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Business is sweet at Dahlem Vineyard 

The Dahlem fam­ily has been in the grape busi­ness for over a cen­tury.

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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.

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