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Arkansas wineries raise a glass to the future

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture research station in Clarksville has produced four hybrid cultivars of grapes that can withstand the region's weather conditions.
University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture research station in Clarksville has produced four hybrid cultivars of grapes that can withstand the region's weather conditions.

On most weekend afternoons from Spring through early Fall, the back porch of Sassafras Springs Vineyardin Springdale is covered with people sipping wine in the lush green valley just east of Fayetteville. And this past Saturday the two-tier deck was full as an engagement party amassed in the white tent just down from the tasting room.

Sassafras opened in 2014 and has capitalized on the demand for event venues in the area.

Drew Gorton is the General Manager for Sassafras. He sits with his two brothers Denton and Derek Kilpatrick - who also work for Sassafras – at one of the rot iron tables on the winery’s newly renovated 350-person deck. While events have been their main focus since opening – the brothers are looking for other reasons to bring people to the vineyard.

“We did order an automated bottling line from Italy,” Denton Kilpatrick said. “And that should be here early next year and we hope to have a building under under construction for that to be housed in and give us additional rental spaces and and that way we can enhance our tasting experiences.”

But right now, the winery is just too small and the vineyard too young to produce enough grapes that will keep up with the demand for production.

Derek Kilpatrick, who manages the grounds of Sassafras said the winery brings in grapes mostly from Washington state to make their wines, for now at least.

The wine industry in Arkansas itself is relatively small, with just 21 wineries. By comparison, neighboring Missouri has around 130, Texas has close to 600 and California - the biggest in the U.S. - has around 42 hundred.

Renee Threlfall is a research scientist in enology and viticulture at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and she has led the charge for wine production, research and quality control for years.

"One or two of our wineries has a really large capacity even for a small state,” she said. “So you really have to look at the volume that is produced out of Arkansas. And in that particular instance we're probably in the top 100 In terms of volume for one or two of our producers.”

One of those big producers is Post Winery in Altus, which has been producing wine in the valley along the Arkansas River since the 1870s. Tina Post is a 5th generation Post and works for the family business.

"I think in the area's history is rich,” Post said. “You do need a passion because this this is a this business. It's just a lot of work your farmers first batch just a hard row to hoe so to speak."

Renee Threlfall agreed that wine can be a brutal industry, especially in Arkansas where conditions are not always cooperative.

"because of our high temperatures, our colder winters our humidity in August...what we grow mostly here in Arkansas are hybrids,” she said. “And these are crosses between different cultivars, but they're really centered around how well they do with disease resistance. So they thrive well here in Arkansas. So a lot of our grapes are either native or or they're hybrids.”

And those hybrid varieties developed after years of research through the UA system division of agriculture are just now starting to hit the market. The most common variety of wine associated with Arkansas and the South, however, is still probably muscadine wine. A sweet wine made with grapes native to the Americas. Tina Post said muscadine wine is one of Post’s best sellers.

“The aroma is just mind blowing,” She said. “It's big and powerful.”

In 2020 the Arkansas department of agriculture took a step in trying to prop up the state’s burgeoning wine industry. The department established theArkansas Quality Wine Program through a grant. Threlfall is the director of the AQW program and says the goal is to help commercial wineries raise the standard of quality through knowledge and outreach.

Each spring AQW brings in outside judges and holds a competition with local wineries to give vintners and consumers an understanding of what a gold-standard wine is. It also puts that local product in front of more consumers.

Threlfall also said, Arkansas’ hybrid grape varietals that the U of A has developed could give the state a leg up in the global wine industry in the near future.

"Because they are hybrids with unique qualities that are for hotter growing regions, which is now with climate change kind of a hot topic,” she said. “Regions like California, Washington, Oregon, that have perfect growing conditions for so many decades...now they get a little taste of what a challenging environment is."

Sassafras has two of those hybrids planted in their vineyard right now: the opportunity and enchantment grapes. The brothers hope to produce wine from those once their reach maturity in, at least, the next five years.

So what will it take to raise Arkansas’ wine profile? Threlfall says its two things: more boutique wineries like Sassafras and a change to antiquated shipping and distribution laws.

"You cannot have a winery in a dry county,” She explained. “Legislative issues are one barrier to preventing the expansion of the grape and wine industry."

Arkansas has 29 dry counties in total.

But Derek Kilpatrick still believe, despite the sour grapes, the wine business is special.

"There's something romantic about it,” He said. “There's something romantic about having a wedding at a vineyard. You know, it's very poetic and it kind of go hand in hand."

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>