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That Arkansas Wine
Wiederkehr Wine Cellars
American wine connoisseurs have their fine wines shipped from vineyards like Sonoma Valley, Napa, Finger Lakes and… Altus, Arkansas? That’s right! The oldest and largest winery in mid-America, Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, is located on the slopes of the Ozark Mountains near Altus, Arkansas overlooking the Arkansas River valley. The winery sits atop St. Mary's Mountain where the Wiederkehr family cultivates their vineyards designed in the Swiss alpine style.
In 1880, Johann Andreas Wiederkehr and his family came from Switzerland to Altus.Like many other Swiss and German immigrants, he came to Arkansas seeking work. Wine making wasn’t in his original plans. It was simply a skill he brought with him.
However, he soon found himself making wine for other people. His first wines were produced from Wild fruit and blackberries native to the Altus area. He chose St. Mary's Mountain, near Altus, because the area's mountains, valleys, and ridges were comparable to grape-growing climates in Europe's finest wine regions. The sandy soil and conditions in the Altus area produced the best climate for growing his grapes.
The task of carving a large wine cellar from a hillside was his first step. From those modest beginnings, the winery blossomed into a family operation with third and fourth generation members. The original cellar still exists, and is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The locations of vineyards were selected by years of test plot experimentation and keeping detailed records of the results. Many wines were made from grape varieties the “experts” thought wouldn’t grow in Arkansas. However, the family’s knowledge, perpetual care, and persistence prevailed. Johann taught his son, Herman “J. B.” Wiederkehr, to carry on the family tradition. Herman’s sons, Leo and Alcuin, bolstered the small winery into the Southwest’s largest by the mid-1980s.
Famous Wine Festival
The winery is known also for its famous wine festival. The wine fest began in 1963 and is the largest and oldest such festival in the area. It features the renowned German Waterloo Band, which draws thousands of visitors.
In 1967 the wine cellar was converted into the Weinkeller Restaurant, serving authentic Swiss and European culinary delights to thousands of visitors each year.The restaurant has been voted "Most Romantic" and "Best Ethnic" by readers of Arkansas Times Magazine.
The land around the winery was incorporated into a “second-class city” in 1975 and named Wiederkehr Village. It features an RV park, restaurant, liquor store, and other things of interest to visitors.
Free tours of the Wiederkehr Wine cellars are given every 45 minutes from 9:00 am until 4:30 pm every day. The tours proceed through long rows of oak aging casks, to wine storage, production, and bottling areas, and finally to the tasting room where you can try your hand at being a wine connoisseur.
The Weinkeller Restaurant is open every day (except major holidays) for dining and wine sales. They are closed on these major holidays: New Year's Day, Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve (open for lunch only), and Christmas Day.
Hours for the Weinkeller Restaurant are: Monday through Saturday, with lunch from 11 am to 3 pm. Dinner is served from 5 pm to 9 pm. On Sunday the restaurant is open from 11 am to 9 pm.
It’s advisable to make reservations, especially for dinner. Groups of 20 and larger are requested to make reservations as well. Call 479-468-3551 or 1-800-622-WINE for reservations.
If you are visiting Arkansas, include Wiederkehr Wine Cellars in your itinerary. A visit to Wiederkehr Village is a complement to any regional tour, with their historic cellars, restaurant and scenic vineyards. Enjoy the free cellar tours and wine tastings. There are also wine sales and dining in their enchanting Weinkeller Restaurant or roomy Weingarten Hall.
Wiederkehr Wine Cellars lies among the Boston Mountains of Arkansas. From Interstate 40, take exit 41 onto Highway 186 south. Follow the signs to Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, about 4 miles.
Author’s Note: I have visited this winery and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.