Arkansas reaps benefits of successful wine industry
November 13-19, 2017
By Kara Lee Ford
The winery business in Arkansas has grown dramatically in the past 15 years. However, the state has been home to several wineries dating back as far as 1880 when Johann Wiederkehr emigrated from Switzerland, and winemaker Jacob Post relocated from Germany to Altus. It depends on who you ask as to which vineyard and winery is the oldest.
Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, Inc. is Federal Bonded Wine Cellar No. 8 in the United States. The company is still producing wine, and the original hand-dug wine cellar now houses Weinkeller Restaurant that opened in 1967. Al Wiederkehr, who is third generation and majority owner, wrote the legislation for wine and beer in restaurants and was granted Arkansas Permit No. 1. Forty-six years later he wrote the legislation that created the Arkansas Wine Trail as part of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
Several descendants of Wiederkehr are still involved in the wine industry. Dennis Wiederkehr, who is fourth generation, said his family’s business has lasted 137 years because of determination and hard work. Being a niche market has helped, too.
“We truly are a family business. I have uncles, aunts and cousins who all have worked many years in the winery. Some employees have retired three times,” he laughed. “My cousin, Gary, retired three years ago at the age of 65. And Uncle Al, who is 83, still works full times as our CEO and chairman of the board.”
Dennis and his wife, Sharla, co-founded Dionysus Wine and Brew in Altus using their more than 60 combined years of experience in the wine and hospitality industries. He said different wineries offer people options. Also his family has expanded in the retail market with a liquor store.
The fifth generation Post Familie Vineyards are also located in Altus and have been producing a variety of wines for 137 years. They were the first to make their now famous muscadine wine. Post settled in the Arkansas River Valley, attracted by its fertile sandy soil and moderate climate. It is Arkansas’ largest vineyard.
Tina Post said there are eight members of the Post family still involved in the day-to-day operations of the business.
“Our family has a passion for the wine business. I think that has been instilled in us down through the different generations. We have a strong work ethic, and we have worked together. This business is not for the faint of heart. It is labor intensive and seasonal. But at the same time it’s all year round. It is non-stop work,” Post said.
She said she views the winery as a tourist attraction, and from that angle they operate the business as a retailer. Plus, she said they focus on educating the public about wine. In 2013 she opened the Trellis Room, which is a lunchtime farm-to-table experience with food and wine.
Three regions in Arkansas – Altus, Arkansas Mountain and Ozark Mountain – have been designated as American Viticultural Areas (AVA). A viticultural area is officially defined as a grape-growing region distinguishable by certain geographical features, such as climate, soil and elevation. The greater Ozark Mountain region (which encompasses the Altus and Arkansas Mountain areas and spreads into Oklahoma and Missouri) covers nearly three million acres making it one of the largest single-state AVAs in the country.
Arkansas is both the oldest and largest wine producing state in the South. Grape production in the state represents a $1.14 million industry.
One of the newer wineries in the state is Chateau Aux Arc Vineyards and Winery. In 1998 Audrey House, a native of Oklahoma, purchased 20 acres from Wiederkehr. She was a recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a degree in psychology and industrial statistics at that time with no real experience in growing grapes or running a vineyard. However, with her love for wine and “blind ambition,” she lived in a tent for eight months until she could build a house and a barn.
It took her about 18 months to get through all the health department and other government paperwork before she could officially open in July of 2001 and start selling two kinds of wine. Today House grows 22 different kinds of grapes and is the state’s largest propagator of Cynthiana grapes. She suggested to the Arkansas Legislature that it designate Cynthiana as the official grape of the state. The legislation passed in 2009.
“I was told I wouldn’t last five years, and it has been a lot of work. The biggest struggle is finding skilled employees in this area,” House said. “However, Arkansas has a gem with its wine industry. I hope to be known as the Queen of Cynthiana when I die.”
The Arkansas Historic Wine Museum is the only wine museum in the United States dedicated to preserving the wine history of a complete state. The museum originated in Paris, Ark., at the Cowie Wine Cellars and Vineyards. Founder Bob Cowie added a museum branch in 2006 within the facilities of The Winery of Hot Springs.
Cowie said he has been in the wine-making business for 61 years.
“I started making wine when I was 16 years old,” Cowie said. “I have a passion for wine, and I wanted to preserve the history of it in Arkansas.”
With the growth of the wine industry, the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism established the Arkansas Wine Trail in late 2012. Besides Post, Wiederkehr, Dionysus and Chateau Aux Arc, the Wine Trail includes:
An Enchanting Evening Small Farm Winery revived the art of commercial wine making in the Little Rock area by being the licensed small farm winery manufacturer in 70-plus years in historic Little Italy.
BoBrook Farms and River Bottom Winery, established in 2014, is the closest winery to Little Rock. It is located just down Highway 300 from Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Roland.
Cowie Wine Cellars and Vineyards reside in Paris, Ark., about 30 miles south of Altus. It is the home of the original Arkansas Historic Wine Museum.
Keels Creek Winery is located in Eureka Springs and operates as a boutique sharing space with an art gallery. It was founded by Dr. Doug Hausler in 2006.
Mount Bethel Winery is the third oldest winery in the state and is located at the site of the original Post family homestead in Altus. It was founded in 1956 by Eugene Post.
Movie House Winery – This facility is located in the renovated Petit Jean Movie Theatre in downtown Morrilton. Ken and Sherrie Sowers established the winery in 2011.
Neumeier Winery – It is located on Saint Mary’s Mountain in Wiederkehr Village.
Railway Winery and Vineyards is situated eight miles north of Eureka Springs along the route of the historic M&NA line.
Sassafras Springs Vineyard, Winery and Events Center in Springdale serves locally produced Arkansas wine and beer as well as wine from all over the world.
Tontitown Winery is located in the Taldo House, built in 1917. Wines are made onsite from Tontitown grapes grown nearby at Ranalli Farms using recipes handed down since 1923.
As the oldest and largest wine producing state in the South, it’s no surprise that Arkansas’ wine offerings continue to grow. From Altus to Little Rock and beyond, meet our local winemakers. (Photo courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)