Reminder: Nominations for Reader Survey 2010 Wine of the Year and 2011 Wine to Watch close at 9pm tonight. Read how to nominate wines here.

Chris Sparkman of Sparkman Cellars is a man with his priorities well defined. “First is family. Second is quality of life. Third is making damn good wines,” Sparkman says.

Sparkman Cellars is located in the Warehouse District in Woodinville (NB: The winery is also opening a tasting room next to Purple Café and Wine Bar in the Schoolhouse district later this month). The winery was started in 2004.

Chris Sparkman – Sparky as he is known to his friends and many avid followers – was born in Nashville, Tennessee with an accent to prove it. Sparkman started out as an academic, working on an endangered species program. With his trademark sense of humor, Sparkman says that this work, “confirmed that I’m not a G-man.”

Sparkman subsequently spent decades as a sommelier and wine buyer at restaurants in D.C, Los Angeles, and New Orleans before winding up in Seattle. Once in the Rain City, he worked for ten years for Mackay Restaurants, nine of which he spent at Waterfront Seafood Grillthe last seven as General Manager.

The restaurant business is a grueling one however. When Sparkman’s oldest daughter Stella Mae was born six years ago, his father advised him to get out of the restaurant industry and start a family business. “To be a dad who’s a dad not a dad that’s not there,” Sparkman explains. He took the words to heart.

Sparkman’s long-time work in the restaurant industry had given him an interest in winemaking. He researched the idea of starting a winery with Dan McCarthy of Seattle’s McCarthy & Schiering. However, it was a dinner with winemaker Charles Smith of K Vintners and Charles Smith Wines at Saito’s Japanese Café and Bar in Seattle that convinced Sparkman to take the plunge.

“Charles likes to think on cocktail napkins,” Sparkman explains. Smith gave Sparkman some basics on how to start a winery. “He convinced me it was going to be fun.” While no stranger to fun, Sparkman’s goal with the winery was clear. “It was our escape vehicle from the restaurant business so we could be good parents.”

Sparkman proposed the idea of starting a winery to his father and subsequently approached Mark McNeilly of Mark Ryan Winery. Sparkman had met McNeilly through his work at the Waterfront and loved his wines. McNeilly agreed to make Sparkman’s wines for the first couple vintages while Sparkman got his feet under him as a winemaker (McNeilly’s last vintage was 2006). While Sparkman describes taking over as winemaker “overwhelming,” his wines show a skilled touch.

From the beginning, the Sparkman Cellars wines have been bold and fruit filled – full throttle without being over the top. A member of Woodinville’s Grape Killers, the wines are beautifully balanced, rich yet restrained. Sparkman grew up drinking French wines, saying, “I think that’s why the wines are the way they are.”

Of course, starting with exceptional fruit sources doesn’t hurt, and Sparkman has focused from the beginning on some of the very best. Much of his production comes from vineyards on Red Mountain, including Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval, Kiona, Hedges, and Red Haven. He also sources from top sites Stillwater Creek, Boushey, and DuBrul among others.

Sparkman has focused largely on Bordeaux-style blends and Syrah, although more recently he has been experimenting with other varietals as well. A 2010 Port-style wine, made from Red Mountain Touriga Nacional, shows great promise.

Reflective of Sparkman’s infectious sense of humor, the winery’s website gives his title as ‘Dad, Winemaker, and Head Janitor,’ his wife Kelly’s as ‘Mom, Controller, and Assistant Winemaker,’ his oldest daughter Stella Mae’s as ‘Director of Toys and Crayons,’ and his youngest daughter Ruby Leigh as ‘Chief Mischief Maker and Chocolate Thief.’

In keeping with his desire to transition out of the restaurant business to be able to spend more time with his family, Sparkman decided that when Stella Mae’s first day of school came, it would be time to step down as General Manager at the Waterfront and start making wine full time. When Stella Mae started first grade on September 1st of this year (“She’s kicking ass!” he says), he kept his word.

While leaving a long-time career behind might be difficult for some, Sparkman faces it all with a sense of humor. He says of his family, “As long as they don’t mind eating Ramen Noodles the next ten years we’re golden!”

Sparkman Cellars makes 3,000 cases annually.

Sparkman Cellars Pearl Sauvignon Blanc Columbia Valley 2009 $19
Rating: + (Good) An appealing nose with white grapefruit, mineral, and tropical fruit. Crisp and tart on the palate with Granny Smith apple flavors. 60% Evergreen, 40% Stillwater Creek. Aged in stainless steel and neutral oak sur lies. 124 cases produced.

Sparkman Cellars This Old Porch Rose Columbia Valley 2009 $19
Rating: + (Good) Abundant fresh cherries and spice on an aromatic nose. The palate is loaded with watermelon and cherry flavors. Syrah (Klipsun, Ciel du Cheval, Boushey), Malbec (Klipsun), and Cabernet Franc (La Coye). 94 cases produced.

Sparkman Cellars Ruby Leigh Red Wine Red Mountain 2007 $42
Rating: * (Excellent) Abundant mint, red currant, vanilla, spice, and fresh red fruit aromas on a complex nose. The palate shows elegantly restrained red fruit accented by silky oak flavors that persist on the finish. 65% Merlot (Hedges North Block, Klipsun), 17% Cabernet Franc (Kiona), 9% Cabernet Sauvignon (Klipsun), 9% Petit Verdot (Kiona). Aged 20 months in 60% new French oak. 14.9% alcohol. 265 cases produced.

Sparkman Cellars Stella Mae Red Wine Red Mountain 2007 $42
Rating: * (Excellent) Earth, raspberries, Red Vines, and bright red cherries jump up from the glass. The palate is deliciously full with rich red fruit and mocha flavors with well-integrated tannins. A rolling, evolving finish. 62% Cabernet Sauvignon (Klipsun and Two Blondes), 21% Merlot (Hedges North Block, Klipsun), and 17% Petit Verdot (Stillwater Creek, Snipes Canyon). Aged 20 months in 60% new French oak. 14.7% alcohol. 255 cases produced.

Sparkman Cellars Kingpin Cabernet Sauvignon Klipsun Vineyard Red Mountain 2007 $56
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Pretty aromatics of cedar, bright red cherries, dust, and fresh red fruit over a layer of dark berries. A big, impressive wine loaded with red fruit flavors and a firm scaffolding of tannins. The fruit is beautifully intense. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon (Klipsun), 4% Merlot (Klipsun), 11% Petit Verdot (Snipes Canyon). Aged 22 months in 66% new French oak. 14.7% alcohol. 219 cases produced.

Sparkman Cellars Wilderness Red Wine Columbia Valley 2007 $28
Rating: * (Excellent) Sparkman describes this as his ‘Willy Wonka’ wine at it’s no wonder given its cornucopia of aromas and flavors. Fascinating, complex aromas of dusky spice, black and red fruit, dust, and an almost animalistic quality. The palate shows rich, chewy fruit flavors. A whole lot of wine for the money. Portion of proceeds donated to the Wilderness Society. 20% Merlot (Meek), 18% Cabernet Franc (Two Blondes, Red Willow), 3% Cabernet Sauvignon (Two Blonds), 29% Syrah (Hedges Bel Villa, Klipsun, Milbrandt), and 12% Petite Sirah and 18% Petit Verdot from Milbrandt Vineyards. Aged 18 months in 50% new French oak. 14.5% alcohol. 785 cases produced.

Sparkman Cellars Ruckus Syrah Columbia Valley 2007 $38
Rating: * (Excellent) Aromatics show dust, black fruit, and currant on a nose that is still fairly closed up. On the palate, a big, intense, deliciously rich fruit-filled wine with chewy fruit that hangs around for an extended finish. 77% Syrah, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot. Klipsun, Hedges, Lewis, and Meek vineyards. Aged in French oak (54% new). 15.2% alcohol. 122 cases produced.

Sparkman Cellars Darkness Syrah Boushey Vineyards Yakima Valley 2008 $56
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Dark almost to the point of being opaque with purple at the rim. A brooding nose with blueberries, blackberries, smoked meat, and light floral notes. An opulent, big, intensely fruit-filled wine that almost vibrates on the palate with penetrating fruit flavors. 100% Boushey Syrah. Aged in French oak (20% new). 14.9% alcohol. 70 cases produced.