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Arkansas Historic Wine Museum

The Arkansas Historic Wine Museum in Paris (Logan County) is the only museum in the United States dedicated to preserving the wine heritage of an entire state. The museum stores and displays artifacts from the earliest days of the Arkansas wine industry up to the present. Formally incorporated in 1994 (though it had been established by Robert G. Cowie, owner of Cowie Wine Cellars, in 1967 as a hobby), this institution has received numerous awards, including the Bootstrap Award from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, which is presented to those institutions that make great achievements on a limited budget. The museum has also been featured in American Profile magazine.

Cowie started collecting artifacts of regional winemaking in 1957 as a personal hobby, and after starting Cowie Wine Cellars ten years later, he began displaying them within the winery complex. Two problems soon confronted him. First, he needed more room to house the collection, and second, he wanted to ensure that the items would be preserved in perpetuity for the benefit of the people of Arkansas. He took half of this winery and turned it into a museum with advice from the Department of Parks and Tourism and the Arkansas Museums Association. Then he formed a non-profit corporation to own the museum, a process that included establishing a board of trustees from across the state.

After the formal establishment of the museum, Cowie began the search for more artifacts from across the state, visiting the locations of many defunct wineries. Arkansas’s wine history dates back to the early European explorers and the Catholic priests who traveled with them, carrying wine for use in the celebration of Mass. Early immigrant communities brought their own knowledge of winemaking with them and established many wineries across the state, primarily in the Ozark and Ouachita regions; these tended to be smaller, cottage industries. After Prohibition, most of the over 1,000 permits for winemaking issued by the state were for home use, and though there have been 150 federal permits for commercial wineries issued since Prohibition, only six are still in operation to date. The small scale of many winemaking operations, as well as the stigma attached to alcohol in some parts of the state, have been some of the obstacles Cowie has faced in the pursuit of the industry’s artifacts.

The museum has a collection of wine bottles from across the state, with colorful labels and names such as “Sure Shot,” “Sailor Girl,” “Big Daddy,” and “Eight Ball.” The museum houses a collection of presses and crushers that were used in the industry. There is a 2,000-gallon wine tank from the Henry J. Sax Winery and an 1,800-gallon cask from Cowie Wine Cellars to view, as well as many smaller items from some of the earlier wineries, such as Lone Wolf, Big Bear, and Dixie Dew. The story of how wine is made is laid out in an easily comprehensible display.

One of the highlights of the museum is the “Gallery of Barrels,” which features barrel heads with wine-themed oil paintings by Bette Kay Cowie, wife of the museum’s founder. Visitors can also view exhibits displaying the work of Joseph Bachman, the leading grape developer in the state, who won national awards for varieties he created.

Each first Saturday in May, the museum hosts the Arkansas Wine Heritage Day program, which is open free to the public and includes tours and wine tastings. As a part of this day, the museum presents its Founder’s Award to people who have advanced the appreciation of Arkansas wine. A branch of the museum can be found at The Winery in Hot Springs (Garland County).

For additional information:
Arkansas Historic Wine Museum. Paris, Arkansas. http://www.cowiewinecellars.com/museum1.html (accessed December 6, 2011).

Dornaus, Margaret. “A History in Wine.” American Profile. http://www.americanprofile.com/issues/20030427/20030427_2992.asp (accessed February 27, 2006).

Robert G. Cowie
Arkansas Historic Wine Museum

Last Updated 8/6/2013

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