The value of statewide preprocessed grape crops is way down, but the Arkansas River Valley’s wine crops have grown like kudzu.
Franklin County wineries Wiederkehr Wine Cellars Inc., Post Familie Vineyards and smaller competitors have over the last decade steadily gained in regional and national popularity. Wiederkehr, which produces more than 1 million gallons of wine annually, is ranked among the top 100 of more than 4,000 wineries listed in the Wine and Vine directory.
Four years ago, 95 percent of the grapes grown in northwest Arkansas were concord, or juice grapes, a crop that had been encouraged by the presence of Welch’s Foods Inc. in Springdale. But after Welch’s sold off its juice-grape operations in 1991, the juice-grape crop began to dwindle. The value of Arkansas grapes dropped from $35 million in 1996 to $22.4 million in 1997. Arkansas’ total harvested vineyard acres declined 36 percent from 2,200 in 1993 to 1,400 in 1999.
Even so, the River Valley produced more than 8 million pounds of wine grapes last year. Justin R. Morris, an international expert on wine production and director of the Institute of Food Science and Engineering at the University of Arkansas, said increased production is not the only reason the state’s wineries are on the upswing.
“I’m really pleased with the quality coming back into Arkansas wines,” Morris said. “They’re moving toward quality and not just volume. That’s the only way to be competitive in the industry. It’s an absolute necessity.
“People are loyal to a point, but if the quality is not there, those people will move to other labels and brands. I’m proud of what all the wineries are doing in this state as far as shooting for high quality table wines.”
Morris, author of the book Modern Fruit Science, said shifting the attention away from jug and box wines is a move in the right direction. “That was not where the money was,” he said.
Boost for Wine
The wine industry worldwide got a boost in 1991 when the CBS television program “60 Minutes” aired a segment on “the French Paradox.” Twenty million Americans viewed the broadcast in which French doctor Jacques Richard credited regular, moderate consumption of wine with protecting the French from heart disease.
Al Wiederkehr, proprietor of the Wiederkehr winery and grandson of founder Johann Andreas Wiederkehr, said red wine sales experienced a “great renaissance” after the show aired.
“We ran completely out of all red wines in just a few months,” Wiederkehr said. “The wineries began moving to more premium classics.”
Eighteen nations joined in the French Paradox study by the World Health Organization that proved the French had the second-lowest death rate in the world from heart disease, despite their habits of smoking, eating fatty foods and shunning exercise. Only the Japanese, with their extremely low-fat diet long on fish and rice, had a lower rate.
Wine contains vitamins A, B and C as well as 13 minerals essential to human life.
Seeds for Success
Arkansas had already played a major role in the wine industry even before Johann Andreas Wiederkehr settled in Franklin County and dug his first cellar in 1880.
In 1867, the plant disease phylloxera almost destroyed European vineyards. They returned to strength thanks to the grafting of vines from a disease-resistant root stock from the wild Arkansas grape Cynthiana.
Today, Cynthiana is just one of more than 30 wines and sparklers on each of the Wiederkehr and Post menus.
Altus (Post Familie, Mount Bethel Winery, etc.), neighboring Wiederkehr Village and Paris (Cowie Wine Cellars) are situated in what Al Wiederkehr said is a geographically ideal location.
“You worry about some frost, but this area is well protected,” he said. “There’s a thermal inversion here. Mount Magazine is about 25 miles to the south and it’s a major barrier. It’s the highest point between the Rockies and the Appalachians. The second highest is just north of us on the Boston Mountain range.
“And the water from the Arkansas River lock and dam gives off a lot of heat. There’s more heat down in the valley now than there was when there was no industry.”
The Arkansas vineyards have never experienced a winter kill. Meanwhile, vineyards in Texas and New Mexico have had such disasters because they have no protection from arctic fronts. The current heat wave Arkansas is experiencing is hurting a bit because when it fails to get below 70 degrees at night, photosynthesis stops and the grapes don’t ripen well.
“But [Arkansas grape growers are] doing better than other states east of the Rockies because of our climate,” Wiederkehr said.
An ideal sugar content in the grapes is 24 percent. Last year, Wiederkehr got a strong 22 percent. This year promises to be another sweet one.
Region Is Ripe
Benton and Washington counties continue to be the top Arkansas grape producers in terms of acreage, but those are mostly juice grapes. That business is especially big in the Washington County community of Tontitown, which recently celebrated its 102nd annual Grape Festival. And Pappas Foods LLC of Springdale will open a new juice processing plant in early September.
Morris continues to believe that northwest Arkansas soon will have its own winery.
“There are a lot of wine-drinking customers at the university and at the industries up here,” Morris said. “It’s the type of people who enjoy having wine with their meals. And one of the biggest profits in the wine industry comes from retail sales out of the winery. Tourists are attracted to wineries, and we have a lot of tourists here.
“I think in the next five to 10 years [a winery here is] probably going to happen. Audrey House, a new winery, is starting up down in Altus. It could happen anytime here if you got the right individuals together with the money and the interests and the right location. Grapes are part of the culture in the area, and there is a lot of history involved.”
Morris and partner Tom Oldridge are still awaiting patents on 12 different mechanical systems they developed to help harvest the grapes and cut down the labor costs for the wineries.
“The cost of labor is such that it can be a limiting factor in expansion at vineyards,” Morris said. “It can be the difference between a profit and a loss. The future will dictate the vineyards be mechanized. As for when, that’s up to the global economy, the price of wines and the price of grapes.”
Al Wiederkehr, whose company is preparing for the 37th annual Weinfest Sept. 23-24, said, “Technology-wise, the industry has rushed right past the old-timers.”
Arkansas, ranked among the top eight grape-producing states, is ironically 46th in wine consumption. That fact could be contributed to some misled theories according to Wiederkehr. He once “battled” individuals and organizations who believed wine was a sinful drink.
“I started taking my Bible along,” Wiederkehr said. “They told me that if I made wine I would go straight to hell because I was sinning. I would ask them if Christ was without sin. They would say, ‘yes.’ Then I’d read where He turned water into wine. Why would He have done that?”
Wiederkehr doesn’t claim to be able to make wine out of water, but thanks to the prosperity of the state’s wine industry, River Valley wineries are turning wine into profits.