The Dahlem family has been in the grape business for over a century. There were Dahlems that ran wineries, grew grapes and raised families in Altus and the surrounding viticultural region for generations. But James Dahlem got his patch the hard way. He bought it.
“We went from one bank to another, and finally Regions out of Clarksville stepped up and gave us a half guarantee in the place,” he told me as we walked through his vineyard not far from Chateau aux Arc in Altus. It was 1996, and the land was already home to a vineyard and a peach orchard.
Growing grapes is in his blood, and it’s something Dahlem and his wife have always wanted to do. He works as a mechanic during the day, but in the mornings and late in the evenings he’s working with his grapes, a mixture of table and wine grapes on a plateau north of Wiederkehr Village.
The table-grape vines date back more than 35 years. On the twisted vines under huge flat leaves, a multitude of color emerge year after year—the purple Venus varietals, the strong-flavored Mars, the translucent pink Reliances and the candy-sweet light green Interlochens. From the first harvest in mid-July until the last of the Mars in late August, these seedless cultivars produce what Dahlem calls “pure heaven.”
“I can come out here, and the Venus will be ready, and I’ll eat them off the vine,” he says, his eyes glowing. “Then a little later, I can come try some Mars and Reliance, and walk over and taste the first of the Cynthianas (a wine-making varietal that’s also the official state grape of Arkansas). The Niagara come in, and the Nobles (two other wine-making grapes). I can’t get enough of them.”
While they’re in season, Dahlem runs a steady business, taking grapes to grocery stores and produce stands in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. Many of them go during the annual Altus Grape Festival (held the last weekend of July) while others are picked up after the event.
A few years ago, Dahlem decided to change things. “I was going to Oklahoma City, to Muskogee and Fayetteville, to Albertsons and Harps, CV and Marvin’s IGAs. And we’d spend a week on the road at a time.” All that driving limited the amount of time he could spend in the fields picking grapes, so he opened up his operation to individuals who wanted to pick their own.
“The first year, I told a few people and they told a few more, and we had some come out. The second year, I let people know when they came by at the Altus Grape Festival, and we had a lot of people come out. There were some pickers who came up from Little Rock last year, and they told me they’d come back. This year, I got a call from one of those families asking if the grapes were ready to pick. And when they showed up, I thought the police had come to take me away, there were all these cars at once. And it was a huge group of families. They went out and got more than 300 pounds that day. Some of them told others, and I had another group out. And a third group came and picked more than 800 pounds of the Cynthianas in one day.”
Dahlem sells the grapes at 70 cents a pound if you pick them yourself, or a dollar a pound if you come to the vineyard to pick up grapes that are already in the package. With tons of grapes coming off the vine, that’s a pretty good situation.
But, like most agricultural ventures, it’s not always guaranteed. Dahlem says he and his wife were lucky when they first started. “1996 was a good year, but 1997, we got a late frost and lost almost everything. Now, the bank had given us 12 months to make that first payment, and the 1996 grape harvest made that payment. It could have been a lot worse.”
For a third straight year, he’s had a bumper crop. After a drought took its toll in 2012, Altus and the surrounding area have enjoyed very wet springs and evenly hot summers, which work together to strengthen vines and help the start of good fruit, then concentrate their flavor. This year’s leaves are lush and verdant, providing good cover that keeps most grapes from burning in the sun.
Dahlem has noted a pick-up from some grocery stores that had previously turned a blind eye to these Arkansas-grown fruits—a turn that may be influenced by the farm-to-table movement that has swept the state. He also has to sometimes handle individuals who come to the vineyards even when they’re not open for business, because people are craving those grapes.
Though his harvest is over for this year, Dahlem expects more to come pick their own grapes next summer. He advertised on the radio this season and he receives a lot business word-of-mouth. For a table-grape grower in a wine-grape region, Dahlem Vineyard is managing to survive and thrive.