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Arkansas Wine Country: 120 Years in the Making

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Wiederkehr Wine Cellars
Wiederkehr Wine Cellars
    Cowie Wine Cellars and Museum
Cowie Wine Cellars and Museum
Post Familie Vineyards
Post Familie Vineyards
    Mount Bethel Winery
Mount Bethel Winery
Chateau Aux Arc Vineyards & Winery
Chateau Aux Arc Vineyards & Winery
April 16, 2004

Arkansas Wine Country: 120 Years in the Making
By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Altus was the place to experience "The Simple Life" long before the recent TV reality show of the same name billed it as such. For many, though, the simplicity of life involves the complexities of growing grapes and making wine in this region known as Arkansas Wine Country, which boasts more than 120 years of viticultural history.

The simple life will soon be enhanced with new wineries, restaurants and lodging establishments currently in the development stages for the Altus region, a thriving, rural area that attracts thousands of visitors annually.

Arkansas's Wine History

Drawn by the Benedictine of Subiaco Abbey, a colony of German-Swiss immigrants settled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains and began growing grapes in the 1870s at Altus in Franklin County. These early viticulturalists found great potential for grape production in the Arkansas River Valley. Mountains, valleys and soil that drained well closely resembled the microclimates that had for centuries nurtured Europe's great wines. The Boston Mountains north of Altus provide a barrier to the winter cold, and the elevation of small, flat-top mountains usually prevent spring frost, which can kill grapes.

Early Arkansas grape growers made significant advances in the development of grape cultivars that reached far beyond the state's boundaries. Joseph Bachman, a Swiss immigrant and private grape grower in the Altus area during the late 1880s, developed grape cultivars that drew nationwide attention. One of his most famous cultivars won a silver medal in the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. Some of the other early winemakers in the area were Herman Wiederkehr, Jacob Post and Henry Sax.

During Prohibition, many growers switched to table grape varieties, some legally made wine for sacramental reasons and others hid wine they made behind locked doors. At the end of Prohibition, approximately 40 wineries in the Altus region applied for wine permits and many found a market ready for wines -- especially among the immigrant railroad workers and coal miners who, like the early settlers, were accustomed to enjoying wine with meals.

While many of the wineries were very small, a few would become today's historic vineyards run by the fourth and fifth generation descendants of the original wine-making immigrants. Today, Arkansas is the oldest and largest grape juice and wine producing state in the southern United States. In 1984 the federal government declared three American Viticultural Areas in Arkansas: Arkansas Mountain, which includes Paris; Ozark Mountain, which includes northwest Arkansas; and Altus. Italian immigrants established an early grape production area in Tontitown in northwest Arkansas, though none of the wineries operate today.

The Arkansas Historic Wine Museum at Cowie Wine Cellars in Paris preserves the viticultural past of The Natural State through winemaking artifacts and biographical histories of winemakers. It is the only wine museum in the nation dedicated to the wine history of a state.

"Whether you're born in Arkansas or live in Arkansas, this is your state's history and you need to know it," Robert Cowie of Cowie Wine Cellars said. "We're a marvelous wine state."

Today's Wineries

Four wineries -- Post Familie Vineyard and Winery, Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, Mount Bethel Winery, and Chateau Aux Arc -- now operate in the Altus area, and Cowie Wine Cellars operates in nearby Paris. Each offers free tours and tasting rooms. Some have extra amenities such as gift shops, restaurants, RV parks or bed and breakfast inns.

While tours of each winery provide different experiences, the basics are similar. At Post, for example, tours -- and the aromas -- begin in the tank rooms of the production facility. Guides explain the six-week fermentation process that takes place in the tanks, which are between 800 gallons for experimental lots and 4,000 to 12,000 gallons for Post's more popular wines.

"We have over 100 storage and fermentation tanks in our fermentation area and about 400,000 gallons [of wine] in fermentation and storage," Paul Post explained.

Next, visitors learn about the crushers and presses -- an intense process to watch if visiting during harvest time, primarily August and September. "After that part of the tour we go through the warehouse where we do the bottling and then back to the tasting room," Post said. Those who catch a tour when wine is being bottled will see more than 60 bottles per minute filled, corked and sent to the labeler on a mechanical track.

With roots in the late 1800s, Post and Wiederkehr are the oldest operating wineries, and they are also among the top 100 wineries in the United States in terms of volume. While Mount Bethel wasn't bonded until 1956, its vintners have ancestral ties to the Post family. And the owners of Cowie, which was bonded in 1967, have an ancestral line that reaches back to Joseph Bachman. The newcomer is Audrey House, who opened Chateau Aux Arc in 1998 and is one of the world's youngest winemakers.

All of the wineries vint classic wines such as Chardonnay and Cabernet; however, many wine lovers may not realize that Arkansas holds more for their taste buds since many of the wines the state produces are not made in other well-known wine regions of the U.S., such as California. Cynthiana and Muscadine grapes, for example, are native to Arkansas.

"I think the best part is that we also make the [varieties of] wines that are made in California, so you can still taste those wines," Dr. Justin Morris, an internationally renowned enologist and director of the University of Arkansas Institute of Food Science and Engineering, explained. "But, you have the advantage of tasting wines [in Arkansas] you would not find in a California setting."

Morris said Arkansas is now on a competitive field with larger wine industries in the U.S., much because of improved technology coupled with the passing down of knowledge from generation to generation.

In the Area

Visitors to Altus can dine at several restaurants on the town's historic downtown square, including Alligator Ray's and Kelt's -- favorites of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in "The Simple Life." And the Altus City Hall can provide information for self-guided tours of locations the duo frequented.

An upscale dinner restaurant, Chef Larry's Eclectic Ozark Cuisine, recently opened in a 19th-century rock building on the square and brings a bistro-like quality to the heart of Arkansas Wine Country. Owned by Larry Kelly and Fran Skinner, Chef Larry's menu fuses Ozark staples into distinctively eclectic culinary dishes, with signature menu items ranging from an oyster-tasso stuffed quail to an herb-encrusted trout topped with a lemon-pepper, sesame-pecan butter served over Arkansas almond brown rice and barley. Other entrees include steaks, lobster and Alaskan King crab legs, and the eatery's list of appetizers includes specialties likes sautéed mushrooms stuffed with spinach, artichoke and asiago and Parmesan cheeses. (The restaurant is open for dinner only from Tuesday through Saturday. For reservations or more information, phone 479-468-3663.)

At Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, the original hand-dug wine cellar, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the site of the Weinkeller Restaurant, which features Swiss and Continental cuisine.

Altus Mayor Veronica Post said three new restaurants are in the planning stages. "We have now embarked, so to speak, on becoming not only the wine capital of Arkansas and home of 'The Simple Life,' but the cuisine capital of Arkansas for a variety of eating experiences," she added.

In addition to the restaurants that surround Altus's centerpiece -- a quaint city park containing a coal mining memorial -- are shops full of antiques, collectibles and crafts. In the late 1920s and '30s, the coal mines played a very important part of the economy, and exhibits interpreting the region's coal mining history can be found at the town's Heritage House Museum.

About 25 minutes away, today's Benedictine of Subiaco Abbey draws visitors to experience the beauty and solitude of its grounds, comprised of a sprawling campus of impressive sandstone buildings and a Romanesque-style Abbey Church set amid extensive farmland, finely manicured lawns, gardens and vineyards. Many of the Abbey's buildings are open for tours, and guests in search of relaxation can stay at a cottage on the grounds. (For more information, phone 479-934-1000 or visit

Other prime areas for exploring within an hour's drive are Mount Magazine State Park, Lake Dardanelle State Park, the Ozark National Forest and the Mulberry River, which is an ideal Ozark Mountain float stream.

Lodging can be found at several area bed and breakfast inns and RV parks, and hotels and motels are just minutes away at Ozark and Clarksville.

Getting There

Altus is five miles south of Interstate 40 (Exit 41) on Ark. 186. Fort Smith is about one hour west, Fayetteville is about one hour north, and Little Rock is about two hours east of Altus. For more information, phone Altus City Hall at (479) 468-4191 or visit and


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