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Sparks '69 Building Boutique Winery Business

Howard W. Hewitt, Sonoma, Ca., (Carneros Region) – Doug Sparks ’69 got interested in wine a long time ago. He even planned turning his Sunset Cellars winery into a retirement business. But changes in the Silicon Valley consulting business he owned for 25 years accelerated the plan by a few years.

Sparks and his wife now spend their time working with partner farmers, a partner winemaker and handling all facets of the business from their San Francisco home not far from the Golden Gate bridge. He has a partner who makes his limited white wines, while Doug is the winemaker for the Zinfindel, Barbera, and Petit Syrah.

Sparks still does a little consulting and his wife works part-time in a wine shop. But the two-person business requires lots of hours. They rent space where they make the wine in Lake County, north of Sonoma. They buy all their grapes through hand-shake deals with local farmers. Doug hustles distributors to move his wines into restaurants and nice wine shops.

Today he drove through Suisun Valley, which borders Napa, and we visited the grower who provides his Zinfandel grapes. We walked the vineyard and talked about the annual challenges of producing just the right crop.

“It’s all about the wine,” said Sparks’ grower, Roger King. “It’s not about growing grapes.”

Sparks describes himself as part scientist and part artesian. He’s also a salesman and congenial host in a Sonoma County tasting room he shares with four other small, family-owned wineries.

He must operate the shared tasting room each Wednesday afternoon and one weekend a month. He pours wines from all five wineries and answers curious tourists questions about wine and winemaking.

He does it all with a wink and a smile. He admits he’d like to see his business grow some. Currently Sunset Cellars produces about 2,000 cases a year, putting it in the niche of family-owned boutique wineries.

His Zinfandels and Barbera wines have won numerous awards. His wines are currently not available in Indiana. He distributes primarily in California and Texas. He’s working on some other states, including an Indiana distributor.

Sparks full story will be published this fall in Wabash Magazine and on the Wabash website.

Notes:

- A personal note regarding my day with Doug Sparks. He and his grower, Roger King, and I went to lunch at a nice cafÈ near King’s vineyards. It really was a wine geek’s biggest thrill to sit and listen to the winemaker and grower talk about winemaking and the industry.

In photos: Top right, Doug pours one of his Sunset Cellars wines for a visitor to the Sonoma tasting room. Lower left, King and Sparks take a look at zinfindel grapes in their early stage of development.