Winery permits flowing in state

Enterprise & Features

OZARK — When Loren and Beverly Maier set up approximately 2 acres of grape trellises on their 300-acre property near Ozark four years ago, it was just for looks.

“We thought it’d be pretty, that it would look nice for wedding pictures,” said Beverly Maier, standing beneath the roof of the unfinished, 2,500-square-foot wedding chapel the Maiers are building near the edge of Four Dogs Ranch, overlooking the Arkansas River.

But after harvesting more than 1,400 pounds of muscadine grapes in 2013, the small vineyard is more than an affectation: It’s a business plan.

In February, the Maiers applied to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration to become the state’s 25th winery.

The Maiers’ push into the small-farm winery business is part of a recent surge in new wineries. Zachary Taylor, director of marketing for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, said that of the 24 wineries holding permits from the state, 10 of those permits were issued in the past four years.

“I think a lot of it has to do with interest in the ‘local food’ movement,” Taylor said. “In tourism, there’s a big push in the foodie sector.”

Wineries in Arkansas have been slow to make a comeback since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 under the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Joseph Post, vice-president of Post Familie Vineyards and Winery in Altus, said his family’s winery was one of more than 40 in the town before Prohibition. Now, more than 80 years after the 18th Amendment’s repeal, there are just five wineries in the area.

“When Prohibition hit, it decimated our town,” Post said. “We went from a town approaching 10,000 people to a ghost town of 200, specifically Altus.”

Post said a small number of European immigrant families with wine-making traditions had flocked to Altus because of its geography. Altus is sheltered from frost by its relatively high elevation and its location in an oxbow — or U-shaped bend — of the Arkansas River.

Post said that 23 of the remaining families formed the Altus Cooperative Winery. In 1947, the Post family bought out all controlling shares of the cooperative, becoming over time both one of the leading producers and the largest buyers of grapes in Arkansas.

The expansion of wineries in recent years coincides with efforts from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, which began promoting the Arkansas Wine Trail about two years ago, said Tourism Director Joe David Rice.

The Arkansas Wine Trail is a conceptual road map linking the high concentration of wineries in Altus with other wineries across the state, which both state tourism administrators and winery owners hope will make Arkansas more of a tourist destination for wine enthusiasts.

Rice said that in addition to information about the state’s wineries posted online, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has posted signs along highways throughout the state guiding motorists to the wineries.

“Our job is to help get motorists off the highways and help them see the interior of the state,” Rice said.

Rice said that while the idea for a wine trail was essentially “borrowed” from several other states that have successfully used the concept, they also received strong encouragement from organizations like the Arkansas Wine Producers Council.

Missouri is among the other states pushing a wine trail. Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, said that in the past 10 years, the number of Missouri wineries has increased from about 50 to 125. During the same period, the number of wineries across the country increased from about 3,000 to about 10,000, Anderson said.

“We had a strategy, but there was some luck involved, too,” Anderson said. “The growth of wineries, both in Missouri and the U.S., is strongly tied to agri-tourism. It’s local and regional food, craft brewing, microdistilleries. And wine is something people can take home with them, something that will keep longer than a batch of blueberries.”

Anderson said his board began investing in marketing and research in 1984. According to the board’s most recent economic impact study, published in 2009, wineries in Missouri generate about $1.6 billion in sales, wages and tax revenue annually, and represent about 14,000 full-time equivalent positions. About 800,000 tourists visit Missouri wineries each year, Anderson said.

According to a 2012 study measuring the economic effect of wine and grape growing in Arkansas, the industries accounted for more that 1,600 full-time equivalent jobs, $42 million in wages and $21 million in wine-related tourism expenditures. When data for the survey were collected in 2010, Arkansas had 13 wineries.

The study was commissioned by Arkansas Tech University, and completed by Frank, Rimerman and Co., a California-based research partnership.

In 2010, according to the study, Arkansas ranked 21st among all wine-producing states, producing less than 0.5 percent of the approximately 700 million gallons of wine fermented nationwide.

According to data from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau, Arkansas produced approximately 157,000 gallons of wine in 2012, out of more than 754 million gallons nationwide.

While business owners in many industries might discourage new competitors from entering the marketplace, Post said more wineries in the state can only help boost a tourism draw.

“I’m a real advocate of having multiple wineries to visit, of having a wine trail,” Post said. “I think it makes a tremendous amount of sense. The trick is, you need everyone making good wine on your trail. And certainly, everyone being hospitable and open to visitors. People can have a great experience coming out to visit.”

Post cautioned that while he wants to see more growers in the region, he’s looking for competence over capital, having seen plenty of first-time grape growers attempt to grow the wrong grapes in the wrong climate.

“I’d love to see more folks growing grapes, but we need folks that understand grapes, that don’t have delusions of grandeur,” Post said.

The Parks and Tourism Department’s guide to the Arkansas Wine Trail can be found at http://www.arkansas.com/places-to-go/trips-trails/.

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Originally published Oct. 14, 2013, in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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