Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Five Generations of Winemaking Tradition in Altus.

The Post Winery is a family operation dating back more than a century, still evolving and growing in the modern age.

Nestled in the land between the Ozarks and the Arkansas River, you’ll find Arkansas Wine Country. For nearly 130 years, this area on St. Mary’s Mountain and Pond Creek
Mountain has brought forth crop after crop of grapes and muscadines.

Jacob Post came to this region in the late 1870s, and in 1880 he founded what would become Post Familie Vineyard. Post, like many other Swiss, German, Greek, Polish, and Italian immigrants came up the rail lines to start communities in western and
northwestern Arkansas. He settled in Altus, named for the Latin word for “high,” being the highest point on that rail line.

Post saw this land as a remarkable resource, semi-arid farmland that stayed frost-free late into fall and that soaked up the sun’s rays through the long Arkansas summers. Like other settlers, he married and was fruitful and multiplied. The vines he stubbornly set bore fruit and spread with careful tending and cultivation across mountaintop fields. It wasn’t long before the Arkansas grape basket became known for its fantastic fruits and crops.

Jacob’s children continued the tradition, and their children did as well. Other families also prospered with their wineries in the area. One source says that there were possibly 55 wineries in the region before Prohibition. But that act in 1918 stymied growth. Post changed over to the production of sacramental wines and survived the period. Others didn’t fare as well. Crazy rules were put into place during these times… including a requirement that all storage warehouses had to be secured with barred windows. The bars on the windows of an old warehouse on the Post Familie farm were put up because of a federal law that required alcoholic products to be kept under lock and key. Unfortunately, this sort of construction meant that in the case of fire, some people might not be able to make it out. The law was repealed several decades later.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the wineries came back to life again. There were at one point 42 wineries operating.

In 1938, some of Jacob’s grandchildren and other area growers bound together to form the Altus Cooperative Winery. In 1947, grandsons James and Matthew Post bought the winery and renamed it Post Wineries, Inc. The old family winery would become in 1956 another popular winery, Mount Bethel.

Of course, time distilled the wineries down. Partnerships were made, wineries merged, and today there are five in the area -- Post, St. John’s, Mount Bethel, Chateau Aux Arc, and Wiederkehr. Each is linked by three things -- the region, the tradition of winemaking, and a kinship that is literally blood-deep.

“We have a saying around here,” says Joseph Post, great-grandson of Jacob. “In Altus, you’re either a Post or an ‘out-Post.’”

My traveling companion and I visited the Post Familie Vineyards and Wineries on a mild July Monday, and were greeted with grins and good greetings. Joseph told us about the family connections -- how all five of the wine operations are family. Though Audrey House up the road at Chateau Aux Arc started out on her own after purchasing vineyards from Wiederkehr in 1998 as an independent operator, she eventually became part of the family.

“Audrey ended up marrying my brother,” says Post. “She’s been here for several years -- they have two babies now.”

At Post, it’s still a family operation. Joseph and his brothers and sister grew up in the house right next to the winery. It was called “The Big House,”
not just because it was large but because there were bars on the windows. The name still draws a chuckle today.

It’s still working in the community, too. Other wineries and independent growers have their crops bottled here, share in labeling endeavors, and more.

Post doesn’t charge for its tastings. It offers a winery tour that ends in the gift shop -- where a special bar has been set up. Lots of people come through on the weekends -- but they’re usually accommodated. A second tasting area is just off the warehouse.

Joseph Post took us on a bit of a tour. We started out watching
the bottling process -- on that particular day watching muscadine being swiftly delivered into bottles and corked.

The noise was incredible. Several guys were working the line, making sure everything stayed in line, keeping the machinery working, pulling the finished bottles off the end and carefully packing them into case boxes.

We went from there out to the fields themselves. On the drive out, we talked about the difference between last year and this one.

“We’ve had just unbelievable amounts of rain,” Joseph told us.

In 2007, 90 percent of the grape crop and 40 percent of the muscadine crop were lost.

“Last year was really a different year. Three consecutive freezes culminating on Easter Sunday. It resulted in a really light harvest. It didn’t affect the muscadines as severely.”

That’s obviously not the case this year. As we pulled onto the road that crawls out into the middle of the farm, we noticed row after row of bushy and thick leaves. From time to time you could see a bit of bright green, the flash of growing
grape globes gleaming in the early afternoon sun.

Joseph pointed out that this year’s rains have really helped with irrigation, but the crops are a little late.

“We usually start harvesting the last week of July or the first week of August. This year I think we may be about a week behind. We harvest through the month of September, and we’re generally finished by the second week of October. It’s about a two and a half month harvest.

“Luckily the vines came back. Now, we did have damage that we didn’t anticipate, that we didn’t discover until we started pruning this year.”

We stopped to take a look at one of the sections. Under the hand-span leaves bunches huddled in crowds, mostly a light green. A few of these had already started to turn, big purple splotches on a few and then the surprise of dark purple grapes here and there. They grow mostly in shade -- the leaves form a thick canopy that lets through just the right amount of light.

There’s testing done in the field before each type of grape is harvested -- a taste test to make sure the grapes are good and ready to go. Vines are pruned back periodically so the majority of soil nutrients travel to the grapes. Joseph says that if the frost doesn’t get them, some of the vines can actually start up a second crop.

It takes three to four years for a plant to produce. In the first two years, the seedlings are grown in nursery lots. Then they’re moved to their own lines in the vineyard. They’re trained to grow upwards in a “T” formation by hand -- just like you train tomatoes. But unlike tomatoes, these vines continue to grow upwards and outwards throughout their life. They grow along a series of wires and poles set out by hand. Many of these varieties are still hand-picked; others are now mechanically harvested.

In one section of the vineyard, dozens of new varieties and hybrids are growing. These experimental varieties usually don’t bear out great wine -- but over the years, some 15-20 of the new grapes have proven successful. In fact, some of these grapes managed to survive last year’s freeze. By committing themselves to experimentation and research, the Post Familie may come up with the grape variety that will be the signature wine grape of the 21st century.

“We’re pushing towards going organic,” Joseph revealed. “We still don’t have the state certification process for getting our grapes certified. We’re trying to work with lawmakers to get that in place. But we‘re taking the steps we need. We‘re going all-organic with our spray, which is made from plants like marigold or chrysanthemum, plants that are real poisonous to one thing but which don‘t hurt humans.”

We were headed back out of that patch when Joseph spotted his dad. 83-year old Matt Post is the patriarch. The grandson of Jacob, Matt’s raised his children on this land, and many of them and the grandchildren still work for Post.

We met Matt Post, at 83 the patriarch of the Post Familie clan. He was out hand-training vines that were planted in April of this year. In training them, Matt takes a long vine on each side of the stalk and ‘trains” it up to the guidewires up top with a bit of string. He then removes the other shoots from the side of the main stalk. He takes and manipulates the vines so that they reach up in a criss-cross fashion. This gives extra support to the vine as it grows -- enabling it to bear the weight of all those grapes.

The grapes Matt was working on are Noble grapes -- when they mature, they turn almost black-purple. They’ve been growing Nobles since 1970 -- when they got this variety from the University of Arkansas.

Joseph drove us back to the winery complex to show us some other neat stuff.

Out front of one of the administrative buildings, there are a couple of grape presses that have been preserved for generations. One of these is a genuine Rolex -- seriously, that’s the brand. The other is a former printing press for the Fort Smith Southwest Times Record -- that was expanded for use on grapes.

The first stop on the tour for most visitors is the vat room. What most people see is a display area that contains a couple of vats and examples of processing machinery.

We went further back into the refreshingly cool building to view the gigantic cylinders of processing wine.

This isn’t your processing system of old. Instead of the heavy oak casks of a century ago, wines now age at near-freezing temperatures, carefully monitored to prevent spoilage or contamination. Each one is monitored and labeled with what sort of wine is being produced, the alcohol and sometimes sugar content, the dates processed.

We were allowed a rare favor -- a chance to taste wines straight from the vat. My traveling companion voiced his preference for the deep Cabernet Sauvignon, while I shared my appreciation of the Merlot.

We went back into the bottling area. I asked about the recycling efforts… and found that Post has been recycling since long before it was popular. Used to be, people would bring their empties back to the winery itself. Regulations being what they are today, Post now recommends recycling through neighborhood programs. The bottles, the cardboard for the boxes, the plastic -- it all contains recycled content.

Inside the building, just past the bottling room, there’s a tasting bar with a painting above it. One of the fifth generation Posts painted this tableau of the five brothers working together. The family’s roots are deep here, and the tradition will continue for ages to come.

For those who make the journey, the winery is a must-see. There’s also the free tasting at the end of the tour, complete with descriptions of all the available wines and a chance to purchase some to take home. Post wines aren’t all that expensive -- and the quality is pretty darn good. For those who want a little extra, a large gift shop is there to satisfy the shopping bug.

You’ll find the Post Familie Winery along St. Mary’s Road (Highway 186) in Altus. To get there, take Interstate 40 to exit 41 and head south six miles. The winery is on the left, about a block before you get to U.S. 64. The winery is open Monday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from noon to five.
Tours are offered most days on an as you arrive basis between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Of course, it’s busier during the different festivals throughout the year, so plan accordingly. You can also visit the Post Familie website, or give them a call at (800) 275-8423.


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  2. It is a damned shame that none of the restaurants in Central Arkansas will carry any of our locally produced wines. Truly a disgrace!!


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