Achieving a healthy work-life balance won’t be in the cards for local vintner James Sparks anytime soon, but a new endeavor has allowed him to maintain a decent work-work balance at least.
Sparks is the longtime head winemaker at Lompoc’s Liquid Farm, a space he simultaneously used for the production of his independent venture, Kings Carey, from its inception in 2014 through the beginning of 2023.
In February, Sparks acquired a spot of his own on Mission Drive in Solvang to both help separate his full-time job from his passion project and operate the first official tasting room for Kings Carey.
“I can do whatever I want here, which can be good and bad. It’s dangerous,” Sparks said at his new space, shortly after jumping off a forklift he used to move some wine barrels. “With winemaking, it’s about two things—lots and lots of cleaning, and lots and lots of forklifting.”
The boutique winery site, currently open for tastings by appointment only, allows him a lot of leeway to experiment during the winemaking process, the vintner said while playfully rubbing his palms together like a mad scientist.
“With my day job, it’s about blending. With Kings, it’s single varietal, single vineyard,” said Sparks, who described the process of carefully honing in on one grape source at a time with little to no manipulation as an exciting challenge.
Juggling his duties at Liquid Farm and Kings Carey is also a challenge in itself, but a rewarding one, Sparks added.
“I get up between 3 and 4 a.m. and I go until 8, 9 p.m.,” the winemaker said. “I’ve had a couple of 24-hour days, but I’m getting older and not as spry as I used to be.”
At Liquid Farm, Sparks spends his days blending varieties from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA exclusively, while he sources organically grown grapes from vineyards throughout both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties when working on wines for Kings Carey.
With all of his libations however, whether they’re from either brand, Sparks’ goal is “to make every wine different,” he said.
“I don’t want to make the same thing across the board,” said the winemaker, who released 50 cases of Kings Carey during its first year.
Today, the boutique winery produces about 600 to 800 cases annually. In his new tasting space, Sparks has a handful of Kings Carey wines showcased gallery-style, side by side with some artworks by Philadelphia-based illustrator Hawk Krall.
The prolific artist is widely known for his street murals and colorful commission work seen on packaging, menus, and advertising material for various food and beverage businesses. The beginning of Krall’s ongoing collaboration with Kings Carey marked his first time illustrating for wine labels, Sparks said.
“I’m a big fan of what he does; his playful, artistic nature,” said Sparks, who called attention to a blink-and-you-might-miss-it surprise by Krall featured on the cork of every wine bottle from Kings Carey.
It’s a small illustration of a french fry container, which Sparks described as a homage to his upbringing in Idaho.
“There’s not a lot going on in Idaho, but we do have a lot of french fries,” Sparks said with a laugh.
Sparks was born and raised in Carey, Idaho, where the Carey in Kings Carey comes from, while Kings alludes to Kings Point, New York, where Sparks’ wife, Anna Ferguson-Sparks, grew up.
“We just put the two together,” said Sparks, who commissioned Krall to highlight similarly subtle references to the couple’s respective hometowns as well as some Central Coast architecture and local lore within the whimsically designed wine labels.
As for wine tasting opportunities at Kings Carey, the brand’s inaugural brick-and-mortar in Solvang offers appointment-based flights of four wines for $20 per person and six wines for $30 per person.
One featured wine present in both packages is chardonnay. Sparks’ winery has two chardonnays, one sourced from MarFarm in Edna Valley and the other from Spear Vineyards and Winery in Lompoc. The first is included in the $20 flight, while the latter is featured in the $30 flight.
While comparing the two chardonnays, the winemaker described how their respective vineyards informed their flavors.
“With my Spear chardonnay, it’s a little bit fuller due to the fact that it’s very steep, it’s cooler, and it takes a long time for it to ripen. It’s also a clone that really holds its acid well,” Sparks said. “Whereas, the MarFarm from Edna Valley is a leaner style due to the fact that it’s a young vineyard, and as I watch acid start to drop, I want to kind of find that balance between the acid and the flavors while not having to add anything.”
Other wines from Kings Carey, available for tasting or for purchase by the bottle, include syrah, pinot noir, and grenache selections. One of Sparks’ personal favorites of his own products is his sparkling rosé of pinot noir.
“If you like a chillable red, the To Market Grenache is great,” Sparks said. “Sémillon’s unique, and syrah is coming around. But I always go to the sparkling.”
Send bubbly comments to Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood at [email protected].