Arkansas Wine, Arkansas is the oldest and largest grape juice and wine producing state in the southern United States. Grapes were first grown commercially in Arkansas by a colony of German-Swiss immigrants who settled at Altus (Franklin County) in the 1870’s. These early settlers soon recognized that this region in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains had the potential for wine grape production. The Boston Mountains to the north provided a barrier to the winter cold, and the elevation of the small, flat-top mountains provided the necessary protection from spring frost. The soil of the region was well-suited to grape production.
Early winemakers found a ready market for their product among the immigrant railroad workers and coal miners who were accustomed to enjoying wine with their meals. Some of the early winemakers in the area were Wiederkehr, Post and Sax. Several wineries still operate in the Altus area and are run by the fourth and fifth generation descendants of these original wine families.
Professor Joseph Bachman was a Swiss immigrant and grape breeder in the Altus, Arkansas area in the late 1880s. The cultivars he developed drew nationwide attention.
During the Prohibition era, many of the wine grapevines were grafted over to table grape cultivars. Private grape breeders such as Joseph Bachman developed Sunrise, Stark’s Star and Banner cultivars. Herman Wiederkehr discovered a bud mutation of Campbell’s Early during this period and sold the propagation rights to Stark Brothers Nurseries. This became Stark’s patent No. 1.
With the repeal of Prohibition, the wineries in the Altus area expanded significantly. Most of the plantings now are devoted to the best of the French-American Hybrids and the hardy Vitis vinifera. Al Wiederkehr of Wiederkehr Wine Cellars is given credit for pioneering the first commercial vinifera plantings in Arkansas.
There are now four major wineries in Arkansas with a storage capacity of approximately 1,230,000 gallons. Two of these wineries, Wiederkehr Wine Cellars Inc.. and Post Fanmilie Vineyard and Winery in the Altus area are in the top 100 wineries in the United States in terms of wine gallons produced annually.
Another early grape production center was established in Northwest Arkansas (Washington County) by Italian immigrants. The first 100 families of Italian immigrants settled in Sunnyside, AR, in the southeastern corner of the state, on a large plantation owned by Austin Corbin. Three years after their arrival, a double tragedy struck. Their benefactor, Corbin, died, and a malaria epidemic spread throughout the new colony. Over 100 people died in one year. These Italians from the mountainous climate of the Alps and Appenines could not acclimate to the conditions of the Eastern Arkansas swamps.
A Catholic priest, Father Bandini of New York, heard of the plight of the Italian immigrants and came to their rescue. He gathered the 20 remaining families and in the late 1800’s took them to an area in northwest Arkansas, where he purchased 700 acres of land and founded the town of Tontitown. These people soon found that 'Concord' juice grapes as well as hardy wine grapes thrived in this area and provided excellent quality juice.
Welch Foods learned of this group of grape growers and in 1922 built a Concord juice plant in Springdale. By 1992, this plant had a juice storage capacity of 1.9 million gallons. It was sold to Ozark Valley Products then bought by Pappas Foods, International, which continues to process grape juice as well as other fruit juice products.
Early wineries were established in the Tontitown area, but none of these are operating today. However, wine grapes are still produced in Northwest Arkansas and shipped to the Altus wineries.