The view from the grounds of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Altus rivals anything to be had in the Natural State. Standing in the shadow of the historic house of worship, the visitor gazes out over the Arkansas River valley spreading below like a living patchwork quilt. Emerald and kelly in springtime, ablaze in autumn, it’s a view of the Almighty in water, crops and pine.
St. Mary’s herself was designed both to rival and reflect the natural beauty of her surroundings; her sandstone shell harvested from yonder hillside, her soul a stunning amalgam of stained glass, painted artwork and gold leaf murals. The 120-foot bell tower is an arm thrown to the sky, beckoning generations of miners, farmers, railroad workers and winemakers by the peal of her bells — 6,400 pounds of them — to pray for good harvests, healthy families, better weather.
A few steps away lies the church cemetery, for which a short stroll is like walking through the Altus phonebook. Most of the names here can still be found in this Franklin County alcove, the latest in a line of people who cleared the land, built the church, established the town and formed the backbone of an industry. Altus isn’t the only place Arkansas grapes are grown and wine is made, but it’s the undisputed taproot of the state’s winemaking tradition.
Dennis Wiederkehr is typical of most of the winemakers up here, a fourth-generation head of the family business. He described the area as close-knit, a byproduct of the familial ties that run deep and wide all over the mountaintop.
“I’m in a unique position,” he said. “I’m related, in one way or another, to every winery on the wine trail here in Altus. I’m related to the Post family, from Post Winery. The Post family has Mount Bethel. I’m double-cousin to them, actually. Even Audrey [House, owner of Chateau Aux Arc], her children are related to me through her husband.
“Our mentality is, we don’t want to see anybody fail. When somebody comes to visit the wine country trail here in Altus, we hope they take the time to stop at all of the wineries. There’s a competitive spirit, but we have meetings, and we work with the Arkansas Wine Producers Council, and we just do things that can collectively strengthen the Arkansas wine industry.”
Tina Post, fifth generation of Post Familie Winery and a member of another founding family of the Altus wine community, said that’s one of the best parts of the job for her, getting to meet people from everywhere.
“Hospitality is a big thing for our family. We gather at big weddings and different celebrations. There is something magical about people gathering around a table and sharing food and drink and company.”
Post said the blurred line between family tradition and corporate operations is one way the business has survived this long, and how the past informs the future. To wit, the company’s Trellis Room restaurant, serving fresh, farm-to-table fare, grew out of this longtime tradition of hospitality.
“We grew up always feeding so many people. It wouldn’t be uncommon for there to be 20 people come in for lunch,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I started our food program a few years back. We try to have that same spirit that we had growing up. To bring that into the business, I think, makes so much sense.”
The two seminal families began their story seeking the same goal — building a better life for themselves outside of Europe. Both patriarchs — Johann Wiederkehr and Jacob Post — came to learn of cheap land in Arkansas and settled into a spot they found vaguely reminiscent of their respective homelands of Switzerland and Germany.
“How my family ended up here in 1880 was, Subiaco, the abbey across the river, was Benedictine monks, who were Swiss. They were writing people back home in Switzerland,” Wiederkehr said. “The letters from the monks described the area as similar to the foothills of the Alps. The land was at a very reasonable price through the Catholic church, and family members came, and they each bought ‘80s,’ or 80 acres. They started a new life.”
The settlers were as impressed with what was under the surface as above it, a range of soils that when properly cultivated could all grow grapes. Plenty of water and unique topography also lent to the overall favorable terroir of the area, providing as it does a natural barrier against all but the worst cold spells.
“We’re kind of in a meso-climate. We’re between the Ouachita mountain range and the Ozark mountain range, the Boston Mountains, that run east and west,” Wiederkehr said. “I’m not sure if there’s another east-and-west-running mountain range that’s side-by-side like this with the Arkansas River running between the two.
“That gives a kind of a protection for frost, but it won’t stop a freeze. In 2007, it got down to 20 degrees in either late March or early April. Leaves were already out as big as your hand.”
While Wiederkehr Wine Cellars was founded first in 1880, making it the oldest continually operating winery in the state, the fortunes of the two families ran parallel to one another. Each generation dealt with natural hardships — weather, storms, sickness — as well as the man-made variety, such as Catholic- and ethnic-bias and Prohibition.
“Joseph Post took over the winery from his father, Jacob, and moved it to where Mount Bethel Winery is now,” Post said. “His wife, Katherine, was actually more interested in the wine part than my great-grandfather. Even on the label, it has her name, Mrs. Joseph Post, on it.
“Of course, Prohibition came along, and you could still make sacramental wine, or you could make 200 gallons for yourself. Well, she kept selling wine. You could go in and get a sandwich and bring your own jug, and she would fill it up for a dime. She never knew a stranger, and she was very hospitable, which is in the family in general.”
Thing is, the enterprising Katherine also made whiskey, which got her into hot water with the authorities. It’s a family story that turns Tina Post’s voice cold even after all these years.
“She sold two quarts of whiskey to two revenuers. Of course, I think that’s entrapment,” she said. “She got in trouble and was actually on the front page of the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 1929. She told the reporter that repeated crop failures during recent years tempted her to sell it. It was from her homemade stock, and she had the hopes of obtaining money to educate her children. She actually went to jail, but it was not a long time. She said it was the best vacation she ever had.”
As time went along, both families played key roles in organizing local growers into cooperatives and serving in offices to promote both the product and its producers as tourist attractions. The Wiederkehr clan showed a particular flair for marketing and a strong independent streak — attributes that came together in incorporating their property as its own village in 1975 to avoid annexation by Altus.
By that time, Wiederkehr had also expanded to restaurant operations in 1967 and an annual wine festival in 1963, an event Dennis Wiederkehr is eager to revive in 2021 after skipping last year due to COVID-19. The event features various activities including steinstossen (stone throwing), caber toss (tossing a pole) and various grape stomp competitions, all set within the village’s Swiss-themed grounds.
“There’s four or five different stomp competitions throughout the day, and the winners of the first four stomps compete in the finals for the state championship grape stomp,” Wiederkehr said. “There’s also dancing and different types of music. It always used to be Alpine-type music, but we’ve spread that out to where we have some country, some rock ‘n’ roll. We’re trying to have something for everyone.
“There’s food on the grounds, there’s face-painting, there’s games for the kids. We have horseback trail rides, carriage rides. This year, the week before Wine Fest, we’ll also have a little hot-air balloon rally on Friday and Saturday that people will be able to come out and see.”
As the area continues to flourish — Post Familie and Wiederkehr are today the largest producers of wine in the state — it’s attracted a growing number of wine tourists. This, in turn, has inspired the creation of other winemaking operations, from Roland to Eureka Springs and from Paris to Northwest Arkansas. Binding them all is the Arkansas Wine Trail, visited by thousands each year.
Like many small farming communities, Altus has had its challenges as far as growth; Chateau Aux Arc, the last “new” winery to open here, did so more than 20 years ago. But as both of these storied families can boast of still more generations at work in the business, the legacy of Arkansas wine on the mountain appears secure.
Post said, “Yes, there is a sixth generation, and we have some little seventh generations running around that can be helpful, as well. They’re helping to sell grapes or helping to tie or pull vines from between the rows. There are some that actually have gone on to get degrees in food science and have worked in other wineries out in California. We have some who are interested in staying in the wine business, so we’ll just have to see where that goes. You never know, do you?”