Mountain Dome Winery
Artisanal Sparkling Wine House Shines in the Northwest
Author: Christina Kelly
Co-Author Jean Yates
Tucked into the foothills between the Washington and Idaho border, under the shadow of Mount Spokane, sits a geodesic dome surrounded by carved gnomes, housing a family that produces amazing but somewhat obscure sparkling wine on an artisanal scale.
Mountain Dome Winery has taken the art of sparkling wines, made in the Methode Champenoise, and hand-crafted it to a quality not often found in the U.S. version of the beverage. What's more, the prices for Mountain Dome's sparkling wines are relatively inexpensive when compared to comparable-tasting French champagnes.
The winery, located on 84 acres near Spokane, WA, was the idea of Michael and Patricia Manz, who fell in love with Champagne while falling in love with each other in the 1970's. The couple, along with Michael's brother John and three children, has produced sparkling wines since 1984, adding a few still wines (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) to the portfolio in 2001. Michael is picrtured above.
At right above, Michael Manz at the winery, on a typical Spokane winter day
"You taste an early vintage like 1990, and realize that it's still improving after 17 years, and you realize you're witness to some extraordinary winemaking talent."
-Jon Bonne, Wine Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
It was a Mom and Pop operation, complete with growing teenagers, gradually expanding as word-of-mouth about fabulous, affordable sparkling wines coming out of an unconventional region such as Spokane, hit consumers and restaurants. Mountain Dome had devoted fans of the "Gnome Perignon", a nickname from the non-vintage brut label that features the couple as gnomes.
The painting of the Manz family that inspired the winery's labels and wine names
Sadly, Michael Manz, a child psychiatrist during the day, passed away last year and the winery lost its footing for a short time, trying to regroup and keep Manz's dream alive. Fortunately for consumers, Erik Manz, one of the couple's two sons, had been making the sparkling wine since 2000 and was promoted head winemaker before his father died.
"Keep in mind that my father had a day job-the winery was his second job, and as he got older and more interested in making brandy, the day-to-day responsibilities came to me", said Erik. "We love our sparkling wines and don't plan to change-we will continue in the same fashion."
"And Michael's presence is always here."
Largest Family Owned Sparkling House in Northwest
Mountain Dome is the largest family run sparking house in the Northwest. In addition to Erik, Michael's brother John Mueller (a geriatric social worker by day) runs sales along with being chief cook and bottle washer and anything else thrown at him. The two other Manz kids-all grown-help out when asked and Patricia is the president of the business who also works the financials.
Making sparkling wine in the Methode Champenoise is expensive, more labor intensive and doesn't pay back the output of money for a handful of years. Since most of the family work at day jobs (Patricia owns and operates a Montessori school), the winery is able to age the wine three to five years or more, adding more complexity to the wine and providing a nutty-toasty character that defines the Mountain Dome style.
If there was a question about Mountain Dome's status, Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle purchases the sparkling wine by the case.
"There are so few sparkling wine houses in this country that work on an artisanal scale. And sparkling wine from Spokane is about as esoteric as it gets," said Bonne. "If Mountain Dome's wines were middling in quality, they would be just another curiosity for wine geeks to stump their friends with. But the Manzes have been so dedicated to quality, and so dedicated to following a traditional Champagne style, that their wines really do speak for themselves. You taste an early vintage like 1990, and realize that it's still improving after 17 years, and you realize you're witness to some extraordinary winemaking talent."
The tasting room at Mountain Dome - the author at left, Erik at right
That talent is producing some 4,000 cases per year and ramping up to about 6,000 cases in the next few years. The wines are found in 27 states, and word-of-mouth is slowing spreading throughout the country.
Michael's influence on the winery is evident everywhere. The steel fermentation tanks are named after famous psychiatrists such as Freud and Rorschach (remember the ink block test?). In a corner sits the state's first legal distiller, a brandy project that occupied Michael in the past few years, his retirement project. The brandy plans are on hold, says Erik, although the brandy in the barrels will still continue to age and will eventually be on the market.
"We are not able to work on the brandy project at this time," said Erik. "In order to continue producing the best sparkling wines we can, we've had to set aside the brandy plans for now and look at it later down the road."
The Vineyards and the Wines
Mountain Dome's wines are impressive and affordable with a range from the Non Vintage Brut (grapes sourced from different years) around $15 to $16, to the Cuvée Forté, a special blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier from four separate vineyards and the best of the best ($35 to $40).
The non vintage Brut (label at right) comprises mostly of the 2002 vintage, making it an aged sparkling wine without the higher price. This is an impressive everyday drinking wine that is perfect for dinner parties, weddings and special events where multiple bottles won't break the bank, but still be impressive. Even the gnome label will spark conversations, and when they taste the wine, most will assume it is much more expensive than the typical sparkling wine served at large functions. It is also a perfect evening accompaniment to nearly any dinner food and will handle holiday fare with ease. The flavors include green apple, followed by toasted caramel and a yeasty, creamy finish-an everyday sparkler that should be served often at the dinner table.
The Cuvée Forté is only made when it is an exceptional year for fruit. Cuvée Forté is the best of the best (and literally means a blend of special worth) and is a blend some of their top vintage wines. The current release consists of 50 percent Pinot Noir and 50 percent Chardonnay and has been aged some seven years. It is creamy and smooth, with flavors of pears and apples and a soft mouthfeel than suggests elegance. The tiny bubbles explode with exceptional taste and make this wine easy to sip. This sparkling wine was recently named one of the top 100 new wine finds in the world by British writer Tom Stevenson.
Mountain Dome released its 2000 vintage in the fall of 2007. The winery also produces a Brut Rosé for holiday sipping (and if you can hang onto it, next spring and summer), and there is still some vintage 1999. Most recently, the winery bottled a Blanc de Blanc, made entirely from Chardonnay, which will age for a few years before releasing.
The winery uses three varietals for its sparkling wines-Chardonnay (which is good and plentiful in the Northwest), Pinot Noir and a little splash of Pinot Meunier. The challenge for a Washington winery is to find good Pinot Noir. Although some regions in Washington are working on growing the grape with some success, Mountain Dome has been sourcing its Pinot from vineyards along the Washington/Oregon border. They found pinot at Crystal Pheasant Vineyards in Hood River and have purchased the grape from Balcolm & Moe in Pasco, WA. They have even sourced pinot from northern Washington.
The Chardonnay comes from the Ryan Patrick Vineyards and is a bit unusual with more tropical fruits in the mouth-bananas and pineapple.
Mountain Dome's Erick and Michael Manz, 2005
Life Without Michael
Patricia Manz says her husband was always the driving force behind the winery until recent years, when he began to slow down a little. He still put in a full day as a child psychiatrist, and some evenings and weekend work at the winery. Under the tutelage of his dad, Erik was performing the day-to-day winery work.
"I was so happy that Erik was promoted to head winemaker while Michael was alive," said Patricia. "He earned it and it came to him the right way, not by default."
There was a short period of time when Patricia wondered whether people would think the winery would close after Michael's death.
"You go through all kinds of thought processes and I guess we were concerned that with Michael gone, people might think we shut down," she recalled. "The truth is we wanted to carry on."
Erik says it has been a tough year because of all the "firsts" - the first bottling without his dad, the first blending and the first harvest and crush.
"In a lot of ways, it is still very hard," Erik said. "On the other hand, this is absolutely what he would want us to do."
Carving outside the Manz's geodesic dome home of Michael and Patricia as "gnomes"
In an interview before his death, Michael said he created the winery for two reasons-his love of French-style Champagne, and the desire to create a family business so he could work with his wife and children.
"That is what makes this work-being a family operation," Manz said last year. "I can do this with my family-it is something you can hand over to them. We live in a beautiful setting (85 acres in the hills surrounding Spokane) and I have all the open space I want."
The beauty of the winery is that it continues to fulfill Michael's desire to keep his family in the business, making wines with grace and the texture of genuine Champagne. With the birth of Erik's daughter 16 months ago, the family figures the next generation will be ready to keep up with the family tradition.
"We see this as generational, thanks to Michael," said Erik, looking around the winery that once so defined his dad. "I look at my little girl Sylvie and think that if she wants to, this place will be around for her."
By that time, Erik is hoping the passion will have leaped into her heart, just like it did when his father taught him how to make Chardonnay when he was about 12-years-old. It's a family thing, and just the thought of that would make Michael grin from ear to ear.