Episode 46: Arkansas

Welcome to Episode 46, where we focus on the Natural State, Arkansas. Arkansas is known for the state’s natural scenic beauty, clear lakes and streams, and abundant wildlife, but also has quite a few wineries. It is also one of the few states that even has a “State Grape” as well: Cynthiana, one of the oldest clones of Norton in existence. However, the wine we’re looking at today isn’t a Cynthiana vintage; it’s the Majestic Merlot, from Hot Springs Winery, located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. (I tried really hard, for the record, to find a Cynthiana from Arkansas, but nobody would ship one to me here in Arizona.)

Now, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the history of wine in Arkansas, let’s talk about that much-maligned varietal: Merlot.  We’ve had a few blends with Merlot in our podcast so far, but never on its own, and it’s time to fix that.  The grape became maligned after the movie Sideways, with the main character stating, bluntly, “I will not drink any fucking Merlot.” This film caused the market for Merlot to tank precipitously. In fact, Merlot is used to create some of the finest vintages in Bordeaux–including the vintage that Miles drinks in a styrofoam cup at the end of the film. The name of the grape comes from the French word for Blackbird, both for the dark color of the grape, and that these birds really do seem to love gorging themselves on the ripe grapes still on the vine. In reality, Merlot is actually pretty popular: it’s the second most abundantly planted wine grape in the world, coming in just after Cabernet Sauvignon with 657,300 acres planted across six continents. One of the reasons for the popularity of Merlot with winemakers (and wine drinkers) is the “softness” and “fleshiness” of the flavors, which combine well with the sterner character of the later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon.

The history of wine in Arkansas begins to the first French Catholic settlers, who were then followed by German and Swiss settlers who came to settle in the town of Altus. This region began making wine commercially beginning in the 1870’s, and today the four oldest-running wineries in the state are located here.  (One of the notable settlers and winemakers of the area is Jacob Post, who emigrated in 1872, and his descendants are sixth-generation winemakers at Post Familie vineyards today.) At one time, Arkansas had over 100 wineries and was producing produced more wine and grapes than any other state. Prohibition, however, intervened, (oddly enough, regarding the wine industry in the state, after prohibition ended elsewhere) and the industry in Arkansas has yet to fully recover with only fourteen wineries in existence as of 2019.

If there is one person responsible for stabilizing the precipitous drop in wineries in Arkansas and thereby setting the ground for future growth, it would be Alcuin C. Wiederkehr, of Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, who was responsible for penning and supporting many bills relating to wine in the Arkansas State Legislature. Despite the lackluster growth in Arkansas wine in the last few years, the state does have three viticultural areas, nestled inside each other like matryoshka dolls. The Ozark Mountain AVA, the sixth largest AVA in the US, surrounds the Arkansas Mountain AVA, which in turn surrounds the Altus AVA.  As I mentioned above, the area surrounding Altus is where wine in Arkansas began.

I acquired this bottle from the winery website for this podcast, where it was shipped to me here in Arizona.  I was not able to encounter any other wineries in Arkansas that shipped here, though I hope to get more bottles from Arkansas (including a Cynthiana) later this year when I will (hopefully) be passing through the state. If you like this podcast, please donate to us over on Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast

arkansas wine
The Majestic Merlot from Hot Springs Winery/Bath House Row Winery is our introduction to the Arkansas wine scene, as well as Merlot.

Episode 45: Montana

Welcome to episode 45 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we examine the wine scene in Big Sky Country: Montana. Our wine of the episode is the Dandelion Wine from Hidden Legend Winery, located in Victor, Montana. Now, we’ve looked at some particularly odd “Country wines” (as they’re known in the UK; in the US as I’ve discovered, they’re known more mundanely as “Agricultural Wines”) in previous episodes before, but this wine style, admittedly, is something I’ve always personally had on my bucket list.  I never expected to find one being made in commercial volumes, so I had to snatch this vintage up, despite the fact that Hidden Legend also produces award-winning meads and vintages made from Montana-grown grapes.

The fact that there are Montana-grown grapes is, in and of itself, miraculous.  The landscape and climate of Montana is harsh and unforgiving often in the best of times, which means that most wine-making in the state until fairly recently has focused on fruits such as huckleberry, cherry, and apples, along with vegetables such as rhubarb… and dandelions.  (Dandelion wine actually does have a long history associated with prairie settlement, apparently.) In other cases, wineries in Montana would bring in grapes from Washington or California to make wine: a facet of the industry we will cover in a future episode, I promise.  However, thanks to the tireless work of viticultural scientists at the University of Minnesota, cold-tolerant “hybrid” varietals have been bred that can tolerate or even thrive in the harsh Montana conditions.  There are no American Viticultural Areas in Montana yet, but today, the state has eight licensed and bonded wineries.

I acquired this bottle directly via the website for Hidden Legend Winery, specifically for this podcast. I also want to make a shoutout to Derrek for sharing a link to my other blog, who has an interest in Dandelion wine. As for this wine itself, the winemaker, Joe Schultz, reports that “Our dandelion wine is made by combining dandelion flowers and cane sugar with water and fermenting with yeast just like wine. The flowers are removed after the right amount of time and the wine finishes fermenting and is racked and clarified just like grape wine. We strive for balanced flavors concentrating on acidity, alcohol, and sweetness/dryness. It is then filtered and bottled.”

Next Episode: It’s time for Miles’ least favorite Varietal.

Montana Dandelion Wine
The Hidden Legend Winery Dandelion Wine is our introduction to the wine scene in Big Sky Country.

Episode 44: Mississippi

Hello, and welcome to another splendid episode of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, centered around the Magnolia State: Mississippi. In this episode, we drink the 2018 Delta Dry mead from Queen’s Reward Meadery, located in Tupelo, Mississippi. Now, there’s a fair bit of argument in the drinking community on whether or not mead truly counts as a style of wine, but I’m going to err on the side of the TTB on this one, which defines mead and honey wine as being the same thing. And even if you are a purist, and feel mead should truly be its own entity, the fact of the matter is that the 2018 Delta Dry is technically what is known as a pyment; a mead (or if you want to be super pedantic, a melomel) made from honey and grapes. In this case, the Riesling in the Delta Dry was sourced from Oregon, while the honey was local wildflower honey sourced from just down the road.  The grapes and honey were fermented together to produce this beverage.

So… what do these terms all mean, anyway?  Before we cover the history of the industry in Mississippi, let’s clear some mead terminology up. Mead, which etymologically comes from the Old English meodu, is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, often with the additions of various fruits, spices, grains, or even hops.  The key defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage’s fermentable sugar is derived from honey.  That all being said, there are different styles of mead under that umbrella. Cyser, for example, is a mead made with honey and apples or pears. A mead that uses spices or herbs (or both) is often referred to as a metheglin. As mentioned above, meads made with fruits other than apples and pears can be referred to as a melomel, and a mead specifically made with grapes can often be known as a pyment. As if that wasn’t enough, Wikipedia has an even bigger list… suffice to say, Mead is rather more complicated than it seems at first glance.  Anyway, I digress: onto history.

At one point in time, Mississippi ranked rather high in terms of American viticultural production. Muscadine grapes were grown in many locations throughout the state, but the dramatic loss of life from the Civil War, combined with a statute enacted in 1907 which banned the manufacture and sale of Mississippi Wine, meant that the industry went into a nosedive. Due to the long-lasting effect prohibition created in the deep south, Mississippi was, as it turns out, the last state to repeal the Volstead Act in 1966, and many counties in the state remain dry through present day.

This means the wine industry in Mississippi still has yet to recover. Along with Queen’s Reward Meadery, the state has only three other wineries: Almarla Vineyards, Gulf Coast Winery, and Old South Winery. The State does have one AVA: The Mississippi Delta AVA, formed in 1984, is shared with Mississippi’s border states of Tennessee and Louisiana. However, this AVA has not attracted any large-scale viticultural endeavors as of yet. This is due to an additional factor along with the long history of Prohibition in the region: climate.

Mississippi’s location, between 30 degrees N and 35 degrees N in latitude, produces a sub-tropical climate with long, humid summers and short, mild winters. This means that Fungal diseases like mildew and Pierce disease are often widespread. In addition, unpredictable weather patterns stemming from the proximity of the state to the Gulf of Mexico also present a large risk for growers. The unpredictable Mississippi climate makes it difficult to grow most varieties of grapes, other than those within the Muscadine family–which are often not associated with “fine” wine production. (Though as we’ve discussed before, most of us who are associated with this podcast rather enjoy them anyway.)

I acquired this bottle online through the meadery’s website, specifically for this podcast.  In addition, we were lucky enough to catch Geoff Carter, the mead-maker and co-owner on the phone for this episode, to answer a few of our questions. (We now realize, after seeing just how complex of a topic Mead can be, that we probably should have asked more of them.)

Delta Dry
The Delta Dry Grape Mead from Queen’s Reward Meadery in Tupelo, Mississippi is not only our introduction to the wine industry in Mississippi, but also to mead as a whole.

Episode 43: Oklahoma

Welcome to our 43rd episode of The Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we visit a state we should have visited Sooner: Oklahoma. Our featured wine in this episode is the Glitz, a sparkling Norton and Pinot Gris blend sold by Whirlwind Winery, located in the town of Watonga.  This particular wine was not made by the crew at Whirlwind–coming from a second, now defunct winery, but the owner, Brad Stinson thought this wine was fascinating enough to be worth saving from oblivion and thus acquired all remaining inventory.  We’ve met Norton before in our very first episode of the podcast, so it is fascinating to see this grape in an entirely different mode.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, by the late 1800s and early 1900s, Oklahoma had thousands of acres of domesticated table and wine grapes. The acreage of grapes planted in 1907 and 1908 were estimated to be 3,700 and 5,425, respectively, which happens to be about ten times more than is planted in the state of Oklahoma today. The first report on varieties of grapes that were suitable for the state was released as early as 1894 by what was then known as the Oklahoma A&M College. (A later publication detailed other aspects of a whopping 175 varieties!) The oldest documented winery in what is now Oklahoma was opened in 1898 by Charles Fairchild, though I could not find any information on the name of this winery. In 1926 the USDA and Oklahoma A&M co-published Grapes in Oklahoma. Yet the end was near as both the Dust Bowl and the introduction of Prohibition into the state’s constitution sounded the death knell for the Oklahoma wine industry. The industry slumbered until 1982, when Cimarron Cellars in Caney, Oklahoma opened.

A survey in 2006 showed that growers in the state preferred red grapes, which took up a majority of the acreage. Vitis vinifera-derived varieties, in turn accounted for 80 percent of all plantings. V. vinifera varieties are the most widely grown in Oklahoma because they are generally considered the premium grapes for winemaking; however, observation and research has shown most of these varieties are highly susceptible to cold damage and fungal infection. In the 2006 survey interspecific hybrid grapes made up less than 15 percent of vines, American species grapes approximately 7 percent, and muscadine grapes less than 1 percent of the total. Today, the state of Oklahoma has about 52 different wineries, and ranks thirty-first among the fifty states in terms of wine production.  There is also one AVA which extends into Oklahoma: the Ozark Mountain AVA.  The sixth largest American Viticultural Area in terms of total size, this appellation covers Northwest Arkansas, southern Missouri, and extends into the northeastern part of Oklahoma.

This bottle was graciously donated to the podcast (along with several other vintages) by the winemaker and part owner of Whirlwind Winery, Brad Stinson. Some of these bottles will be covered in later episodes.  Thank you once again!

oklahoma wine
The Glitz, a sparkling NV blend of Norton and Pinot Gris sold by Whirlwind Winery, is our introduction to the wine scene of Oklahoma.

Episode 42: North Dakota

Welcome to Episode 42 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, where we explore the wine scene of North Dakota.  I hope you have your towel ready, this being episode 42 and all that.  Our first examination of the North Dakota wine scene is the Pride of Dakota Tomato Wine from Maple River Winery, which is located in the historic town of Casselton. Ginger joins the team again for this episode!

While wild grapes and a host of other fruits were found growing along North Dakota’s riversides by early settlers,  the climate in the state and the adoption of prohibition at the time of statehood in 1889 mean that the commercial wine history of North Dakota stretches back only to the 1990s.  This puts North Dakota wines in a very recent mode.  Yes, although North Dakota repealed its ban on alcohol in 1933 when Prohibition ended, but restrictive local laws surrounding winemaking lead to a distinct lack of any winemaking traditions in the state until very recently: 2002.

Viticulture is full of challenges in North Dakota due to the extremes of the local climate. The wine industry here is growing here, however – albeit slowly – and in 2011, there were nine wineries and 40 vineyards spread across the state. Most viticultural production in North Dakota is focused around cold-climate varietals created at the University of Minnesota, or local fruits and produce: hence, this episode’s Tomato wine.

This bottle was acquired by yours truly from the winery website itself.  While none of us was, in the end, super fond of this wine (it was out of the wheelhouse for all of us), we did find the experience fascinating.  I also admit I made a pretty nice Bloody Mary the next day with it, as seen in the photo below.  Sometimes, you just need to make cocktails out in the middle of nowhere, you know?

north dakota tomato wine
While none of us were admittedly super fond of the Tomato Wine from Maple River Winery, it made a pretty fun Bloody Mary the next day.

Episode 41: Ohio

Welcome to episode 41 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, featuring the Buckeye State, Ohio.  Featuring one of the more unique flags of a US State, Ohio has a long and lauded history with the American Wine industry. It is fitting, therefore, that the bottle we have chosen for our first Ohio episode: the En Plein Aire pét-nat from Vermilion Valley Vineyards, is somewhat of an homage to that storied history.  This sparkling wine, made as a méthode ancestrale, is a field blend of roughly 75% Pinot Noir, and 25% Muscat Ottonel, with minuscule percentages of Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau, sourced from their vineyards in the Lake Erie AVA. For those who are new to the natural wine game, this method, known also as pétillant-naturel, allows the initial fermentation to finish inside the bottle without any additives, imparting a gentle carbonation by trapping carbon dioxide; there is no addition of new yeast for a secondary fermentation, nor disgorgement (unlike with Champagne and other sparkling wines of that ilk).

So, why a Sparkling wine to start Ohio off? To answer this question, we must go to the Ohio River Valley around 1825, and visit one Nicholas Longworth.  He planted, in the end, over 2,000 acres of Catawba grapes, and ended up producing sparkling wine that won not only national acclaim, but actually beat out titans from Champagne in at least one competition in Europe!  The resulting victory lead to a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “Ode to Catawba Wine.” (I’m thinking this poem may be the subject of a dramatic reading in Season 2.) However, by the late 1850’s, black rot and powdery mildew had destroyed much of these vineyards, and the viticultural center of Ohio had moved to the region surrounding Lake Erie, where at the time, 33,000 acres of grapes and 161 wineries flourished.  Alas, like in other states, the grim specter of Prohibition ended this idyll, and to survive, most vineyards were converted to the growing of Concord for juice production–some vineyards dating to this period, such as Meier’s Wine Cellars survive today in this mode. By 1963, only 27 wineries survived, with only half making wine from Ohio-grown grapes.  The state was ripe for a renaissance.

Oddly, compared to other states we’ve explored in the course of our podcast, Ohio never needed farm winery legislation to aid that renaissance.  Instead, two major organizations devoted to viticulture jump-started this transition.  The first was the Ohio Wine Producers Organization; the second was the Ohio Grape Industries Program.  Both of these groups have catapulted Ohio wine to the impending super-stardom where the industry lurks at this time. Today, the state of Ohio has over 290 wineries, located within Five distinct American Viticultural Areas: the Lake Erie AVA, the Isle St. George AVA, the Ohio River Valley AVA, the Grand River Valley AVA, and lastly the Loramie Creek AVA.  Producing over 3,582,902 gallons, Ohio is (as of 2016) actually ranked 6th in the US in terms of wine production, and 8th in terms of total acreage under vine. Wine Enthusiast actually recently wrote an article about why Ohio wine is something to look out for, as well, so winemakers in the state are making some noise.

This bottle was kindly provided to the Make America Grape Again Podcast by the winemaker himself, Joe Juniper. I reached out to him after a kind couple in the tasting room I work for in Arizona mentioned that Vermilion Valley Vineyards was their favorite winery in the state. Thank you again, kind sir for your contribution, and for joining in on our podcast!

A sparkling wine in the oldest tradition, the En Plein Air from Vermilion Valley Vineyards starts our journey into Ohio Wine.

Episode 40: Minnesota

Welcome to Episode 40 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we explore the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes: Minnesota. Located at roughly the same parallel as Bordeaux, Minnesota has many challenges due to an often bitterly cold climate. That being said, the 2017 Voyageur from Alexis Bailey Vineyard is a vintage which shows that this state can hold its own against all comers.  The 2017 Voyageur is a blend of Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Leon Millot, sourced from the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. All of these varietals are complex French-American Hybrid varietals, adapted to cold-weather climates; a topic we discussed a bit at length back in episode 34. It should be noted here that Alexis Bailey Vineyard is home to the oldest planted vineyard in the state of Minnesota, dating back to 1977, and is the second oldest winery in the state.

The climate of Minnesota is harsh, making viticulture difficult. Prior to prohibition, most winemaking in the state seems to have been focused around fruit wines. It can be honestly said that the history of Minnesota wine truly only begins with the work of Elmer Swenson. Indeed, it might be said that without this man, cold-weather viticulture would not exist. Elmer Swenson started to breed grapes in Wisconsin, thanks to an interest in grapes brought on by his grandfather, along with a reading of T.V. Munson’s Foundations of American Grape Culture. On a whim, Swenson brought some of his early hybrids to a field day at the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center. This led to him being hired by the department. The first varietals released from this program were in 1977: Edelweiss and Swenson Red. Many more varietals bred and adapted for cold climates have been released since then, including the Frontenac in this blend.

As mentioned above, Alexis Bailey was the first planted vineyard in the state, and also the first to produce a vintage made entirely of 100% Minnesota-grown grapes. Of note also, The Minnesota Grape Growers Association has had a dramatic role in promoting grape growing and winemaking not only in the state but also in other cold-hardy climates. Hosted annually with the support of both the MCGA and the University of Minnesota, the International Cold Climate Wine Competition is the only wine competition solely dedicated to the promotion of quality wines made mainly from cold-hardy grape varieties.

Today, the state of Minnesota has 70 wineries, and two American Viticultural Areas, including the largest in the United States; the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. This AVA covers an area almost 50 times larger than Bordeaux in France; a total of 29,914 square miles (77,477 square kilometers) located along the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries in northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. Minnesota’s second AVA is the far more modest Alexandria Lakes AVA, which is also Minnesota’s oldest AVA.

This bottle was purchased online from the winery website, by yours truly. If you like this podcast and want to throw a few dollars into the bottle fund, you can find us on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast, and there are various rewards available for supporters.

2017 Voyageur
The 2017 Voyageur is a stunning exploration of Minnesota terroir, from Alexis Bailey Vineyard in the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA