The Sparky and Sarah Show

At Mollydooker, Australia's Marquis family matches strong personalities with bold winemaking

Excerpted from the Nov. 15, 2014, issue

The whole family is involved in Mollydooker. Leigh uses his experience as an engineer to maintain the winery and vineyards, while his wife, Janet, a restaurateur and sometime singer in a previous life, and whose business card reads “Sparky’s Mum,” acts as general manager.

Under the trees, Sparky’s teenage son, Luke, winds the handle on a grape crusher. He’s processing a line of gallon zip bags, each holding sample bunches from a different vineyard plot, for his father and grandfather to assess. “Color A-plus, fruit weight 65,” Sparky decides. “Sugar 27.2,” Leigh notes. They carefully input the results into a computer program that calculates whether to add water, wait, or get ready to pick the vineyard. They elect to increase the drip irrigation slightly on the vineyard and check back next week to see if more flavor has developed.

Mollydooker will again be the last winery to pick in McLaren Vale—a choice that produces big, bold wines, much to the consternation of those who believe Australia should be moving toward cooler-climate or earlier-picked grapes to produce lighter-style wines. Sparky and Sarah don’t care. They’re selling everything they can make, all 70,000 cases, most of it in the United States. Though they haven’t quite met demand since their first vintage in 2005, they have no intention of ramping up production.

“That size is manageable,” Sarah says. “We can hand-make the wines, deal with expenses, do our own marketing and still have family time.”

It’s quite a success story, but it almost didn’t happen.

Working as for-hire winemakers, Sparky and Sarah had a string of high-profile jobs in the 1990s and early 2000s, including overseeing several vintages at Fox Creek. They made two early vintages for Two Hands, and helped develop cult favorites Henry’s Drive, Parson’s Flat and Shirvington. When they started their own businesses, they twice found themselves on the brink of losing everything. They launched a bulk wine operation in 2000, one year before the prices buyers offered them tumbled from $7 a liter to 25 cents. Later, a partnership with U.S. entrepreneur Dan Philips collapsed in an acrimonious legal battle that threatened to bankrupt the couple.

Emerging from the rubble in 2005, Sparky and Sarah managed to convince vineyard owners to supply them with grapes on the promise that the donation would be repaid once the wines sold. Friends let them use extra capacity in their wineries. Financial angels wrote checks to keep them afloat while they defended a lawsuit brought by Philips. Two years later, when the first vintage of wines was sold, the Marquises paid all their debts. While all parties are enjoined from revealing details, one month after the settlement with Philips, they bought their own winery facility and its surrounding 115 acres for $10 million AUD (about $8.7 million USD at the time). “Draw your own conclusions,” Sparky shrugs.

Both being left-handed, the couple called their new venture Mollydooker, Australian slang for southpaw.

Sparky, 49, grew up playing among pots and pans in the Ozone Hotel, a restaurant owned by Janet and Leigh in wine-rich Victoria, across Port Phillip Bay from Melbourne. The establishment had a 450-selection wine list, but Sparky resisted wine’s allure. An expert in high-speed cinematography, he made a lucrative career as a photographer in the 1980s. But he returned to school in 1986 to study wine at Roseworthy College, on the promise that he would inherit a new Pinot Noir vineyard in Tasmania that his parents had just planted.

Sarah, now 44, discovered wine when, at 15, she snuck a bottle from her surgeon father’s suburban Adelaide cellar and liked how it tasted. “I overheard my dad say if he had his life to do all over again he would be a winemaker,” she recalls. The remark proved more than idle speculation. Soon after, Sarah’s parents, Jim and Helen Watts, organized a group of doctors to plant a vineyard in McLaren Vale and start Fox Creek Wines. She went to work in the cellar straight out of high school, and in 1987 enrolled in the wine course at Roseworthy.

Sparky, then in his second year, fell head over heels for this feisty newcomer. “It took me three years to convince her to marry me,” Sparky laughs.

Mollydooker wines have earned spots on the Wine Spectator Top 100 in six of the past eight years. Carnival of Love (average score 94 points, currently $75) made it into the Top 10 twice prior to the 2014 list. The 2006 earned a No. 8 spot in 2007 for its seamlessness and meaty flavors centering on blueberry, plum, cherry, cedar and cream, with tannins so finely polished they gleam. The big, rich 2007, a vintage marked by frost and drought, sang with wild blueberry and Asian spice flavors, displaying elegance to go along with its power. It reached No. 9 in 2008.

How do they age? Tasted recently from my cellar, both wines have developed well. They still feel young, with a glowing ball of fruit at the core, but both have lost some of their youthful ebullience and picked up hints of black olive and loamy earth. The ’07 seems just a tick ahead.

A $50 Cabernet Sauvignon called Gigglepot goes for dark berry and mint flavors on a firm frame, while a Shiraz called Blue Eyed Boy consistently weaves savory licorice accents into plush blueberry and plum flavors. At $75, the expansive and juicy Shiraz-Cabernet Enchanted Path, Carnival of Love’s stablemate, weaves licorice and black olive notes into a finish that keeps expanding. They consistently score 91 or 92 points.

The entry-level lineup, averaging 87 to 90 points, delivers clear-eyed flavors at around $25 per bottle. The Scooter, a Merlot, brims with precise cherry and herb flavors on a sleek structure. Two Left Feet, a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, weaves mocha notes into berry and sage character. And the producer’s only white, The Violinist, a Verdelho, plays a silky tune of wildflower-tinged green pear flavors on a lithe frame.

With the 2014 vintage aging in barrels, Sparky and Sarah are hitting the road to offer more left-handed handshakes and stories tinged with their Australian sense of humor. Luke, just graduated from high school, is taking a year to travel the world, and several people his parents and grandparents have met through wine have offered to host him on his trek.

Shaking his head and smiling, Sparky says, “You realize wine creates so many connections. It brings you to the table, gives you more to share with other people. They taste the wines and say, ‘Wow.’ It’s humbling.”