Activities at Mt. Magazine State Park Include Guided Tour of Wine Country
Article follows the photos:
November 5, 2008
Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
“Plush and velvety in the mouth, this big happy berry-like wine goes along with just about anything.” This description of the Red Zinfandel at Mount Bethel Winery in Altus drew me in. And it did not disappoint. Neither did the wine tour offered by Mount Magazine State Park.
Towering over Arkansas Wine Country, Mount Magazine is the state’s highest peak at 2,753 feet above sea level. The state park located at the top of the mountain has long been a popular respite for campers, hikers and horseback riders. The exquisite new lodge and cabins lure even more people. The Lodge at Mount Magazine, the park’s resort lodge, comprises 60 guest rooms, the Skycrest Restaurant, a conference center, a business center, an indoor heated swimming pool, a fitness center, and a game room. Set on the mountain’s south bluff, the lodge offers breathtaking views of the Petit Jean River Valley and distant Blue Mountain Lake. Forty-three guest rooms have balconies and 17 feature spa tubs. Thirteen fully-equipped cabins share the same bluff and panoramic view.
As more people visit the park to take advantage of the resort amenities, the park is offering more activities, such as a guided tour of the five wineries located near the base of the mountain.
The tour is offered from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays; although there are also Tuesday tours during November. Lodge Activities Director Dusti Yarber leads the tour in a 15-passenger van. Yarber said some people are nervous driving up the mountain and thus don’t see much of the scenery. “With someone else driving the crowd enjoys the view,” she explained.
I enjoyed knowing I could taste the wine and not have to drive.
Yarber said most of her participants so far have not been big wine connoisseurs, but people interested in trying wines and learning more about Arkansas Wine Country.
Four wineries – Post Familie Vineyard and Winery, Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, Mount Bethel Winery, and Chateau Aux Arc – operate in the Altus area and Cowie Wine Cellars operates in nearby Paris. Each offers tours and tasting rooms. Some offer extra amenities such as a gift shop, a restaurant, an RV park, or a bed and breakfast inn. Cowie also preserves the viticultural past of The Natural State with its Arkansas Historic Wine Museum filled with winemaking artifacts and biographical histories of winemakers. It is the only wine museum in the nation dedicated to the wine history of a state.
With roots in the late 1800s, Post and Wiederkehr are the oldest operating wineries. These two wineries are also among the top 100 wineries in the United States in terms of volume. While Mount Bethel wasn’t bonded until 1956, its vintners have ancestral ties to the Post family heritage, just as owners of Cowie, bonded in 1967, have an ancestral line that reaches back to Joseph Bachman. Bachman was a Swiss immigrant to the area and was known nationally and internationally for his propagation of grapes. The new kid on the block is Audrey House, one of the world’s youngest winemakers, who opened Chateau Aux Arc in 1998.
The park’s tour visits each winery for tastings and participants tour at least one of the facilities. Yarber adjusts each overall tour to the interests of each group. While tours of each winery certainly offer different elements, some basics regarding the facilities and process have much in common. At Post, for example, the tour (and the aroma) begins with the tank rooms of the production facility, where the wines are fermented and stored. The fermentation process – an approximately six-week process that involves refrigeration jackets to yeast to racking – is explained as visitors view the tanks, which are between 800 gallons for experimental lots and 4,000 gallons to 12,000 gallons for wines Post makes annually.
Next, visitors learn about the crushers and presses – an intense process to watch if visiting during harvest time, the main months of which are August and September. Those who catch a tour when wine is being bottled will see more than 60 bottles per minute running down the track, being filled, corked and sent to the labeler.
“It’s a working farm,” Tina Post McAlister of Post Winery explained. “You can see whatever we’re doing back there.” Her brother John Post added, “We’re farmers at heart.”
What struck a chord with me at each winery was the extreme sense of family. I enjoyed hearing members of each winery discuss grapes in their vineyards, how they test them for sugar and acidity and such. What goes into the process is complex but what makes it more interesting and easier to understand is hearing one of the passionate members of the winery explain it -- like a mother and father announcing the birth of their child. They usually end up sharing family stories and for a moment I feel a part of that family heritage passed down over so many generations.
Yarber schedules the tour so that the stop at Wiederkehr Wine Cellars is at lunch time in order to take advantage of the Weinkeller Restaurant. Located in the original hand dug wine cellar, the restaurant ambience is cozy and warm with dim, romantic lighting that is appealing for groups or couples. Even more appealing is the menu of delicacies from the German, French, and Italian regions of Switzerland, as well as specialties from central Europe and America. Whether you choose a pasta dish, Matterhorn Schnitzel, fish, steak or other dish, you’ll have the sustenance you need to continue the wine tour.
All of the wineries vint classic wines such as Chardonnay and Cabernet; however, many wine lovers may not realize that Arkansas holds more for their taste buds since many of the wines Arkansas produces are not being produced in other well-known wine regions of the U.S., like California. Cynthiana and Muscadine grapes, for example, are native to Arkansas.
While it’s not necessarily fair to compare Arkansas wine to well-known California brands, because that would be like comparing apples to oranges or, in this case, different species of grapes to each other, wine aficionados are discovering they needn’t travel all the way to California to drink in the fruits of the land.
While I’m primarily a dry, white wine drinker, I am also a fan of the Cynthiana (a red) at Mt. Bethel and Chateau Aux Arc. Each vineyard has a different flavor even though they are both from the Cynthiana grape. I’m not into sweet wine though, so the Muscadine was not my style; although I can now say I’ve had it as any good Arkansas-born girl should.
“This is a grand opportunity to try everything and find out what you like,” Yarber explained. McAlister said many people like going with a group and a guide because it’s not as intimidating.
“You drink wine for your enjoyment and you need to not care what other people think,” said Mary Jane Cains of Mt. Bethel.
As if a full day of tasting wine and enjoying a delicious meal with a fun group of people weren’t enough, I also purchased wine and some gifts for some girlfriends. Yarber said some people buy a case of wine to take home with them.
In addition to the guided tour, a self-guided tour will be available through the park soon. Tour material will include detailed driving directions, a map and information about each winery in the Arkansas River Valley. For more information about Mount Magazine State Park, the wine tour, or other programs, phone 877-665-6343 and visit www.mountmagazinestatepark.com.####
Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, 501-682-7606
May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"