For many years, California had a lock on wine-oriented group travel. Now, states like Arkansas – one of the South’s largest wine producers – is making a strong bid to appeal to these audiences.
There’s something about the landscape of vineyards and wineries that’s soothing, iconic and peaceful. The soft rolling hills, festooned with orderly rows of grapes. The ever-changing sunlight.
The promise of free wine tastings.
It’s no surprise that leisure group travel to vineyards has become common; it combines scenery, good food and adult beverages – three very popular things. And the perception of the American vineyard has finally grown beyond pricey Napa Valley in northern California. You can now find vineyards as far from the Golden State as upstate New York and on the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.
It often comes as a surprise to the casual wine lover that California doesn’t have a lock on viticulture history or geography. Turning to the southern part of the US, the state that has the oldest wine-growing history as well as the largest production of grapes and wines is Arkansas. That’s right. The Natural State is also the Southern Wine-Making Capital.
Group Travel to Arkansas’ Wineries and Vineyards
Arkansas’ vineyards started with the arrival of German-Swiss immigrants in the 1870s. Recognizing that the northwest corner of the state offered a haven for grapevines – its naturally mild climate already protected from the cold by the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains – they started to plant the grapes that did well in their homeland. Thanks to its sandy soil, the area around Altus and the Arkansas River Valley became the epicenter of Arkansas’ wine industry. Today, that region has expanded to include Eureka Springs, Morrilton, Springdale and Tontitown.
As the wineries are concentrated primarily off I-40, northwest of Little Rock and east of Fort Smith, a group tour of the wine trail is very flexible. Many of the wineries are only a couple of hours, at most, from the state capital, so day trips are entirely possible. However, the region has enough lodging to make it a destination in itself.
Selected Highlights of the Arkansas Wine Trail
The Arkansas Wine Trail begins up in the northwest section of the state, near the Missouri line. It wends all the way down to the city of Morrilton, about one hour north of Little Rock. There are approximately a dozen wineries and vineyards along this route. Since we don’t have room to list them all, here are few highlights. They include relative newcomers as well as the oldest commercial vineyard in the state.
1. Chateau aux Arc, Altus
Both the winery and the owner are relatively new, but they have been drawing a lot of attention and earning a long list of awards. In 1998, Audrey House bought 20 acres from the Wiederkehr family. There were already 10 acres of Chardonnay grapes growing on the property. In the 15 years that have elapsed, the winery has expanded to cover 50 acres. In addition to Chardonnay, Chateau aux Arc is well known for its Cynthiana grapes, the state grape of Arkansas. On-site facilities for this winery include a tasting room and gift shop, as well as an RV park. Tour buses are welcome but are required to call in advance.
Wondering about the pronunciation of the vineyard’s name? Just say “Ozark.” The appellation is taken from the original French spelling of the Arkansas mountain range.
2. Post Familie Winery, Altus
Set a plateau above the Arkansas River, the Post Familie Winery is Arkansas’s largest and first commercial vineyard. July through September are the harvest months, so visitors can stop by to nibble on fresh grapes. Of course, visitors over the age of 21 are welcome to try a complimentary tasting of the winery’s vintages any time of year. While the Post Familie produces port, dessert wine, and wines of all shades from red to white, they are especially known for their Muscadine varietals. This grape is native to the southeastern United States, and it is available in wine and in a nonalcoholic juice.
3. Wiederkehr Wine Cellar and Vineyard, Wiederkehr Village
Just a few miles down the road from Altus lies Wiederkehr Village, Wiederkehr Wine Cellar and Vineyard, and Wiederkehr Hall. This is one of the state’s oldest vineyards, now being tended by third- and fourth-generation members of the family. The restaurant is actually located in the historical cellar, which was dug by hand in 1880. Today, it serves Swiss- and European-influenced cuisine. The Vintage 1880 Wine Shop sells gifts, wine accessories, gourmet food and, of course, wine. There are free tastings and tours every 45 minutes from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.. Wiederkehr Hall, the winery’s banquet facility, seats up to 300 people, making it excellent for large gatherings.
4. Cowie Wine Cellars, Paris
Arkansas’ Paris is located about 20 miles south of Altus. Cowie has a bed and breakfast and, in the warm months, meals are served under the grape arbor. Every year, the vineyard hosts wine festivals (complete with grape stomping) and an annual homemade wine competition. It’s the site of an art gallery created exclusively on the face of wine barrels. Cowie Wine Cellars is also the driving force behind the Arkansas Historic Wine Museum. There are two places your group can see the museum – here in Paris and over in Hot Springs.
Cowie Wine Cellars has won over 150 awards for its wine. You can choose from fruit wines, sweet or dry wines, or nonalcoholic juices. Visitors can taste up to four wines for no charge.
Arkansas has many attractions vying for group tours: music, history, natural beauty. The area’s long-standing tradition of winemaking and grape growing is one more important item to add to this list.
Have you had the chance to experience the Arkansas Wine Trail? Have you planned any group trips to the area? Tell your story by submitting a comment below. Thanks!