The big question is this: Are Arkansas wines as good as wines from New York or California?
Here is the impression I get from non-native liquor store personnel who diplomatically evade my questions when I ask about the quality of Arkansas wines. The answers are no and yes; and it all boils down to a statistics game. Arkansas' average wines seem to be as good as average wines from New York or California or anywhere else. But suppose there are a thousand wineries in California and the whole wine industry in California comes up with a hundred great vintages a year. If the same proportions hold for the Arkansas wine industry, then Arkansas might be expected to produce one great wine every two or three years, and the reputation of a viticultural region tends to rely on the production of great wines.
That said, if the worst thing that ever happens to you is you drink a bottle of average wine, I'd say you're ahead of the game.
Keel's Creek Winery in Eureka Springs nestles among the big pines on the north side of highway 62 between the Ozark Mountain Hoedown and Passion Play Road. By way of landmarks, they've decorated the drive entry with blue wine bottles, and in the center of the front grounds an eleven foot high wine bottle sculpture made of blue wine bottles is under construction. In 2009 Keels Creek's Chambourcin won the Grand Champion silver platter at the Arkansas State Fair wine tasting in which Arkansas wineries entered 119 bottles to contend for 106 medals.
Bear in mind that these new guys had no significant winemaking experience when they planted their vineyard here five years ago and are competing against wineries that have been in business since the 1880's, so much like Hillary Clinton they have ridden a greased board to the top. All this in spite of economic hurdles and natural difficulties. In 2007 a late freeze ruined the entire state's grape harvest, and this year the winery's vineyard lost much of its crop to raccoons.
Speaking of the new people, here's one of them. Meet Edwige Denyszyn. That's her on the right, propped slonchways on the easy chair. The guys on the left are customers. After sampling the KC inventory I put this question to Edwige. "I'm having fried chicken, turnip greens, cornbread and black-eyed peas. Which of your wines do you recommend to go with that meal?" She thought about it for so long that I thought she was going to give me a serious answer, but she came up with a zinger. "How about a soda or a nice beer?"
That's right. She snarked me. (Ooh-lar-lar, she really IS French.) In fairness to her, though, the ball was already rolling by that point in the conversation. Moments before I had referred to her home region of Lorraine, France as "part of that province that lies in between France and Germany." Even after a hundred years the French don't appreciate realpolitik jokes.
The comment does bring up a cogent point, though. What wine compliments southern comfort cuisine? White or red with pork rhinds? Is wine culture truly incompatible with country culture, or has wine culture simply decided not to assimilate? Here's what I mean. The person pouring the samples has a presentation prepared by the management, and it goes something like this: This wine goes well with chicken cordon bleu. This wine goes will with trout almondine. This wine compliments lamb with mint jelly. See what I mean? Are the rules that tight? I've had trout almondine twice in my life, but I've had a thousand plates of franks and beans and a thousand bowls of chilli and a thousand plates of pork barbecue. In order to accommodate your wines do I have to displace my own culture?
"I believe I'll have the frito pie and a sassy cabernet." Chuckle on the side.
It could be that the much disparaged fruit wines are the proper friends of the much disparaged dixie peasant cuisine, but I refuse to believe it. From a marketing standpoint people who eat cheap food are going to want cheap wine to go with it, and nobody wants to promote a custom that will drive down the cost of their own product, even if it makes the food better.
Speaking of product, here it is being made by Edwige's husband Doug Hausler and son Phillippe. Doug is a retired analytical chemist who had no plans to go into the wine business. When considering retirement, he and Edwige were attracted to Eureka Springs' unique cultural mix, so they bought a place which just happened to be a good place for a small vineyard, so they planted vines enough to make wine for their own household. As Doug was learning the art of winemaking, this commercial property became available and before long Doug was out of retirement and in the wine business.
Edwige and Doug have worked out an informal mission statement for their business. They intend to make grape wines only using Ozark suppliers only and squeezed grapes only. There will be no evaporates or juice concentrates shipped in from California. These days they're making about 6000 gallons a year and selling out the inventory. Doug hopes to expand eventually to an annual production of 20,000 gallons, the estimated maximum capacity of his present facility.
The proof of the pudding is in the tasting. (By the way, they charge five dollars for a tasting, but you get to keep the etched souvenir wine glass.) Seven of the eight wines tasted like number one hooch to me. Here are the vitals: Website - www.keelscreek.com. Phone 479-253-9463. Adddress 3185 Van Buren (hwy 62). Hours -- Wed-Sat 10am to 6pm, Sun-Tues 12pm-5pm.
RTJ -- 10/30/2009
Thirteen-year-old Audrey House brewed her first batch of wine using a recipe borrowed from her grandmother at White Oak Lake. The ingredients were water, sugar, baker's yeast and Welch's grape juice concentrate.
The results must have been encouraging, because in 1998, as she was preparing to graduate from college in Oklahoma, she bought ten acres of vineyard in Altus along highway 164. She built a platform on which she pitched a tent and in which she lived on weekends for six months from March to October of that year while permanent structures were being built. In spring of 2001 she opened her winery selling vintages she bottled in 1999 and 2000. She promises three thousand gallons of wine this year and now that she has almost 40 acres of plantable vineyard, she plans an eightfold increase in production over the next five years. Here she is in her new tasting room with a customer.
I've spent some time listening to business plans and interviewing people with bright ideas, and it's interesting to note how some businesses drag on year after year on the edge of profitability while others grow without extraordinary effort. I think I can tell within about five minutes if somebody's got a practical plan.
Audrey gave herself some advantages by starting a vineyard before starting her winery. From batch number one she never has to settle for fruit that's second best. On top of that, she has created a number of financial cushions for herself. If her first year's production of wine fails to sell or if it just turns out she has no knack for wine, she can still sell grapes to the other wineries. If the grapes fail, she's still got good agricultural land on a main road. Speaking of her acres, they're on the road in between the interstate and all the other Altus wineries. You couldn't ask for a better location. You don't have to go looking for Chateau aux Arc. You're going to find it no matter which Altus wineries you set out to visit.
If she had started by building a winery only, then failure means selling the equipment at a loss. If you start a vineyard and build a winery on it, then failure means you've got a vineyard with a building on it. You're not even in a hurry to sell your presses and vats. You just depreciate them all at once and take a big tax credit and start your winery up again next year. Most important of all, she's not carrying a note on the property. Lots of new businesses fail due to interest on loans. This one won't.
The next thing she did was to get two years' production bottled before she opened her doors to the public, so she knew she had a couple of good vintages to help establish her reputation. Right out of the gate she has avoided two-thirds of the obstacles any new business faces.
Her winemaking philosophy mirrors her business plan, which is to say she doesn't burden herself with unnecessary disadvantages. Because she established her vineyard first, she never has to use fruit that was picked a few days before or after prime just to get something in the bottles. If she wants she can use only the first pressing for her wine, selling the second or third to amateur winemakers. A talented and experienced winemaker might be able to make first rate wine from second rate grapes, but Audrey said novices like herself are advised to do their winemaking in the vineyard.
So how's the wine? I tasted three and I liked two. The one I didn't care for was a sugary jambalaya of white grape that Audrey told me was her top seller, but sweet wines do seem to be the local taste. I bought a half-case each of her cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Here's the part where I admit that I don't know squat about wine, but they say if you like what you're drinking, you're doing it right.
Thinking I was being very clever, I suggested that she (Ms. House) bottle a brand called "House Wine." Turns out I wasn't being as original as I thought. She said she intended to do that as soon as she could, but she was waiting for somebody else's trademark to expire.
The name, Chateau aux Arc, pronounced as if it were "Chateau Ozark," isn't just a cute pun. The name of the Ozarks is an anglicized spelling of the French "aux arcs," meaning "with bows" or "with arches." The origin is elusive, but the bows or arches in the etymology might refer to rainbows or the bends of the Arkansas River or a local tree, the bois d'arc or "bow dock," which the Indians used to make bows. Whatever the historical reference, Chateau aux Arc means "The House With an Arch," and I think that's going to work out pretty well.
Founding a winery can be a maze of bureaucratic red tape. Since the application process is fresh in Audrey's mind, she delivers prepared how-to lectures on the material to interested students. If you've ever considered founding your own Arkansas winery, Audrey has expressed an interest in helping you do just that. The phone number at the winery is 1-800-558-WINE. Here's a link to Chateau aux Arc. The tasting room is open Thur. Fri. Sat.
This winery is actually in Carbon City, about four miles west of Paris, but Bob has a mailing address in Paris because he prefers the cachet of the name Paris over that of Carbon City. When you knock on the door at Cowie Wine Cellars, you're likely to be met at the door by owner Bob Cowie, pictured here, in his work clothes. What you see here is the Cowie corporate image, also the Cowie personal image. The effort and resources that he doesn't expend on business suits and sophisticated advertising winds up in the bottles pictured below -- the ones with all the MEDALS ON THEM!
The tops of the barrels in his wine cellar are decorated with wine-related paintings and literary quotes. Before I snapped this picture, I asked him which barrel was his favorite. He chose this one: "Here's to those who wish us well. All the rest may go to hell."
After the second world war, there were well over one hundred wineries in Arkansas. Now there are only four; and Cowie Wine Cellars is the smallest, producing from three-to-five thousand gallons of wine each year. I suppose in the case of a winery, flexibility is the main advantage. Bob needs zero lead time in order to take advantage of ephermeral opportunities. If he gets a chance to buy a bulk semi of, for example, mango at a bargain price, he doesn't have to consider whether or not that fits into his marketing strategy. Also, all the fruit in his wines is locally grown. That keeps his prices really reasonable, and this isn't one of your screw-cap operations, either. I mean....LOOK AT THE MEDALS, dangit!
If you get a chance, talk to Bob himself. His enthusiasm is infectious and his passion for wine is evident. I bought an assortment from his current inventory; and when I bought one of the last remaining bottles of his cynthiana (that's from his prizewinning grape), he had this oddly hurt look on his face. I saw that look on my mother's face when she packed me off to my first day at school.Send E-mail to Bob
UPDATE: I visited Bob's winery again on 2/27/98. He has just acquired land and this year he'll be planting his own vineyard.
All the other Arkansas wineries have to step down a notch to make room at the top for Mount Bethel. Nothing against the other wineries, they all have their specialties and their favorites, but overall the best wine in the state comes from here; and at right is a picture of the lady that makes it. Her name is Peggy, and she and her husband Eugene and their children run the Mount Bethel Winery in Altus.
The Posts that run this place represent a branch of the same Post family that runs the Post Winery about a hundred yards up the road. The split came, according to Peggy, when one member of the Post family set up a winemaking co-op for the local fruit growers at the present location of the Post Familie Winery, and one other member of the Post family refused to join.
Here's a picture of the place. Judging superficially, you might expect to find Lonesome Polecat inside whuppin' up a batch of Kickapoo joy juice. There is much to be said for a winery putting forth a genteel, sophisticated corporate image, but ultimately the goal is to put forth really good wine. And it's all well and good to have the right wine from this year's fashionable grape in the proper wine glass with the proper cheese while wearing an appropriate winedrinking scarf, but there's also something satisfying about kicking back in the shade of an old red oak at the end of a day, sitting on a stump and drinking Mount Bethel's wild plum wine from a mason jar.
Preliminary indications from a cursory and unscientific survey conducted by myself indicates that the locals, even employees of other wineries, drink Eugene and Peggy's wild plum wine preferentially. In other words, I talked to a couple of employees at other wineries and they said MBWP was mighty popular among the Altus locals.
So here's the story on the Wild Plum wine. About 25 years ago there was this plum tree growing wild on the edge of their property. One year it was so loaded with fruit that the branches threatened to break. Peggy's son adopted the tree and shored up the branches with lumber and for his trouble ate some of the fruit. Finding it to his liking, he announced to his family that he was going to make wine out of the fruit. The family scoffed, but the boy bought a big rubbermaid trash can and made plum wine in it.
Once bottled, the wine sold out quickly, much more quickly than the grape wines which had been Mount Bethel's stock-in-trade. Well, you don't have to hit Eugene and Peggy in the face with a wet mop! Cuttings were taken and the plum tree was propagated. Fill in the historical blanks for yourself. Twenty-five years later, they still sell all they can bottle. One of Peggy's daughters told me they only use the plums from the lower branches because they don't have enough fermenter space to use all the plums they grow.
Here I've been going on and on about the Wild Plum and I haven't yet mentioned Big Daddy. It's a powerful port. Nineteen percent ethanol...wham! I'm not a big port drinker myself, but I wanted to show you the label. Thousands of these labels, printed way back in the 1950's, were recently found in storage. Back then, Peggy told me, any batch of wine that wasn't up to winery standards was sugared down, fortified with brandy and sold cheaply as Big Daddy port.
It just goes to show how things change. Nowadays port is an expensive drink, no longer the refuge of the destitute. If you go to the winery, be sure to pick up a bottle sporting one of these antique labels. It's a politically incorrect caricature, sure, but the label is a novelty souvenir from another age with another point of view.
Post winery was founded in 1880 by a Bavarian religious refugee named Jacob Post, who fled Germany during the Franco-Prussian war when his Catholic faith made him a likely target for persecution. He bought this hillside land from the railroad and with his wife Marie started growing fruit, particularly grapes, and making juice, particularly wine.
This place's name is Altus, and since 1984 it's been a bona fide, officially recognized viticultural region. It got its name from the railroad, which called it Altus because it was the highest elevation along this route.
I spoke with Paul, one of the five Post brothers who, along with one Post sister, run the operation today, and he gave me a brief history of the family and the vineyard. After Jacob and Marie, the winery was run by Joseph and Catherine. Catherine, as Paul diplomatically put it, "took a little vacation" during prohibition for the crime of serving wine at her restaurant. (Note that by the end of prohibition, 25% of U.S. citizens had a criminal record.) Business at the vineyard continued, though. Since it was legal to make home brew, the price of grapes rose such that fruit operations in the area fluorished. By the end of prohibition, there were some forty separate vineyards in the Altus area.
Joseph's oldest son James (Jake) Post, moved the winery to its present location, just about a mile west of the original; and passed it to his oldest, Matt. Matt's younger brother Eugene started his own winery on the site of the original Post Winery and named this new old winery Mount Bethel. Matt's five sons and one daughter are running the Post Familie Winery and Vineyards today, and given the Post preference for large families, it looks like there'll be Posts running this place for a long, long time.
Enough scholarship! Let's have some wiiiiiiine. This friendly lady posed in front of a row of WINE BOTTLES WITH MEDALS ON THEM (and this row is twice as long as what you see here) is Diana. She was my tourguide through the winery and she took up the task of educating my ignorant self and my ignorant palate about wine. There were on this day some thirty vintages in the Post Familie inventory. I reckoned the management would discourage customers from tasting them all, so I talked Diana into giving up samples of ten and she was gracious and patient and helpful in telling me what wine sophisticates look for, taste for, smell for and all that.
What it all boils down to, though, is this: Taste some wines in the sampling room and buy what you like. If you like what you buy, well, you did it right.
Those ten-foot-tall oaken casks pictured at right hold the Cabernet Port and the Sherry for eighteen years before they sell it to you. The Port I drank today was put into these casks the year before I became legally eligible to drink it. That makes me feel kind of like they made it just for me, although I don't know why it should.
There's a wild grape called muscadine that grows in Arkansas. Muscadines, because of their peculiar texture, make poor table grapes; but they make the sweetest, tastiest, more-grape-than-grape wine I've ever had, and Post makes three varieties, white, red and blush. You can also get plain muscadine juice here. The juice and the wines all have the characteristic concentrated grape flavor that is typical of muscadine.
In 1880, Johann Andreas Wiederkehr took a pick and shovel and dug his first wine cellar into the side of this mountain. It's the basement of that building in the picture. The entrance is in the bottom left corner of the photo, and today there's a cafe occupying the space.
Wiederkehr's is the largest of Arkansas' wineries, the only one that has clock-scheduled tours and specialized tourguides. You go into their gift shop and jot your name down on a sign-up sheet and you're on the next tour. It's also the Arkansas winery that most resembles a theme park. This is Beth, the guide for our herd, standing in front of one of the oaken barrels that Johann brought across the Atlantic with him over a hundred years ago. You'll notice that the barrel is oval-shaped. That's to keep it from rolling off the deck of the ship that brought it over.
This is the vineyard that belongs to Johann's descendants. It's in Altus, the highest (in elevation that is) viticultural region between the Rockies and the Appalachians.