In the 1880s, a group of settlers from Germany and Switzerland found a slice of home in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. The rolling hills reminded them of the Rhineland, so they decided it was a good place to put down roots and farm. However, farmers from the Rhinelands didn’t just raise crops and cattle — wine was a huge part of their tradition. Now the tiny town of Altus, Arkansas is home to the oldest wine region in the southern US.
Homesteaded in 1880 by the Post Family, Mount Bethel Winery is the third oldest winery in the state of Arkansas. The tasting room is a rustic wooden building from the outside, but the front door leads to the inside of a cave cellar that was carved out of the hill by hand. Dark and cool on a warm summer day, the tasting room is the perfect place to taste the variety of wines Mount Bethel offers.
On a visit to the tasting room, you will encounter Tasting Guide Kasey Post and her daughter, and both can educate you on southern wines. According to Kasey, Mount Bethel is famous for growing Voigier grapes and is the only winery in the state to do so. Mount Bethel is also famous for its award-winning Cythiana wines. Originally discovered in Virginia by some of the earliest settlers to North American, Cythiana grapes are native to our continent, the only grape native to the US. German and Swiss settlers brought the grape west, and now bold southern Cythiana wines from Arkansas are known throughout the world. Kasey also says that Mount Bethel is the only Arkansas vineyard to grow Muscadine grapes. It is as far north and west as the grape variety grows, and they use it make both a red and white wine.
Kasey says they do everything on-site, from growing the grapes to making the wines to bottling. She says they have equipment that can bottle 1000 gallons of wine a day, about two cases a minute.
“We’ve just been in it so long,” she says. “We’ve always had to do it (wine making) from start to finish ourselves.”
Why are these wines so flavorful? Kasey says it’s all about the valley.
“They say there’s something about the way the air flow is here in the river valley, but I have never seen anything like the soil either. It’s a sandy loam and we bury the truck [in it] all the time. And you don’t even think it’s wet! It’s just so deep. There’s no clay. Much better soil than down here [in town].”
Guests can taste up to four wines for free at the tasting room. The wines are grouped into Dry, Sweet and Semi-sweet, Muscadine, Fruit and Port/Dessert wines.
First taste is the Domaine Montel Voignier from the Dry category, which smells of cinnamon and herbs. The taste also has a bread-like quality bordering on the taste of a fine German beer. Next up is the award-winning Domaine Montel Cythiana. The scent is musky, while the taste has a both a spice and fruit quality to it. The Southern White Muscadine has an oily mouthfeel and the taste is sour fruit up front with a sweet finish.
The winery also offers a selection of fruit wines, with most of the fruits grown either on-site or around town, including Blackberry, Blueberry, Elderberry, Plum, Raspberry, and Strawberry. The Elderberry wine has a vinegary scent, but is sweet to the taste with a light red, almost pink color. The Elderberries grow wild in the Arkansas River Valley, and the plums and blackberries are also grown in-state.
The history of Mount Bethel goes back over a century — according to Kasey, the winery’s matriarch, Mrs. Jacob Post, got caught with wine during Prohibition. The family was allowed to continue making wine at that time through a loophole that allowed families to make wine for personal consumption, but not for sale. Of course, neighborly Grandma Post provided wine to anyone who wanted it. She kept these wines in the basement, but one night accidently left a light glowing and the local constable saw it through a window. At the age of 56 ,Grandma Post was sent to prison for six months. According to family lore, Grandma Post called it the best vacation of her life.
After Prohibition Mrs. Katherine Post started the Post Family Winery in 1935. It was Arkansas’ 11th liquor license since Prohibition’s repeal in 1933. Her grandson Eugene then purchased his family homestead and opened Mount Bethel Winery in 1956 after earning a degree in Chemistry in 1950 from the University of Arkansas. Kasey’s husband Michael, Eugene’s son, is the third generation Post family to run the winery along with other family members and is Mount Bethel’s head vintner. In 1984, the Mount Bethel grape growing area received federal recognition and is now designated the Altus Viticultural Area.
When Kasey isn’t working the tasting room, her mother-in-law Peggy is on hand to share plenty more stories of Post wine history. While the winery is located in town, the vineyards are located along St. Mary’s Road/AR-186 at the top of the hill above town at an elevation of 891 feet. Kasey says they currently have 20 acres planted and own 100 acres total. A paved road will take visitors past rows of grape vines and to other wineries in the area.
Bottles start at $6.95 and go up to $19.99 and can be ordered on the Mount Bethel website. The tasting room and winery can be found at 5014 Mount Bethel Dr. in Altus, AR. Altus is just under a two-hour drive from Little Rock, AR, and is just over two and a half hours from Branson, MO.
Photos via Carrie Dow
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