AGED TO PERFECTION

June 1, 2010 | By More

Of all the River Valley’s many tourist attractions, one of the most famous is Altus Wine Country in Franklin County. Thousands of people from the U.S. and Europe travel here every year to taste local wines and drink in the ambiance of this small rural city’s charming festivals and square gatherings.

The biggest of these is the annual Grape Fest, held this year on Friday and Saturday, July 30-31 at Altus City Park. This year will mark the 27th consecutive year for the festival, which has been celebrated, on and off, for nearly a century to commemorate the start of harvest season.

While there is record of organized celebrations in the 1920’s and more informal gathering earlier in the century, the festival suffered a long dry spell, due in part to Prohibition. Then in 1984, Altus was officially recognized by the Federal government as an “Appellation of Origin” viticulture area and Grape Fest has been celebrating the coveted designation ever since.

Starting at 5 p.m. on Friday, the celebration starts with a performance by a genuine prison band, appropriately named the Cummins Prison Band. Delivered in prison garb and shackles by an armed guard, the prisoners are known for their good behavior and great music and a perennial favorite at the Fest.

A celebrity Grape Stomp begins at 6:30 p.m., where contestants out stomp each other to squeeze the most grape juice from barrels containing a measured amount of grapes. A Bacchus look-alike contest at 7 p.m. is followed by fireworks at 9 p.m. and street dance that lasts until 11:30 p.m.

On Saturday, the fun continues with six more grape stomps festival goers can participate in, a grape-pie eating contest, arts and craft exhibits, food concessions, and judging of the popular amateur winemaking contest. Of course, wine tasting from local wineries will be offered both days and local table grapes will also be for sale.

Rain or shine, the show goes on. In the spring of 2007, a killing frost annihilated the region’s grape crop. With no local grapes available, the festival switched to watermelon stomping, which proved to be a popular alternative.

Lots of people made home-made watermelon wine that year, said James Dahlem, Grape Fest Chairman since 2007.

For further information on the Altus Grape Fest, go to their website at www.altusgrapefest.com.

FROM VINE TO WINE

Grapes have been a staple of the Altus economy since the 1880s, when Swiss/ German settlers moved here because of the railroad which ran up the river valley, then called the Iron Mountain Railroad. Here they found the sandy soil and micro- climate perfect for cultivating grapes, just as they had in the old country.

Wine was an everyday thing for my ancestors, said Paul Post, a 5th generation winemaker from Post Familie Winery. Post recalled stories told in the 1960’s by his great, great Uncle Johnny Post. Johnny’s father, Jacob Post, came from Germany and bought 80 acres of land in 1880 along the railroad track. The steam engine would stop at Jacob Post’s farm for fuel and water.

While they were filling the engine, Jacob’s wife, Marie Post, would have a store set up and sell wine to the passengers. “This proves the Altus wine industry started right on track”, said Post.

Fortunately, the tradition of making and selling wine continued in the Post family and today a fifth generation is carrying on the popular family business.

With Paul as vice president, his brother, Dr. John Post, an electrical engineer, teaches Enology (winemaking) at the Ozark campus of Arkansas Tech University.

”You might say I’m electrified by wine making,” quipped the adjunct professor. Paul’s other brother, Thomas, oversees the family vineyards and also teaches a course at ATU on Viticulture (grape growing).

Mount Bethel Vineyard and Winery, which specializes in different varieties of fruit wines, including their popular Elderberry wine, was also started by a Post. Opened for business in 1956, Jacob’s and Marie’s great-grandson, Eugene Post, restored the underground cellar his grandparents built and Mount Bethel still uses these facilities.

Weiderkehr Cellars has also been producing popular wines and juices since the 1880’s and their own hand- dug cellars can still be toured today. The historic Weiderkehr restaurant next door is listed on the Federal Register of Historic Places and features Swiss/German cuisine to compliment its wines. With camping facilities and charming chalet style buildings, Weiderker’s hosts its own one-day Wine Festival in late September. Considered a town in itself, Weiderkehr Village is on Hwy 186, just north of Altus past the historic St Mary’s Catholic Church, which provides a breathtaking view of the River Valley below.

A more recent addition to the Altus wine market is Chateau Aux Arc, French for “bend in the river”. Located north of Weiderkehrs on Hwy 186, Chateau Aux Arc has facilities for RVs and celebrates yearly with a Wineaux Fest in late September.

All these wineries offer free tours throughout the year.

While locally grown red and white muscadine grape wine is the regional favorite, many other varieties are grown and bottled in Altus including merlot, chardonnay, and cynthiana, a hearty dry wine.

But, wine is not the only thing the Altus viticulture region produces. The most important is the simple grape. Perhaps “simple” is not a fitting description. Grape growing is a year round endeavor prone to Mother Nature’s wiles. Although the 2007 frost almost stopped production for more than one year, most vine stock has been replanted; this year’s crop is expected to be good.

“It’s been a long row to hoe, as they say,” said Dahlem, who sells and transports his fresh-picked table grapes to Harps, Pricecutter and grocery chains in Oklahoma and others during good harvests. Unlike other grape wine growers in the region who hire full time people to tend their vines, Dahlem is a mainly a one-man operation.

“When I started in 1997 I felt like I was caught in the middle,” said Dahlem who has cultivated up to 10 acres of table grapes. “What I mean by that is you either need to be big or small as it takes at least 8 hours a day to grow grapes properly.” Since Dahlem has a regular full-time day job, he tends his stock mostly after work and on weekends or whenever spare time is available.

Unfortunately, a frost in 1997 killed 75% of Dahlem’s first year’s crop and the devastating 2007 frost killed 100% of his grape crop. Since his most plentiful variety of grapevines was lost, he has since cut back to 5.5 acres.

A table grape grower needs to have luck on his side and competitive prices, as he has to compete with California grape growers, said Dahlem. Sometimes I do need a little help, he added. Although he once used up to 20 pickers, he now uses six to eight seasonal workers to help with the grape harvest. Dahlem also hires a person to help with pruning and tying in the winter since daylight is limited, and utilizes each variety’s pruning trash by making cuttings and selling those to nurseries locally and out of state.

“I love growing grapes, said Dahlem. It’s a challenge and you may feel like giving up at times but it’s all worth it when harvest comes and you see how the people enjoy what you have labored over for the past year. That’s the final clinch; when you’ve done a good job!”

Wine tasting for Dummies

Wine tasting has the mystique of romance and elegance; the “good life” in a bottle for those who know the etiquette. But, don’t be intimidated. Despite the hype, wine tasting is simply using your senses.

First, wine is smelly. The “nose” of the wine has a distinct odor. If you can train your mind to really smell what you’re drinking, you can detect literally hundreds of scents. Try swirling your glass of wine, or small plastic cup if you’re at a local tasting, for 10 or more seconds to let some of the wine’s alcohol vaporize and release its aromas. Now stick your nose into the glass and take a good whiff.

What do you smell? You can get creative here. Does it smell like wild cherry trees in bloom with undertones of ambergris and oranges or perhaps like chopped wood with a hint of tobacco juice and sweat?

Now, look at the wine, providing you can see clearly through the little plastic cup. This is otherwise known as checking for “color and clarity.” What color is it? Besides the obvious red, white or pink (blush), is it maroon, light green, amber, clear as glass, the color of polluted water? Older white wines are said to be “darker” than younger white wines and older red wines have a tint of orange at the edges.

Tilt the glass at an angle and swirl the wine. Sticking out you pinky finger here is optional but recommended for ultimate effect. Does the wine stick to the sides of the glass and slowly bleed down into the liquid? This is the viscosity. The slower and more even the drip, the heavier the body. Is there any sediment floating in it?

Surprisingly, the actual taste comes second to smell, as our taste buds can only detect sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Put taste and smell together and you get flavor.

Of course, the real high from wine comes from tasting it. The tasting itself can be very dramatic, similar to performing in a three-act play.

The first act is the ”Attack” phase or first impression. This is when you can taste the alcohol content, acidity, sugar/sweetness and bitter tannin level. Next, comes the “evolution” phase, or how it actually tastes. The more expressive the adjectives used here, the better.

The final thrill is the “finish”. Can you still taste it? Do you need a breath mint or do you want another taste, a bottle or a case to take home? You can also spit out the wine, if you don’t like it. Spitting is always fun.

The best part of wine tasting? It’s usually Free!

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