, from salads to burgers.” The fruit comes from Brick Barn Vineyard, located in the warmer stretches of the Santa Ynez Valley.
The 2014 and 2015 reds reveal what grenache can do in cooler environs. Their source is the same: the renowned John Sebastiano Vineyard in Sta. Rita Hills. But remember the contentious battle a few years ago to expand the boundaries of SRH? This vineyard featured prominently in this fight. Before the feds' approval of the expansion, most of it lived within the AVA, with a small portion spilling into a zone that had to be identified more broadly as Santa Ynez Valley. The 2014 Kings Carey grenache was bottled before the SRH borders were stretched, which requires Sparks to use the Santa Ynez Valley AVA moniker on his label. By the time the 2015 wines were put in bottle, he had the federal government’s blessing to label it, officially, Sta. Rita Hills.
No matter what it says on the label, though, these wines are awesome, although distinct. The 2015 Grenache ($29), harvested a bit earlier in the season, is more youthful, with tangy red berries on the nose and bouncy mouth feel. A lunch red, if you will, or a red you can easily sip as the sun goes down on a warm summer’s day. My favorite, the 2014 Grenache ($29), was picked a bit later and exhibits more depth – more earthy – with red currants, oak, white pepper and even a dab of cocoa, and a luscious finish. More of an evening meal wine, perhaps. Both grenache wines are about 13.5% alcohol and are drinkable now, though they exhibit wonderful aging potential, too.
Another standout element here? The Kings Carey labels, which feature black-and-white illustrations by Philadelphia-based artist Hawk Krall. The hand-drawn images pop and have a hip, urban vibe. Touching again on grenache’s marketplace challenges, Mrs. Sparks, the branding pro, says, “It speaks to the millennial audience that we’re after.”
Find out more at kingscarey.com.