Successful winemaking takes hard work, daily dedication and passion—but the journey from ground to glass is often a twisted path.
Many people daydream of making a living from walking among rows of grape vines and pressing the juice of the berries into something they can market as their own. Here are the stories of three men who cultivated winemaking careers from diverse occupations.
From Film to Fermentation
Rob DaFoe, who was born and raised in Goleta and Santa Barbara, traveled around the world as a professional snowboarder and, many years later, produced a documentary about Santa Barbara County’s wine industry before settling in Santa Ynez Valley to make wine of his own.
The decade-plus he spent abroad racing down snowy slopes was his introduction to global wine regions, in particular those in Italy and France, he recalls. Historical vineyards and the culture of wine impressed the young DaFoe, and he says that the winemaking bug took hold during those years.
After two separate boarding crashes, in which he broke his leg and injured his spine, DaFoe began to reconsider his high-risk career, in part because injuries can increase cautiousness in professional athletes. “When you’re coming up to that hill after an injury…if you’re not feeling 130%, you can feel your time is limited and you’re going to get hurt.”
So DaFoe left a life “in front of the camera for time behind the camera,” as a photographer and documentarian.
During a photo shoot at Firestone Winery, DaFoe met then-winemaker Chuck Carlson, who encouraged him to pair his wine interest with his video career and document local winemakers. That plan became From Ground to Glass, the aptly named documentary that premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in 2006. While DaFoe shot and directed the film, he also produced his first wine, two barrels of syrah.
During those years, he met Jeff Tanner, a former investment banker turned video producer. In 2009, the men launched Tanner DaFoe, a cabernet sauvignon-based label that features rich tannic wines.
DaFoe’s newer solo endeavor is Rake—as in a ne’er-do-well rascal—inspired by a Townes Van Zandt song that’s both despondent and poetic. The label Rake is everything that Tanner DaFoe is not—an elegant stainless steel chardonnay, a crisp rosé of pinot noir, a red blend and pinot noir, most of them sourced from Destiny Vineyards in Los Alamos.
Rake is a family business. Dafoe’s wife, Emily, a handbag designer, is a constant source of support and a key person to bounce ideas off of, he says. They have a young son, Waylon, age two.
From Gym to Field
Like DaFoe, winemaker Matt McKinney segued into winemaking from professional sports. The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School basketball and volleyball standout helped the school win its third consecutive Southern Division III championship. The school enjoyed a reputation as a national prep volleyball power, having also produced U.S. National Team members George Roumain and Andy Witt, McKinney says.
The 6-foot, 8-inch athlete entered UCLA on a full scholarship and, for the better part of three years, competed in both sports, but was plagued by injuries, he says. In 2005, he declared medical retirement.
He recovered, however, to play pro volleyball in Greece, Italy and Puerto Rico for four years. “I loved living in Italy, with its history. The people have such pride in their culture,” he says. But the injuries crept back, threatening to disable him, and, in 2013, he returned to Santa Ynez Valley.
In 2010, during his third season playing in Puerto Rico, McKinney and his parents planted their first grapevines on a half-acre of horse pasture on the family’s 10-acre property. McKinney’s first vintage from that acreage was in 2012. The following year, when he moved home for good, McKinney enrolled in winemaking and viticulture classes at Santa Maria’s Allan Hancock College.
He also led wine tours for Coastal Concierge, picking up guests for tasting at area wineries, which “helped me formulate a plan for marketing my winery,” he says.
McKinney sources his grapes for the McKinney Family Vineyards label from the Sta. Rita Hills and Happy Canyon AVAs, in addition to using those from the family estate property in the new Los Olivos District A.V.A.
Among his current releases are a sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, rosé, viognier, grenache blanc, syrah, two pinot noirs and a sangiovese-based red blend—”I learned to love sangiovese in Italy,” he says.
From Baker to Maker
To call winemaker James Sparks “cheerful” would be a disservice to his personality—he sports a beatific smile, is generous and makes strangers feel like family.
Sparks is one of 10 children—five girls and five boys—raised in a Mormon family in Idaho. While he calls himself an introvert, Sparks is one of the most grounded and compassionate souls one could ever hope to meet.
Sparks grew up baking with his mother, who at one point owned a bakery in their hometown. Upon moving from Idaho, he utilized that skill for work in other cities where he lived—Portland, Seattle, Durango, Colorado, and Sun Valley, Idaho—before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music.
Bread making is similar to wine making in that timing is key, and good ingredients beget a good final product. In the scheme of life, Sparks is new to wine: He had never consumed it until just over a decade ago, when he left the Mormon faith. “I broke in my palate on good burgundies with my brother-in-law, Brandon Sparks-Gillis”—who is one of the owners/winemakers of Dragonette Cellars, for whom Sparks worked before joining Liquid Farm during harvest 2013.
Sparks and his wife, wine and food publicist Anna Ferguson-Sparks, reside in Solvang with their daughter, Bea, age two.
The first bottled vintage of Sparks’s “Kings Carey” was 2014, but Sparks delayed the official launch until spring of 2017. The label focuses on just one grape varietal: grenache. “Kings Carey” is so named for the couple’s respective hometowns: Carey, Idaho, for Sparks, and Kings Point, New York, for Ferguson-Sparks.
Sparks sources his grenache from a variety of vineyards—early vintages came from Brick Barn, just west of Buellton, and more recently from the newer Spear Vineyards in Sta. Rita Hills to the coveted John Sebastiano Vineyards on that AVA’s eastern edge. He favors neutral barrels to showcase the bright but delicate essence of grenache and limits production to between 100 and 250 cases each of two grenaches and a grenache rosé.
“I’m trying to produce ‘untypical’ wines of typicity,” explains Sparks. “It’s not that this region can’t produce these types of wines; it’s just that you don’t see it very often. These are not fruit bombs. These are clean expressions of the fruit at hand.”
This story was originally published in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.