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Derek Smith, general manager, has increased sales by 26% since he was hired in March.

 

Tale of the Grape

Grapes are Ripe for the Picking

Story & Photos by Dwain Hebda

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The rows of grapevines stand shimmering in quarter-mile long rows, stretching into the hazy mountain vista. Foliage hunches over their bracings, shaggy and round, like emerald-green bison slow-moving in the late summer heat. Underneath, grapes dangle in clumps and colonies, some ripened to a deep amethyst hue, others yielding the softest blush of color. 

Joseph Post amid some of Post Winery's massive cold fermentation tanks. One of the oldest Arkansas wineries still in existence, Post has a total winemaking capacity of about 800,000 gallons.

“These aren’t quite ripe yet,” said Joseph Post, whose family has tended these acres for almost 140 years. “You can pick your own.” The shooter marble-sized grape is fleshy and sweet and the taster can imagine immediately what sort of wine it will yield. Post grins and looks around. 

“I like to come out here because it’s real,” he said. “It’s a real reminder of what we do here and what my family has done here. We’re raising bottles of wine.”

Now knocking on the door of six generations, the Posts are one of the first families of the state’s vino. In fact, Jacob Post, Joseph’s great-great-grandfather, is credited with introducing winemaking in Altus, the cradle of the craft in Arkansas. His grandfather, James Post, was a member of an early winemakers co-op in the 1930s and perfected the means of mass production.

“Our grandfather wanted this location because of the cold-water spring on the hillside,” Joseph said. “The basics of fermentation is heat working on sugar; you have the production of alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. Heat is the enemy; the wine gets too hot, you lose the God-given flavor of the grape.”

With more than 30 wineries and grape growers, and more coming online all the time, wine is Arkansas’s new farm stand. From Springdale to Southwest Little Rock, Little Italy to Eureka Springs, Tontitown to Mountain Home, most of the state’s wineries are small, family-run affairs. Some don’t grow their own grapes, others don’t turn their grapes into wine, but all look to cash in on a growing foodie culture and alcohol tourism. 

Post’s operation covers all those bases. With hundreds of acres and a thriving retail presence in multiple states, the company processes grapes by the 18-wheeler-load, which doesn’t go as far as you might imagine. A small steel fermenter holds the juice of a semi-load of grapes, and there is row upon row of the gleaming missile-shaped tanks throughout the winery.

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Up top, Post opens a hatch on one of the cold fermentation tanks like he’s popping a cork on a 12,000-gallon bottle of red. All in, Post’s operation can process 800,000 gallons of wine, and its output ranks among the 50 largest out of about 10,000 wineries in North America. And yet, Post said, the Natural State’s wine industry could be so much more. 

“You don’t want to be big, you want to be profitable,” Post said. “When we have market access our life quality is better. When we have market access taken away from us, through bad policy or change in laws or whatever, that can be very hard on us.”

Post said wherever one can grow corn, one can grow grapes, and there are varieties for every climate and soil. Even the University of Arkansas is helping make strides by producing new cultivars of wine grapes—work that is now being short circuited by flawed public policy, Post says.

“Arkansas has a lot of room for improvement,” he said. “We need to look at some county taxes and think of some of the madness that is going on. I’d really like to see more existing Arkansas farmers put in grapes as a supplementary crop. We really need to talk to farmers that already understand farming. 

“They already have the land; it’s an issue of how they utilize that land. They already have the equipment they need.  I think we should look at tax credits for people that put in (grape) farming operations that are going to put a lot of people to work.”

The industry itself bears some of the blame as growers, producers and winery owners are disjointed in their promotion efforts. Some, like Sassafras Springs Winery in Springdale, enjoy the benefits of local population growth and novelty. The four-year-old winery, event center and wedding venue has been a hit since it launched four years ago, largely due to it being the only operation of its kind in that part of the state. 

Gene Long, who owns Sassafras Springs with his wife, Cheryl, said while wine does draw its share of visitors, it often just augments the operation’s other amenities, both natural and manmade. Production is somewhere around 1,000 bottles a year—miniscule compared to others in Arkansas. But events and gatherings clamor for a spot on the calendar and have since the day the place opened four and half years ago.

“If you’ve traveled around and visited other wineries, you’ll see our situation is unique,” said Gene. “I don’t know of any winery that has an events center like we have. Ours is so much different; we don’t make a lot of wine, but we have hundreds of weddings a year.”

Sassafras does have one thing in common with its much larger, more wine-forward colleagues: When the Longs were looking to open the winery, they picked up the phone and began calling around looking for guidance, Post was the one that responded.

“There is no book out there that says, Beginning Winery 101,” Gene said. “The best advice we got was from the Posts. They were very cordial and very nice. Whenever we pick up the phone, they’re like, ‘What can we do for you?’”

 A former horse barn now hosts elegant weddings and community events at Sassafras Winery in Springdale.

A former horse barn now hosts elegant weddings and community events at Sassafras Winery in Springdale.

Another operation that blends events and wine is An Enchanting Evening, perched on a cliff’s edge near Roland. The operation is a labor of love by Roger and Wendy Quaid, who opened the winery and wedding facilities in 2014 and who operate the company around their full-time jobs as data processors.

“There’s been a few neighbors that just saw the sign and dropped in to see what we were doing. There’s a few regulars that started coming in,” Roger said. “Then the weddings are bringing guests out; we host about 75 events a year.”

Wendy serves as winemaker while Roger manages the yurt that serves as the tasting room. They produce about 2,000 bottles of wine per year and are content with that for the time being.

“We just sell out of here; I haven’t gone to a distributor, we don’t have it in stores,” Roger said. “I think with that we could boost production, but at the time being I’m plenty busy just keeping this going.” 

So too with Keels Creek Winery in Eureka Springs. The small winery produces about 2000 cases per year, and they do not currently have plans to scale up. Instead, they’re focusing on producing quality wine from Arkansas-grown grapes.

Small craft wineries such as Sassafras Springs, An Enchanting Evening and Keels Creek are music to Joseph Post’s ears. Even as he drives the visitor past field after field of generations-old Altus vineyards – all either in or approaching the traditional harvest window of Indian summer through crisp autumn – he still sees potential for the future and not just for his family’s operation that dominates the landscape.

“I’d really like to see more people open wineries up here,” Post said. “It would be good for the industry and benefit everybody.”