Real estate developer Doug Meyer and his wife, Sheree, are investing close to $2 million in Rusty Tractor Vineyards, an 80-acre property off David O. Dodd Road in southwest Little Rock that’s envisioned as a winery and an event venue.
Meyer is co-owner of Terraforma LLC of Maumelle, and Sheree’s family owned Bennett’s Military Supplies, the 148-year-old store in downtown Little Rock that closed late last month. The couple enjoys drinking wine, and after several visits to California’s Napa Valley they decided to plant 200 vines. A few years later and they’re up to 5,000.
“It’s going to be a pretty nice project,” Doug Meyer said.
Meyer describes himself as a farm boy from Missouri who moved to the Little Rock area in 1987 and opened a couple of farm and construction equipment dealerships, “and I just can’t get the country out of me.”
The acreage is a former dairy farm and includes a 5,000-SF building that used to be a tractor shop, along with an old dairy barn, according to winemaker and vineyard manager Riley Mason.
In addition to hosting events and producing wine, Rusty Tractor will provide winemaking training, and the old stone dairy barn will be turned into a food and wine pairing, private-barrel dining area, Meyer said. He also sees outdoor events like Fourth of July parties and summer concerts in the venue’s future. “And the nice thing is, it’s literally five minutes from [Interstates] 430 and 630,” Meyer said.
As for Mason, he has the right background to make Rusty Tractor succeed. He has a degree in horticulture from the University of Arkansas and trained as a winemaker at Chateau Aux Arc in Altus under its owner, Audrey House.
After he completed his degree in 2013, Mason worked as event manager at Sassafras Springs Vineyard & Winery in Springdale.
“I basically got all sides of the whole wine industry,” he said. “I learned how to grow grapes with Audrey and I learned how to manage events and do weddings at Sassafras.”
Rusty Tractor Vineyards is on Rusty Tractor Lane about a half-mile from the Rave Cinemas Colonel Glenn. The vineyard itself occupies seven to 10 acres of the property. Mason and the Meyers are converting the old tractor shop into a tasting room, renovating and expanding the building and adding a full catering kitchen. Mason is currently making his wine in one corner of the building and sees the day when Rusty Tractor will have a separate winemaking facility.
Unfortunately, “a horrible freeze” on April 7 “annihilated” the vines, Mason said, though they hope to salvage some and will use other Arkansas grapes to make Rusty Tractor’s wines.
The vineyard grows Vignoles, Traminette, Valvin Muscat, Chambourcin, Cynthiana, Enchantment and Muscadine grapes. It’s also planning to plant a few rows of Tempranillo “as well as a dozen or so table grape plants for additional flavor enhancements to our wines,” Mason said.
The event aspect of the business is an important one, and when events like weddings and anniversary and birthday parties occupy the tasting room, the public will be able to visit the former dairy barn and sample Rusty Tractor’s wines.
Rusty Tractor’s small farm winery permit will allow it to sell wine on Sundays.
The business plans to offer charcuterie — prepared meats — along with cheeses, nuts and olives and possibly pizza.
Mason sees Rusty Tractor as equal parts commercial winery and events venue. “A tasting room is great and it really gets your product out there,” he said. “Events are the best way to get return customers, because you can cycle through 500 people in a weekend. … You can get a lot more people out to see the place.”
And, Mason said, weddings are a huge industry. “If you can tap into that market it is all in your favor. Customer service means the world to me. And that is how you get people happy and that is how you keep them coming back.”
Ultimately, he said, “word of mouth is the best advertising possible.”
As for the timeline for Rusty Tractor’s opening, Mason said he couldn’t give a definite answer. “I would be ecstatic if we were open by fall or late, late summer,” he said. And hours of operation are still in flux. Keep checking its Facebook page, in other words.