Swiss Ambassador to U.S. Finds Ancestral Ties in Arkansas Wine Country
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March 23, 2010
Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Fascinated to find a winery with Swiss roots in Arkansas, delegates from Switzerland visited Wiederkehr Village on March 17 while in the state for other business. A second surprise was finding ancestral ties in Arkansas Wine Country.
Swiss Ambassador to the United States Urs Ziswiler spoke at The University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock on March 16. He was accompanied by Consulate General of Switzerland Claudio Leoncavallo. They also met with Gov. Mike Beebe, and visited George Fischer Sloane, Inc., a Swiss business with a branch in Little Rock.
There are 500 Swiss companies in the U.S. producing half a million jobs. Two thousand of those jobs are in Arkansas. George Fischer Sloane, Inc is the engineering, manufacturing, and distribution facility for industrial thermoplastic pipe and fittings for a variety of applications in the commercial, industrial and residential markets.
The ambassador said when people think of Switzerland they think of chocolate, cheese, chalets, watches, banks, and mountains. “But people forget we are innovative and green,” he said.
“We are heavy economic players in the U.S.,” Ziswiler added. “We have excellent political relations with the U.S.”
In preparation for his visit, the ambassador researched Arkansas for Swiss-related companies. “Of course, I also wanted to see any Swiss roots I could find here,” Ziswiler said. He found Wiederkehr Wine Cellars on the internet and made plans to visit.
Wiederkehr Wine Cellars is one of the oldest and largest wineries in mid-America. It is located on the southern slopes of the Ozark Mountains atop St. Mary’s Mountain, where the Wiederkehr family carries on a tradition of winemaking begun in 1880 when Johann Andreas Wiederkehr and his family emigrated from Switzerland to America. Vineyards surround the winery, which is designed in the Swiss alpine style overlooking the Arkansas River valley.
“It is incredible to see buildings here that are very Swiss and they make wine, which is even better,” Ziswiler said. “It is an honor to be an honorary citizen here.”
Leoncavallo added, “We were astonished to discover they were making wine in Arkansas. We’re very proud to see what the Swiss did coming here in the 1800s.”
Al Wiederkehr, who owns the winery and serves as mayor for the incorporated village, said the visit from the Swiss contingency is a great event for the town because of its history with St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the Swiss ancestors that built the church stone by stone. The church was started by Rev. Beatus Ziswiler, who was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, and is buried in the cemetery at St. Mary’s.
Ambassador Ziswiler said it was emotional to see the tombstone in the cemetery. He said Ziswiler is not a common name. However, while he does know the reverend was from the same village, there are different branches of that family name. Ziswiler believes they are at least cousins. Both Wiederkehr and the ambassador plan to research the details of the genealogical line.
“We have a great admiration for Switzerland,” Wiederkehr said. “It’s always been a country that stands for peace. It’s like a park. Everything is kept so neatly.” Wiederkehr biked throughout Switzerland while studying there and has visited with his family.
“Al’s dad never saw his grandparents because he was born over here,” said Linda Wiederkehr, Al’s wife. “[He and his dad] went to [Switzerland] in ’62 and he filmed his father’s visit.” She added that she thinks of his ancestors often. “It was a huge sacrifice to come here to such a wilderness.”
Currently, Wiederkehr Wine Cellars contains the original hand-dug wine cellar, now the site of the Weinkeller Restaurant featuring Swiss and European cuisine. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Vintage 1880 Wine Shoppe sells wine, gourmet items, and wine-related gifts from corkscrews and wine stoppers to wine glasses and T-shirts. Wiederkehr also accommodates groups in its banquet hall and travelers in its RV park. Its annual Wiederkehr Village Weinfest takes place in mid-September.
Wiederkehr serves an array of award-winning wines, from classic French varieties and dessert wines to sparkling wines and alcohol-free wines. Tours of the winery are available.
Wiederkehr Village is five miles south of Interstate 40, exit 41, on Ark. 186. Wiederkehr’s new store, located on I-40 at exit 41 is the Swiss Family Bistro, Gift Shop, & Liquor Store. The bistro serves Swiss specialties and American favorites cooked to order. It houses what Wiederkehr calls the “Wines of the World Tasting Room,” where visitors can taste wines from across the globe as well as Arkansas wines. The gift shop offers wine accessories and gifts, and the liquor store sells wine, beer and liquor. The bistro, gift shop, and liquor store are open seven days a week, and have free wireless internet access.
For more information on Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, visit www.wiederkehrwines.com or phone 800-622-WINE.
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
“Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism”
1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)