Whimsical creatures, but a serious wine

Carved out of cedar, the lawn gnomes sitting outside Mountain Dome Winery’s facilities offer a huge clue that the winery, which consistently turns out some of the country’s more obscure but well-liked sparkling wines, is unlike any other.

If you’ve never visited its facilities outside Spokane, Wash., you might still have seen the little creatures on labels of its brut.

“The original concept for our nonvintage wine was going to be Gnome Perignon,” says winemaker Michael Manz, “but I didn’t want to get that phone call from France.”

Once a quirky sideshow, American sparklers have taken great strides in the past two decades, helped in no small part by California attracting major players in the sparkling world: Spain’s Freixeniet has Gloria Ferrer in Sonoma; France’s G.H. Mumm has its Napa Valley offshoot.

Others have made their mark, too.  Oregon winemakers like Argyle use the state’s lauded pinot noir grapes to turn out impressive Champagne-style wines. Even in New Mexico, Gruet Winery produces some 50,000 cases a year and built itself a nationwide reputation.

Washington hasn’t been a major player in the sparkling world, though. Aside from Domaine Ste. Michelle, a value label from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Mountain Dome seems to be the state’s only other regular sparkling producer.  And Spokane, on the Idaho border, is still on the fringe of the state’s wine community.

But Manz, a longtime fan of inventor Buckminster Fuller, has been on these 85 mountain acres since 1980, living in a geodesic dome (hence the name) whose 35-foot ceilings encompass a massive kitchen and living room. He has sold wine since 1984, with tutelage from winemaker Raphael Brisbois of Sonoma’s esteemed Iron Horse. 

While he recently added still wines to his stable, he finds them a cinch to make after learning the Champenoise method, with its double fermentation and intricate bottle-handling.  The state has no shortage of chardonnay grapes, but pinot noir needed for the proper blend is scarce. His comes from all the way across Washington, in a vineyard across the Columbia River from Hood River, Ore.

And this isn’t even Manz’s full-time job.  When not blending grapes or tinkering with equipment, he’s a child psychiatrist, which helps explain why fermentation tanks are named Freud and Rorschach.

It’s more effort than many winemakers would endure, but it pays off in the bottle.  While Manz occasionally makes an occasional single-vintage release, like his 1997, he achieves some of his best results with nonvintage brut. Blended from six different harvests, it is bright and crisp, and remains -- at $13 to $15 a bottle –- a great value. 

Mountain Dome’s reputation is spreading (23 states and counting) but perhaps not as quickly as it could.  While some drinkers are charmed by the gnomes, the image may not mirror drinkers’ refined associations with good sparkling wine. And while Americans are embracing inexpensive sparklers like Spanish cava and Italian spumante, we have lingering resonances of cold duck and its cheap, plastic-corked ilk.

There are ways to solve that, of course.  Manz hopes his affordable pricing encourages more restaurants to offer sparkling wine as an everyday option.

And his wines seem to sell themselves on taste. About a year ago, Chicago area wine distributor Ron Breitstein had never heard of it, but one sip and he decided to pitch it to local retailers. “I said, ‘Well, this isn’t even a contest,” says Breitstein, general manager of Great Lakes Wine Co. “It was very well received.”

Currently at 4,000 cases annually, Manz hopes to raise that to 7,000, which would allow him to stop funding his passion with his day job. And he has room to double again beyond that.

But he wants to keep it a family affair, which makes sense when you consider the little creatures on the label in fact depict him; his wife Pat, who runs a Montessori school; his brother John, a social worker; and his three kids. 

In fact, Manz convinced son Erik to become assistant winemaker. Perhaps it’s all part of a clever plan, considering he once gave Erik a ton of chardonnay grapes to make wine -- in 8th grade.

The other kids pitch in, too.  “I love the fact they bring their friends home from college to work in the winery,” Manz says. “We need the help.”