Just a little ways past Subiaco Abbey and Academy, tucked into the shadow of Mount Magazine you will find Cowie Winery. Formerly, the site was home to St. Ann’s Catholic School. A sign above the door bears the inscription “In Vino Veritas,” or in wine there is truth. The land here is full of truth and history.
Now the land is home to Cowie Winery, three bell towers, St. Ann’s Chapel of the Bells, and Robert Cowie himself, a man cut from the cloth of history. Much like the winery, Bob encompasses more than meets the eye. In a gruff but warm voice, he speaks of his late wife, seven children, religion, his interest in history, and of course wine.
Bob has been making wine since he was 15 years old; the bubbling that occurs during fermentation caught his eye and he never looked away. He started with a five gallon jug. Now 63 years later, more than 13,000 pounds of grapes ferment in Cowie Winery. The current winery was built by Bob and his sons in 1967.
Bob describes making wine as “an art tempered with science.” After all these years perfecting his craft, he often relies on a gut feeling. His masterpiece, Robert’s Port, is aged 6 to 12 years in Missouri oak. The port is a rich, pleasing burgundy in color and has a balanced, sweet finish. It’s no wonder this wine currently reigns as the Grand Champion wine at the Arkansas State Fair. But this is only one medal amongst his vast collection displayed at the winery. “I have hundreds more in the back,” says Bob. “I don’t have room to display them all.”
Cowie wines boast recognition beyond the state of Arkansas. The wines have been featured in Sotheby’s Encyclopedia of Wine and have been enjoyed in Israel and Europe as well. The gift shop features an autographed photo of the Head of the Vatican Museum holding a bottle of Robert’s Port. “Don’t ask me what he wrote on the photo,” Bob jokes. “I can’t read Italian.”
Beyond the gift shop and tasting area is a Museum of Arkansas Wine History. Bob, of course, is the curator, but the museum includes much of the history of winemaking throughout the Natural State. Arkansas used to be home to over 150 wineries but now only about ten percent of those are still in operation. Luckily, Bob has collected artifacts and preserved that history.
The museum displays reflect Bob’s description of winemaking as art and a science. Among the fermentation tanks, grape presses, and other equipment is a display of wine barrels that have been painted and turned into art.
The museum’s collection includes records, photographs, and, of course, bottles. But most intriguing are the stories Bob tells as we walk among these relics. Tucked above the antique grape presses on display are three barrels stacked on their sides, two on the bottom and one on the top. Following tradition, Bob set these three barrels of wine aside, reserved for the holy trinity, when the winery opened in 1967. On one visit, an inspector inquired about the barrels and if they were included in the taxes the winery paid. Bob grins as he recounts how he pointed upward to the heavens and told the inspector, “You’ll have to collect those taxes from Him.”
Though he has been a full-time vintner since 1976, Bob is far from a one-trick pony. He spent 33 years as an ordained Catholic deacon, ten of those years were spent in Paris, Arkansas. While serving as a deacon, he traveled extensively and even met Mother Teresa. Ever the gentleman, Bob tells the story of when he offered Mother Teresa his seat. “She said – bless this man,” he smiles. “I have lived a blessed life.”>>
Having lived such a rich life of spiritual dedication, it’s no wonder Bob desired his own personal chapel. Built in 2008, the chapel may be the most recent addition to the property, but it is perhaps the most remarkable. In the past ten years, Bob has performed a marriage ceremony for one of his daughters, baptized one of his grandchildren, and laid his late wife to rest in the chapel.
When Bob describes how he designed the chapel his passion for religion and tranquility shines through. He wanted the chapel to foster a sense of peace. Choir stalls line the walls and Gregorian chants soothe the soul while the sun shines through one of the many stained glass windows and completes the aura of a sacred place. The Holy Eucharist is reserved in the tabernacle along with a chalice Bob inherited from his uncle, a Catholic priest. The altar and the ambo are constructed from wood previously used in winemaking, and several historic bells hold places of esteem. A bell from a Spanish monastery hangs under the altar, and the oldest bell in his collection is located under the holy water font near the entrance to the chapel.
These bells in the chapel are just a small representation of Bob’s collection of over 200. Outside the chapel, the three towers house 26 bells including a 54-inch bell, one of the largest in Arkansas. The bells in the chapel and the towers have been blessed by Catholic Bishop Taylor. Numerous other bells are displayed around the property, and even more await installation. Many of Bob’s bells have provenance in the United States, but a few also have international history. Perhaps the most impressive is a German bell smuggled out of the country to protect it, lest it be destroyed and refashioned into ammunition during World War II.
The collection of bells are mostly iron or bronze and, as a result, the patina of each differs in brightness and color. Much like the Gregorian chants near the chapel, the ringing of the bells inspire reverence and peace. Some of the larger bells mounted in front of Bob’s home ring loud and clear, but as the clapper slows, the reverb softens and you can feel the vibrations coursing through the metal of the bell. The collection has bells cast by many foundries including the McShane Foundry and the famed Paccard Foundry. One of the most revered bells hails from a Massachusetts church and was cast by Henry Hooper, an apprentice to Paul Revere.
Next year, Bob plans to travel to the renowned Paccard Foundry in France to acquire another bell. Measuring over seven feet, it will be the eighth largest bell in the United States. Bob has actually commissioned this bell and will watch the process as it is cast. The massive bell will take about a week before it is cool enough to transport.
Stories, awards, and bells are not the only items Bob collects. Over the past seven years, he has collected an impressive catalog of autographs. Many are preserved under glass and accompanied by photos or artwork. In fact, his collection spans the globe and even the moon, or at least the men who walked on the moon.
Along with the astronauts, Bob possesses the autograph of every U.S. President. His collection also includes a real John Hancock, along with over half the other signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Luckily, Bob recognizes the importance of sharing history. He has plans to open an autograph gallery across from the winery so others can view and enjoy his collection. Along with those mentioned above, the gallery will include signatures from Napoleon, several popes, Margaret Thatcher, Queen Victoria, and survivors of the Titanic for a total of over 300 signatures.
Bob Cowie may collect and preserve history, but he also holds a special place as a part of the history of the River Valley.