I’ve been drinking Red Cloud’s Finest, an organic Antigua Guatemalan coffee distributed by EL LAGO Coffee Company, since a friend gave me a pound of beans as a gift. It tastes as good as any I’ve found, and the story behind the company is unusual, to say the least.
Joe and Terry Butcher dream of importing coffee the old-fashioned way – by sailing ship. Their first voyage ended disastrously, on New Year’s Day of 2008, with their ship and its entire cargo of coffee beans going to the bottom of Sigsbee Deep, a place in the Gulf of Mexico where recovery is simply impossible. They were missing a few things on that voyage – including insurance and a rudder stop – but the dream lives on. Not only will they be carrying a back cargo of humanitarian and school supplies on their way to pick up their next shipment of beans, the movement back to wind-powered transport is one they’re convinced makes environmental sense.
I had read and heard of Terry and Joe, but never had the pleasure of meeting them until yesterday, when they appeared in a mostly-vacant lot in Clear Lake Shores, Texas, that used to hold boats. They’d been joined by the Sea Scouts, a few flea-marketeers and a fellow selling a rather nice life raft (to provide that added margin of safety and security during the rest of hurricane season).
Their place of business had been destoyed by hurricane Ike, but they had their sign, and were handing out free cups of coffee while promoting their product. I stopped and chatted, had a cup of coffee, and then noticed a cooler full of wine bottles. Terry saw me looking, and pointed out a bottle sitting on the table next to the coffee pots. It was from the Frascone Winery of Oak Island, Texas, another place almost literally wiped off the map by Hurricane Ike.
While she and Joe hadn’t been able to salvage their hold full of coffee, they had helped to salvage some of the Frascone wine. Now, they were selling it, with half of the proceeds going back to Jim and Glenda Frascone, who produced the wine in the first place.
The Frascone Winery in Oak Island certainly wasn’t the first Frascone attempt at wine-making. In a web page devoted to his rather unusually-named Biker’s Blood “outlaw” wine, Jim Frascone says,
“My wine-making started with my family back in the 1950s and 60s, when we were a close-knit Italian family living on the upper east side of St. Paul, Minnesota. I grew up across the street from my grandparents, aunts and uncles. The entire neighborhood was Italian, and each family created its own speciality wines. Some made dry dago red wines like my family, and others made sweet white wines like our friends.”
The family would have been proud of Jim and Glenda. Their wines were made by hand, using a 120-year old wine press, with a little hand-squeezing (and foot-stomping) thrown in from time to time, just for fun. The process didn’t differ much from that used in the old Minneapolis neighborhood, when the D’Aloias and the Frascone clan did their yearly pressing.
Like a closely-knit family, the friends, neighbors and employees at “Frascone South” worked, played, struggled and drank together, never imagining that their location as the Texas winery closest to the Gulf would be their undoing. Everyone along the coast “knows” that a hurricane is possible, but that possibility seems remote and slightly unreal, until it happens.
When Ike showed up, it wasn’t just the winery that disappeared. So did the Frascone home, their village, and a multitude of destinations dear to Texas birders, beachcombers and fishing enthusiasts. Jim and Glenda’s daughter Maria, who had come back to Oak Island for refuge after Katrina, will now be helping her parents cope with a new disaster. After the storm, Maria said,
“The difference between Ike and Katrina is that here, the water came in and left, and there it stayed for a long time. But it was just as devastating here as Katrina. There’s nothing left.”
Which brings us back to the wine. According to an article posted in Wine Spectator, nearly 1,000 bottles of Frascone wine were lost because of the storm. But not all was lost – many bottles were pulled from fields and ditches, washed off, and placed in coolers. Their labels, with the lovely Frascone crest, were gone, and it was impossible to determine which varieties remained except in the most general sense – red or white by color, certain wines by bottle shape.
It was at this point, the pulling-wine-out-of-the-storm-surge-debris point, that Joe and Terry Butcher showed up to take custody of some of what was left and begin selling it as a way of helping out the Frascone clan. Since the bottles had no labels and were just waiting for a good-natured marketing ploy, it didn’t take long for a new label to be created.
Now known as Le Frutta dell’ Uragano (slightly mis-spelled, but never mind) the wine has been transformed into The Fruit of the Hurricane, with a label that reads, “Mystery wine salvaged from the Ike-Ravaged remnants of the Frascone Winery, Oak Island, TX”.
I bought some, of course. Who wouldn’t? I don’t drink a lot of wine and I’m no connoisseur, but I know enough to realize that lying about in the sunshine in a ditch full of Gulf water isn’t going to improve anything except perhaps Old Muskrat (vintage, yesterday). Nevertheless, I bought.
Last night, while doing a bit of reading about the Frascones and pondering the photograph on the label, I uncorked one of the reds. It wasn’t muddy at all, but a beautiful, clear claret. It wasn’t salty, like tears or seawater, or sharp and stinging, like a sudden upwelling of memory. There was no edge of bitterness, like that which tinges a survivor’s grief, and there was a taste both clear and dry, like a day made perfect for recovery.
Gazing out across the placid water, I raised my glass to Jim and Glenda, and Maria, and Oak Island and Anahuac. Their community has been tossed together, pressed down, poured out – but they’re good folk, and 2009 is coming. It may be a very good year.