I don't normally associate outstanding food and wine events with Northwest casinos.
But on a warm summer evening in July, as Christian ("Sparky") Sparkman wove stories about his small family winery for an appreciative crowd at Tulalip Resort Casino in Tulalip, Wash., my perceptions began to change.
The owner and winemaker at Sparkman Cellars in Woodinville has spent close to three decades in the restaurant industry as a sommelier and wine buyer, working alongside Emeril Lagasse at Commander's Palace in New Orleans and with Todd English at Olives in Washington, D.C.
After relocating to Seattle in 2000, he began his career at Mackay Restaurant Group's El Gaucho, moved to Waterfront Seafood Grill in 2001, rose to general manager in 2003 and still works for the group as a wine consultant.
The birth of his first child drove Sparkman out of full-time restaurant work and full-tilt into wine because he "wanted to be more present" for his family.
He and Walla Walla winemaker Charles Smith "crafted a business plan on a pile of cocktail napkins while sitting in a bar." With business advice and backing from his father-in-law, Sparkman Cellars was born in 2004.
Today, the 5,000-case winery sources from some of the best American Viticultural Areas and vineyards in the region -- Red Mountain (Klipsun and Ciel du Cheval), Yakima (Boushey and Red Willow) and Oregon's Eola-Amily Hills (Temperance Hill).
Awards have followed, including Wine & Spirits: Top 100 Wineries in the World; Wine Enthusiast: Rising Cult Winery; and Wine Spectator: Rising Star 2010.
On the mpulse Lounge patio during a winemaker's barbecue in July, Sparkman shook hands and signed bottles as guests tasted through his lighter wines -- a food-friendly Roussanne sourced from the Yakima Valley, the creamy Lumiere 2011 Chardonnay and the bone-dry This Old Porch 2011 Rose.
Inside the Orca Ballroom, Sparkman's hearty reds awaited. The high-octane Preposterous 2010 Malbec from Klipsun Vineyard tangoed tantalizingly with Tulalip executive chef Perry Mascitti's beef brisket.
Louisiana gumbo paired perfectly with 2009 Ruby Leigh, a Merlot-based red blend named after Sparkman's younger daughter. The 2009 Stella Mae, a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend named for his first born, will age nicely for years, as will the Kingpin 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Sparkman's July appearance was the second winemaker dinner in the 2012 "Taste with Tommy" Series organized by Tom ("Tommy") Thompson, Tulalip's award-winning sommelier and wine buyer.
In June, Thompson welcomed Walla Walla winemaker and artist Eric Dunham and Washington native and Golden-Globe winner Kyle MacLachlan. Dunham's wines were featured that evening, along with the duo's Pursued by Bear Cabernet Sauvignon and Baby Bear Syrah.
On Nov. 9-10, the resort casino marks its most ambitious wine event of the year -- Taste of Tulalip, a "food-and-wine weekend" -- when Thompson will be joined by Seattle-based guest sommelier Christopher Chan.
Sparkman serves as Taste of Tulalip's official "Wine Partner," and he and Thompson created a special red blend just for the event.
Taste of Tulalip kicks off on Friday evening, with Sonoma-based celebrity sommelier Leslie "Thirsty Girl" Sbrocco hosting a tasting reception and dinner. On Saturday -- Sip, Savor and Learn Day -- more than 120 wineries from Washington, Oregon, Napa's Highway 29, Italy and France will pour their wines.
Also that day, special guest chef Marcus Samuelsson, the award-winning New York City-based chef, author, restaurateur, philanthropist and television personality (Food Network's Chopped) will partner with Chef Mascitti for cooking demos and discussions.
A private magnum party at the mpulse Lounge will wrap up this celebratory weekend of wine and food in the grand and gracious style of Tulalip Resort Casino.
Great food and wine events at a Northwest casino? You bet.
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food-and-wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com.
This story was originally published September 15, 2012 12:00 AM.