Sunday, July 25, 2010
Grapes betwixt my toes.
I make no bones about it; I’m a rather large fan of the homegrown small town festival. There’s something about walking amongst people who have grown up together, lived together, enjoyed life together that brings out the best in a community. Far better than the open alleyways of carnival barkers at fairs or rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi at high class society events for me.
One that holds a special place in my heart is the Altus Grape Festival. Held each year on the town square in the belly of Arkansas Wine Country, it’s an unassuming little festival dwarfed by bigger things on the calendar (this year, by the World Championship Cardboard Boat Races in Heber Springs). But it’s very special, and this year I’m going back.
I’m no stranger there. Many times have I parked my car along the square in Altus or in grass in a nearby lot, gotten out of the car and stretched and headed for the action. Action, in this case, takes place mostly on a single city block separated from Highway 64 by a small access road. Altus City Park is a nice piece of land, dotted with trees on its south edge and outlined with little community streets and buildings. There’s a gazebo, and across the street on the south side you’ll find Kelt’s, one of my favorite pubs in the world. Considering where I’ve been across these United States, that’s saying something.
The trick is to go early in the morning and make a day of it. The festival activities all get started Friday night around 5 p.m. and last all day Saturday. I like to go early Saturday morning, leaving the house before daybreak and arriving while there’s still dew on the grass, while everyone’s still waking up and getting about putting out their wares and their samples and stuff for the day.
There’s always grapes, even in spare years like 2007 when the late rain and freezes knocked back the crops to almost nothing. There are muscadines, big thick skinned Arkansas grapes that make you pucker and drool. I love muscadines with an eerie passion, recalling the days when finding a vine out in the woods meant not just quick joy but months of jelly at the table. There are always baskets of both for sale, from pints to quarts to half bushels if you want them. It’s prime picking for folks who want to put up their own jams and jellies or who want to try their hands at winemaking.
And of course there’s wine, not just from the Post Familie or the Wiederkehrs or Mount Bethel or Chateaux aux Arc or even Cowie from across the river in Paris -- but from amateur winemakers from all over the state, competing their hearts out, hoping for that ribbon of validation from the judges to certify that they done good in that arena. You can always tell the winners, their beaming faces usually accompanied by hands holding bottles offering samples.
And the samples… the wineries have them, and plenty of them. While the cups are small, I’ve never seen anyone forced away from the counter, and I’ve sampled many myself.
And there’s the grape stomping, of course. It’s part of the Bavarian tradition, the same that brought the ancestors of the Post and Wiederkehr families across the ocean to settle in these rocky crags north of the Arkansas River. Close to two centuries ago the first settlers came through the River Valley and sent back word of the black soil, the strange temperance of the hills, the endless sunlight. The families came and took root here -- and through the generations those family ties have remained strong. A few years ago I was speaking with Joseph Post about the phenomenon, and he pointed out to me that there were family ties between all the wineries, some by blood and others by marriage.
But I was talking about the grape stomping, which usually takes place on a stage where the world can watch you. I’ve watched with envy the fun the participants have in the endeavor, no sense of shame holding them back from rolling up their jean legs and dancing around like purple-tinted banshees in the tubs. I’ve watched, but never joined them. Something kept telling me that there’s a sense of propriety that every television producer should have, to not become part of the story. So I abstained.
I realized something this year, though. I’ve been out of that medium for a while now. I’ve shared my experiences and explored this state and points beyond with relish, and the fears I had about embarrassing myself are long gone. So yes, I’m going back to Altus this year. And I’m going to join the dance where the juice dribbles between one’s toes. I’m going to the grape stomp, and I will do it without inhibitions. Because there’s a comfortable place you can find in the little burg of Altus, and this festival represents every piece of that comfort. Go, enjoy it.