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The Arkansas wine country

Researching the column that ran in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I found myself intrigued by the rich history of the Arkansas wine country.

I also found myself looking at how much other states have capitalized on the allure of their wineries, attracting prosperous baby boomer couples in the process.

I asked these questions:

1. Why do we not more actively promote an Arkansas Wine Trail that winds from Altus to Paris?

2. Why don’t we have large brown signs (the kind you would see for a state park) with perhaps a bunch of purple grapes on them at the Altus exit on Interstate 40 to better promote this unique part of our state?

3. Why hasn’t some investor built a small but upscale boutique hotel near Altus to take advantage of the Arkansas wine country?

Far too often, we take fascinating parts of our Arkansas heritage for granted.

“It has always been here,” we tell each other about this or that attraction. “Why should we go out of our way to promote it?”

Sometimes, it takes outsiders to tell us that the things we take for granted are truly special.

Returning from a speaking engagement in Fort Smith last Thursday, I stopped at the beautiful tasting room for Chateau Aux Arc near Altus. It’s the newest of the area’s wineries, born in 1998 when young Audrey House bought 20 acres from Al Wiederkehr, and it has the nicest tasting room, a 5,400-square-foot facility built in 2005. I listened as a couple on their way from Oklahoma back to their home along the Mississippi Gulf coast in Jackson County raved about the beauty of the area.

If they knew its history, they would be even more enchanted. And if that boutique hotel existed, they might have even spent the night.

Altus was incorporated as a city in August 1888. Railroad officials had named their railhead Altus, the Latin word for high, since this was the highest point on the Little Rock & Fort Smith Railroad.

A Frenchman named Jean Baptiste Dardenne had first claimed the area in June 1814. Five years later, the U.S. government ordered white settlers out of the region so the Cherokee tribe could have title to the land. An 1828 treaty, however, removed members of the tribe from Arkansas to what’s now Oklahoma. Franklin County was carved out of Crawford County in 1837, and the courthouse was placed at Ozark.

“The Altus area, like the rest of the state, was devastated by the Civil War, especially the depredations of guerilla warfare,” Lola Shropshire writes on the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “It took years for the population to overcome the hunger and poverty. Farming was not productive enough to keep families wholly fed and clothed. When large-scale coal mining began in the area in 1873, the mine owners found many willing workers in the Altus area. The major coal-producing mines were not within the Altus city limits but were important to the economy of the area.”

So coal mining began in a big way in 1873. A year later, the original Altus passenger train depot was built. Between railroad jobs and jobs in the mines, there was plenty of work. That demand for labor, in turn, attracted Swiss and German immigrants.

Jacob Post, a German who first had tried to grow grapes in Illinois, showed up in Arkansas in 1880.

That same year, Johann Andreas Wiederkehr came from Switzerland and carved a wine cellar from a hillside.

Post and Wiederkehr found an outlet for their wine — the Swiss and German immigrants who were were accustomed to having wine with their meals. They sold the wine to these coal miners, railroad workers and other immigrants.

Things would change in the 20th century. The last passenger train departed Altus in May 1936. In 1940, the last major coal mine closed. There are no longer railroad and mining jobs. But the descendants of Jacob Post and Johann Andreas Wiederkehr continue to produce wine. And therein lies the present and hopefully an even brighter future for this slice of Arkansas.

Heritage tourists tend to spend more than other tourists, which is why we need to exploit the Swiss-German heritage and give these visitors a reason to stay in Altus a night or two. The bank in Altus was even known as the German American Bank in the early 1900s before anti-German sentiment during World War I forced the name to be changed to the Bank of Altus. The building that housed the bank is now a museum.

In 1927-28, Chicago millionaire J.H. Jacobson bought seven farms on Pond Creek Mountain to build cabins that he hoped would attract other wealthy Chicago residents each summer. The Great Depression, however, put an end to those efforts.

Altus received some nationwide publicity in 2001 when Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie showed up to film the reality television show “The Simple Life.” But rather than a charming wine-growing region with a Swiss-German heritage, the area was pretty much portrayed as backwoods Arkansas on that show.

As I stated in the newspaper column, I thought House’s arrival in 1998 following her graduation from the University of Oklahoma was far more significant than the short stay of the spoiled rich girls, Hilton and Ritchie. The three existing wineries in 1998 — Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, Post Familie Vineyards & Winery and Mount Bethel Winery — have tradition on their side. House, though, brought new blood, new energy and some new ways of doing things.

The website tells this story: “Along the way, Audrey met and worked closely with members of the other local wineries. One of those people was Thomas Post, who runs the farm and vineyards for Post Familie and who offered Audrey invaluable advice as she learned the ins and outs of vineyard cultivation. It soon became apparent that Audrey and Thomas shared more than just an interest in grapes when their respect and admiration for one another bloomed into a romance and then ultimately into their November 2002 marriage.

“Audrey’s personal and professional growth has continued on a steady course since that day. Once wed, she turned the building that served as her house into a new tasting room with space for a gift shop and began gaining notoriety for being the youngest vintner in the country as well as the newest winemaker in Altus. In 2004, two more significant changes occurred: the first, the birth of Thomas and Audrey’s first child, Trinity, in June, followed by the September groundbreaking of a new, more spacial tasting room at Dragonfly Ranch.

“One year later, Audrey unveiled her current tasting room — a European-style building, accented by stacked rock columns, fit to be called by the name chateau. A dry moat, stone walkways and flowerbeds galore surround the impressive structure on the edge of Dragonfly Ranch’s manicured vineyards. Picnic tables scattered throughout the grounds complement the experience, beckoning visitors to soak in the atmosphere.”

Chateau Aux Arc even markets the facility for weddings.

Another part of the website tells the story this way: “Born in 1976, Audrey is the oldest daughter of Byron House III. She is one of the youngest winery owners in the United States, as well as the only female winemaker in Arkansas. Dividing her childhood between Arkansas and Oklahoma, Audrey came to appreciate the scenic beauty of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas River Valley. Audrey is part Tom Sawyer. Who else could convince their friends that it would be fun living in tents in the middle of a vineyard during the summer of 1998.”

We should be glad they did just that.

Just west of Paris, meanwhile, Robert Cowie and his children carry on the tradition at Cowie Wine Cellars, which originally was bonded in 1967. It’s also the home of the Arkansas Historic Wine Museum, which contains a number of winemaking artifacts. There’s also a two-unit bed and breakfast facility with rates of $90 for the Cynthiana Suite and $125 for Robert’s Port Suite.

Cynthiana, also known as Norton, is a native American grapevine that is more disease resistant and adaptable to the climate in the Ozarks than many of the imported grapevines.

And if you’re wondering about Robert’s Port, it’s the port wine that is one of the items for which Cowie Wine Cellars is known.

The Cowie website at states: “Arkansas has a rich heritge of winemaking dating from the time of the earliest settlers. Though the present, there have been 150 wineries bonded in Arkansas by the federal government since the repeal of Prohibition and more than 1,000 Arkansas permits issued for winemaking.”

Can’t we do more to attract visitors to the scenic, historic Arkansas wine country and its five commercial wineries?

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