In the foothills of Mount Spokane, everything sparkles. The mountain's wet snowcap glistens. Mica flecks twinkle in the road. And waxy evergreens, washed of their winter dust, catch the sunlight on the way to Mountain Dome winery, where millions of golden bubbles wait inside thousands of shining bottles.
Michael Manz, the co-owner and winemaker at Mountain Dome Winery, pops the cork on a bottle of the winery's 1994 vintage sparkling wine and pours it into a champagne flute. Even though there's only a small amount in the glass, a few crystalline bubbles jump over the edge. Holding it to the light, Manz looks on, his eyes sparkling.
"We started making wine in 1984," he says, as his eyes move to the hundreds of stacked oak barrels that fill part of the winery's cavernous tasting room. "We started out in our kitchen," which is located in the dome-shaped house that gives Mountain Dome its name. "And we've made sparkling wines from the beginning."
Sparkling wine -- the same type of wine as champagne, though that name is only properly applied to wines that come from the Champagne region of France -- requires significantly more effort and space than ordinary red or white wines. In the 17th century, the monk Dom Perignon discovered that a blend of wines could be more sophisticated than any one of them alone, and that strong bottles tied with string would allow the occasional "fizz" to collect. The process of keeping the carbon dioxide in the wine bottle was further perfected by the widow Clicquot and her cellarmaster. By cutting holes in her tabletop and resting it on its side, they were able to stand wine bottles on their necks at an angle, allowing the yeast trapped in the bottle to collect in the necks and be ejected (or disgorged) when the wine was ready to cork.
Walking through his storage room, Manz gestures towards dozens of wooden boards with holes in them, resting with their tops hinged together. Each board holds rows of unlabeled bottles of sparkling wine. The bottles at Mountain Dome, just like the best bottles produced by Champagne's great wineries, are turned by hand.
"My kids will tell you that I decided to make sparkling wine because I like to do complicated, difficult things," Manz says, laughing, as he shows me how his three children learned to rotate each bottle. "One-eighth turn counterclockwise three times a day," he explains, as his hands move quickly across the ranks of bottles. "They all learned to do that. We make our wines that way -- traditionally and by hand. The French started this centuries ago, and I have no reason to ignore them."
Keeping the wine business small and personal has not only allowed Manz to enjoy the process of winemaking fully, but it's also allowed him, his wife Patricia, and brother John Mueler -- all of whom work for the winery -- to keep other jobs. Only the Manz's son Erik works for the winery full time. By investing carefully, and pouring the profits of the winery back into the business, Mountain Dome has gradually expanded since it first offered wines for sale in '94.
"We always considered ourselves to be an ABC winery -- Anything But Chardonnay," Manz chuckles. "But a few years ago, after much discussion, we decided to expand Mountain Dome to include still wines. And of course we had to produce a Chardonnay and a Merlot."
The results are, in keeping with the winery's approach, carefully balanced and refreshingly straightforward. The chardonnay in particular is an elegant example of the rich, buttery chardonnay grape that most American wineries cover with oak.
But it's the sparkling wines that Manz says were his first love. His passion, and the years spent perfecting his technique, are apparent. Tasting a 1997 vintage brut, hints of honeysuckle and warm toast flow over the palate, and the scent of fruit is intoxicating. It's a classic wine, in which each taste and scent unites perfectly; and the flavors linger in the mouth long after the wine is gone.
"With sparkling wines, you can tweak a little more to achieve the perfect blend," Manz explains. "This wine is made from the grapes of only one year, but our regular, non-vintage champagne is made from the grapes of six different years. I like to think of it more as a multi-year vintage." (It's also the wine that has several gnomes on the label; the group is a family portrait.)
Manz's dedication to his wine, and the care with which he makes every bottle, has clearly helped the winery gain a strong reputation. The more than 4,500 cases the winery produces are distributed through 22 states. Inland Northwest residents can order Mountain Dome wines with their meals at Beverly's, Luna, the Palm Court and Niko's. The wines are also sold at Vino!, the Rocket Market and Huckleberry's in Spokane.
Despite its local availability, a car has arrived at the winery. Mountain Dome requests that people telephone before they visit (except on open tasting days, like the upcoming Mother's Day weekend, when drop-ins are encouraged from 11 am to 5 pm). But a gentleman made the trek up into the countryside unannounced, hoping to buy some vintage brut for his anniversary.
"For a few years," Manz says, "we tried to keep this a quiet legend."
"Which vintage is your favorite?" the gentleman asks, clearly determined to acquire some of Mountain Dome's best bubbly.
Michael Manz thinks for a moment, considering the thousands of bottles that have passed through his hands. Then he looks up and chuckles. "That's like asking which child is your favorite."