@story and images TONYA McCOY
Just outside the door of a rock building in Paris, Arkansas sits a grape crusher built in 1869. A sign below the door bell reads, 'Please ring the doorbell. We will answer the bell shortly. Do not keep ringing the doorbell as we may be in the cellar. Do not rush off. If you keep ringing the bell, it will put us in a bad mood. It may take us a minute or two as we are both OLD. Thank you.'
Bob who is seventy now, has been making wine with his family at the Cowie Wine Cellars in Paris since 1967. But Bob caught the passion for winemaking when he was much younger.
“I started making wine when I was fifteen. I saw it fermenting in tanks. I couldn’t figure out why it was bubbling. I got under there and looked and there was no fire. So I went on the railroad track and picked elderberries and got a five gallon glass jug. And that was my first batch.”
Years later he opened a low key winery. He bought the land where the old St. Ann’s school used to stand, jumped in the business with both feet, and quickly built a small shack. “[ I] put a sheet iron shed up everybody laughed at for years. You could make a real sweet sherry-like type wine, because that sheet iron shed could heat it up like an oven. Not the best for wine, but hey it was mine. It was ten foot by sixteen.”
But from that humble beginning he began to build. First he built a house for himself, his wife and his children. He eventually had seven children and they all helped on the family vineyard. He and his sons taught themselves to lay rock and after the house was finished they began their work on the winery.
Now, the winery also includes a wine museum with artifacts dating back to the 1800s, a wine shop and tasting room, and a bed and breakfast. Just outside the winery, Bob, who is also an ordained Catholic deacon, has built a family chapel. Three giant bronze bells hang from towers above the chapel doors. This is part of a collection of over sixty mammoth bells.
Inside the chapel Bob proudly cranks the wheel to sound a bell cast in 1780 in Scotland. A deep clang rumbles through the chapel walls. The rest of his bell collection rests on pallets and shelves just across the street in a large barn-like building where a worker brushes a fresh coat of red paint on a drum. The biggest bell he shows is over four feet wide. He turns more bells and the sound vibrates and echoes off the walls. Just outside, rows of grapevines are winding their way up wooden stalks.
Bob grows about thirty percent of the grapes used in his wines. The other grapes are also grown here in Arkansas, bought and shipped from Altus, Mena, and Eureka Springs. “It’s a live subject. You know the wine’s alive while it’s fermenting or else those yeast wouldn’t divide and turn that sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol… To me it’s just fascinating.”
With a zest for life, and the energy of someone forty years younger, Bob does not resemble someone who is retirement age. And he’s not going to retire. Winemaking is his passion, and he guards his award-winning recipes. It’s his life’s work.
“Some I’ll tell ya and some I won’t. Once someone asked ‘what’s this made out of’ and I answered ‘grapes.’ I may take my recipe for Robert’s Port to the grave.”
Bob’s Top Picks:
Robert’s Port- Special Blend. Has won 24 gold medals and is aged for six years. – The finest wine to end a wonderful day. Great with a glass lined in dark chocolate.
Ann’s Elegance- Vidal Blanc This dry Niagara is crisp and Bob says he prefers it over Chardonney. He says it’s fantastic with skillet catfish. Especially if you add lemon to the dish.
Trisha’s Passion- Sweet Niagara Named after one of his daughters, Bob says this white wine is like eating Niagara grapes from the vine.
Mount Magazine Sunset- Blend The reddish pink hues of this drink is perfect for sharing a romantic evening atop nearby Mount Magazine.