Interview with Chateau aux Arc's Audrey House

Audrey House

We all know that wine doesn't just come from the West Coast, right? Nearly every state in the union has some kind of wine, some special regional grape or even a varietal known elsewhere that can be grown with great success. Still, we don't hear much about those great little vineyards all over the country where hard-working winemakers bottle the good stuff for appreciative locals and visitors.

Who would have thought, for instance, that you can get a great Chardonnay from Arkansas? You can, from the folks at Altus, Arkansas' own Chateau aux Arc.

About Wine in Arkansas

Grapes have been grown for winemaking in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains since the 1870s. German-Swiss immigrants to the Altus area planted grapes and have produced wines for generations. One local winery, Wiederkehr Wines has been in operation since 1880 and is considered the oldest and largest winery in mid-America.

Other local wineries include the Post Familie winery, which also traces its origin to 1880, and Mount Bethel, also started by members of the Post family. The winemaking history in this region is strong, and Wiederkehrs and Posts are proud of their history and their wines.

A New Kid on the Block

The winemaking landscape of Arkansas changed in 2001 when then-25-year-old Audrey House opened Chateau aux Arc (pronounced Ozark, it's the original French spelling of the region).

A native of Oklahoma, House bought 20 acres of vineyards from Wiederkehr in 1998, including the oldest planting of Chardonnay in the state. She and friends lived in tents as they worked to get the old untended plants back in shape and to plant new varietals. Back then she was simply selling grapes to other wineries and working on her house, known as the Dragonfly Ranch for the more than 30 varieties of dragonflies that live on the land, and her own winery building.

She bought more land in 2000 and now owns 50 acres, about 36 of which are planted. The winery opened in July 2001. Making it a true Arkansas wine story and love story, Audrey married Thomas Post, who runs the Post Familie vineyards, in 2002. They now have two children.

A new tasting room was opened in November 2005, featuring 5,600 square feet of tasting space surrounded by beautiful landscaping and picnic tables with views of the vineyards.

Chateau aux Arc tasting room

The Wine

Chateau aux Arc has 11 acres of Chardonnay, six acres of Zinfandel, eight acres of Cynthiana and smaller plantings of Cabernet Savignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir and several other varietals.

The wines have received many accolades, including:

  • 2003 Chardonnay: Silver Medal 2006 Taster's Guild International Wine Competition, Silver Medal 2006 Taster's Guild Wine Lovers Competition,
  • Napa Valley Grand Harvest Awards 2006--71 Points
  • 2005 Chardonnay: Bronze Medal 2006 Taster's Guild Wine Lovers Competition, Bronze Medal 2006 Taster's Guild International Wine Competition
  • 2002 Altage Reserve: Bronze Medal 2006 Florida State Fair Wine Competition, 2006 Napa Valley Grand Harvest Awards--74 points
  • 2004 Altage: Silver Medal 2006 Taster's Guild International Wine Competition, Bronze Medal 2006 Napa Valley Grand Harvest Awards--76 points, Bronze Medal 2006 Dallas Morning News International Wine Competition
  • 2004 White St. Mary's Mountain White: Silver Medal 2006 Taster's Guild International Wine Competition, Bronze Medal 2006 Florida State Fair Wine Competition, Bronze Medal 2006 Napa Valley Grand Harvest Awards 2006--76 points
  • 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon: Bronze Medal Grand Harvest Awards 2006--78points
  • 2006 Tasters Guild: Consumers Competition, Silver Medal
  • 2006 Indy International Wine Competition, Silver Medal
  • 2006 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition, Silver Medal
  • 2004 Zinfandel: Bronze Medal Grand Harvest Awards, 2006--81 points, Florida State Fair Wine Competition 2006 Bronze Medal
  • 2006 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition, Gold Medal
  • 2006 Tasters Guild Consumer Competition, Double Gold
  • 2003 Syrah: Silver Medal Grand Harvest Awards 2006--82 points, Gold 2006 Tasters Guild, Silver 2006 Dallas Morning News Wine Competition, Bronze 2006 Florida State Fair Grape & Juice Competition
  • 2004 Petite Sirah: Silver Medal Grand Harvest Awards 2006--89 points, Florida State Fair Wine Competition 2006 Silver Medal
  • 2006 Tasters Guild International Wine Competition, Silver Medal
  • 2006 Indy International Wine Competition, Silver Medal

Not bad for someone with no formal training in viniculture.

The Interview

LovetoKnow talked to Audrey House about winemaking, wine drinking and the controversial law in Arkansas that keeps out-of-state wineries from shipping to customers in the state, which is currently being challeneged in court.

LovetoKnow: Your vineyard has the largest planting of Cynthiana grapes in the world. What are Cynthiana grapes like? Is that a popular varietal?

Cynthiana grapes

Audrey House: We are the largest producer of Cynthiana grapevines that we sell to the public and to wholesalers. Cynthiana is an Ozark Mountain Region native and lives very happy here. Cynthiana has small dime size berries with little clusters. This is a picture of this year's crop. Gerald Asher was said that with a good vintage and great winemaker it is comparative in nature to Bordeaux. Cynthiana is growing in recognition daily. We are now taking orders for 2008 for grapevines because all of our vines for spring 2007 delivery are spoken for.

LTK: You also grow the most Chardonnay outside of California within the U.S. The climate in Altus doesn't strike me as much like California. How does an Altus Chardonnay differ from a California Chardonnay?

AH: We have the oldest Chardonnay vineyard in the South, planted in 1982. Altus Chardonnay is very vigorous here in Arkansas and produces with the help of my vineyard team here at Chateau. Unlike Cynthiana, Chardonnay requires a lot of maintenance throughout the growing season. As for the difference when compared to California Chardonnay I have one word to explain: TERRIOR. The French use this to describe the different characteristics that surround growing and producing wine. This involves wind, rain, temperature, altitude, soil and so on. All these and more play key roles in the taste of wine.

LTK: For our readers who haven't been to Altus, tell them a little bit about what makes this part of the state such as great place for growing grapes and making wine.

AH: Altus is a wonderful microclimate that is perfect for growing Vitis Vinifera. Situated on top of St. Mary's Mountain, the frost falls to the valleys and makes our mountain top conducive to growing a variety of grapes that can't be grown elsewhere in Arkansas. The early settlers of this area recognized this special place and made Altus there home because of its unique growing ability. When I was deciding on where I was going to make my home, I suppose I saw and felt the synergy of Altus as they did.

Chardonnay plantings

LTK: How do people react when they find out it's your winery, given that you're still pretty young? Have you experienced any skepticism based on your age?

AH: Lots of skepticism, but when people taste my wine and hear my story of how I got here, they give me nothing but praise. I might be young but that does not affect my passion for the wine industry of Arkansas. People do not realize that Altus was declared an American Viticulture Area before Napa Valley. My goal that drives me is to make Altus recognized as a serious player in the world of TERRIOR and to make Cynthiana the local superstar! I'm young, yes, but I think with time my youth will have only helped in my endeavors.

LTK: What's your favorite thing about wine?

AH: From the vine to the grapes, to the tank, to the barrel, to the bottle and into my glass: everything about wine fascinates and energizes my soul to the very core of my being.

LTK: What's your favorite wine for a lazy fall afternoon?

AH: I have no favorites. Dry or Sweet, bubbly or fortified, I have only one rule of thumb: whites by day, reds by night that way I get the best of both worlds.

LTK: What's the biggest misconception you think people have about wine?

AH; The biggest misconception about wine that people have is that it takes a special occasion to open a bottle of wine. My philosophy is, sometimes it's the wine that makes the occasion special! When I have had a long, hard day, it is then that I truly appreciate a bold, expensive vintage. It makes my night and makes me want to even work harder to rise above the hardships that life presents.

LTK: Do you want to comment on the Arkansas wine shipping controversy?

AH: I think people want their wine! Free the grapes! Free the farmers! And free the Arkansas wine industry! Looking at just a few states surrounding Arkansas, their proactive legislature has enabled growth of their wine industries. Arkansas' has not grown, nor is their support to help one of the largest agriculture byproducts: Arkansas wine! As a consumer of wine from all over the world, I think it is ridiculous that we can't buy what we want how we want (so long as that person is age permitted of course). I would love to be able to call such-and-such winery in such-and-such state and have a case shipped to my house. I would love to be able to sell my wines on the Internet and accept phone orders from people that have not visited Altus, but under current law the only way people know about Chateau aux Arc wines is if you have been to Altus. I hope one day we can ship anywhere and other wineries in other states can to! I support freedom of choice, this is still America?

LTK: Anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

AH: Why not go out on a limb, that is where the fruit is! Always stay true to yourself, hold your head high, and do not take "no" for an answer. Where there is a will there is a way! I got into the grape biz when I was 21, opened a winery when I was 24, got married at 26; now I'm 30, have had two gorgeous healthy babies of my own, am stepmother to six beautifully talented boys, one daughter-in-law, and became a grandmother this year. If that's not living life to the fullest, I don't know what is!

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Interview with Chateau aux Arc's Audrey House