Mountain Dome Winery, a producer of sparkling and still wines in the foothills of Mount Spokane, has become the state’s first legal distiller of fruit and grape wine brandy.
Dr. Michael Manz, Mountain Dome owner and winemaker, recently received the federal and state licenses to produce distilled spirits after months of working with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco, and the Washington State Liquor Control Board. He estimates the paperwork alone took about 43 hours of his time. Both licenses were granted at the end of July and the distillery will be called Mountain Dome Spirits.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Manz, who distilled his first fruit brandy at the age of 13, under the guidance of his grandfather Otto. (He named his still Otto in honor of his grandfather).
“The plan has always been to turn the reins (of Mountain Dome Winery) over to my son Erik after I retire (as a practicing child psychiatrist), and I would settle into a life of making brandy,” Manz said. “It is an exciting time for me, and it took a long time to get here.”
Prior to prohibition, distilleries were legal and dotted farming communities throughout the Northwest. But Washington has some of the toughest laws in the country regarding the production and selling of alcohol. Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville is the only other winery that has applied for a license, some 50 years ago, and never once produced any distilled spirits. A spokesman for the winery said they have never had both licenses — a requirement in order to legally produce alcohol other than wine in Washington.
Tricia Currier, spokeswoman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, said Mountain Dome could sell its fruit and grape brandy at the winery if it is less than 24 percent alcohol. If it rises about 24 percent, it must be sold in a state liquor store.
“We are strict in this state,” Currier said.
Fruit brandy, ratafia, and pineau des charentes
Manz can create three types of products with his new license—clear brandies, aged brandies, and aperitifs such as pineau des charentes and ratafia. Clear brandies can be made from grapes, apples, pears, peaches and other fruits. Aged brandies obtain their color from aging in oak barrels, although “color” such as caramel is added to cheaper brandies.
Pineau de charentes and ratafia are fortified wines made when cognac or brandy is added to unfermented grape juice — red, white or rosé wine. Besides distilling brandy, which will have to be sold in state liquor stores because the alcoholic content is well over the 24 percent mark, Manz said he will concentrate on ratafia, made from the same pinot noir grapes he uses for his sparkling wines. The alcohol content varies, but he is aiming for about 18 percent alcohol. Brandy generally starts at about 40 percent alcohol, so it is to be consumed in small amounts.
“The idea is to start with premium wines from premium grapes,” Manz said. “Mass-produced ratafia and brandy is often made from thin, acidic wines. My goal is to produce higher quality, hand-crafted and fine-aged brandy and ratafia.”
Mountain Dome has a small alambic still, distinctive for its pot shape at the top of the distiller. It is generally made of copper and bronze. The wine is heated in the still, boiling the alcohol at a temperature of 193 degrees Fahrenheit. The alcohol passes through the still tubing into a glass container. At the end of this first process, the alcohol is about 50 to 60 percent alcohol. It is then boiled again in the same process — much more concentrated this time — and rises to about 65 to 75 percent alcohol.
Wine, when distilled, is colorless. Manz will add unfermented pinot noir grape juice to the colorless distilled wine, creating light to dark red ratafia that he will sell at the winery. He hopes to produce enough to sell this fall during his open house. He also plans to produce a pinot noir brandy that must be purchased in state liquor stores.
Un-aged ratafia can be a bit harsh and “hot” or alcoholic in the mouth if not properly made. For those who have never tried a wine brandy, it can take time to acquire the taste. Fruit and grape brandies are the traditional spirit consumed in Eastern France, Southern Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Northern Italy, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia. Immigrants coming to North America brought their traditional aperitifs with them, but so far, Americans have not widely embraced ratafia or grape brandies.
Ratafia can be served at the beginning of the evening, with cheese. It can be served at room temperature, or slightly chilled. The brandy eventually produced by Mountain Dome will be a nice after dinner drink, consumed in small glasses.
Mountain Dome hopes to take advantage of its location near Green Bluff to produce brandy from the fruit grown in the area, including apples, peaches, cherries and pears. His favorite brandies are produced by Germain-Robin, often considered the best U.S. produced brandy in the country, located in Ukiah, Calif.
Making distilled brandies and aperitifs can be time consuming and expensive. Manz estimated it takes about 60 gallons of wine to produce about 10 gallons of brandy. In addition, most fine brandies are aged between three to eight years in oak barrels, so there is no product for a long period of time.
The labor-intensive production of distilled fruit and grape brandies is one of the reasons Manz thinks no one else in Washington has applied for the licenses necessary for a distillery. Confusion exists between federal and state law, and filling out the paperwork is exhaustive, he says.
“I also think there is something mystic about the spirits issue,” said Manz. “That makes people pause a little bit. There are more disincentives than incentives. It could be lingering images about stills from Prohibition.
“The Washington State wine industry is young and new. It makes a lot of sense if you are producing wine, to consider wine brandy.”
For now, Manz and his family will continue to produce their sparkling wines, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals. And, every-so-often, Michael Manz will slip away to the “brandy room” and fire up the still. It is the fulfillment of a life-long dream and a time for Manz to create, reflect and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Retirement for Manz, he says, will be heaven-stilled.
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