Carved grapes from the tasting room bar at Frascone Winery
I’ve been drinking Red Cloud’s Finest for years. An organic Guatemalan coffee, roasted and distributed by a small local importer, it’s as good as any I’ve found. Richly complex, it tastes of the circuitous route that brought it to my cup.
Joe and Terry Butcher, owners of El Lago Coffee Company, dreamed of importing coffee the old-fashioned way: by wind-driven ship. They named their vessel Red Cloud and set sail for Belize, where they loaded 10,000 pounds of coffee beans into her hold.
Unfortunately, the first and only voyage of Red Cloud ended on New Year’s Day, 2008, when thirty-foot seas, sixty-knot winds, and a missing rudder stop combined to plunge the sailboat and her cargo to the bottom of Sigsbee Deep, in the central Gulf of Mexico.
Despite the sinking, an event complicated by a lack of insurance, the Butchers, their business, and their dream of wind-powered transport still are alive. But their importance to this story is due less to their coffee trade than to their role in helping to preserve a small business on the shores of Galveston Bay: a winery destroyed on September 13, 2008, by water and winds as overwhelming as those which took their beloved Red Cloud just nine months earlier.
I’d read of Joe and Terry’s exploits, but didn’t meet them until shortly after Hurricane Ike made landfall on the Texas coast. In a neighborhood lot cleared of debris, they’d set up shop for a casual Saturday morning market, alongside Sea Scouts selling sandwiches, a fellow hawking a life raft, and a chainsaw sharpener with more customers than he could handle.
Their place of business had been wiped out by the storm, but they’d found a table, made a sign, and were handing out free cups of coffee while promoting their product. Stopping for coffee, I lingered to chat with Terry. As we talked, I noticed a cooler filled with wine bottles. Following my glance, Terry pointed to a bottle sitting on the table next to the coffee pots. It bore a label from the Frascone Winery, located in Oak Island, Texas: another place very nearly wiped off the map by Hurricane Ike.
Joe and Terry Butcher
While the Butchers hadn’t been able to salvage their first shipment of coffee, they’d done their best to help salvage a portion of the Frascone wine. After the storm, volunteers fanned out over the coastal plain, pulling unbroken bottles from the mud. Relabeling some of the reclaimed bottles as unusual storm souvenirs, Joe and Terry began selling them: splitting the profits with James and Glenda Frascone in a first step along a remarkable road to recovery.
The establishment of the Frascone Winery in Oak Island had continued a generations-long tradition. Remembering his earliest experiences with the craft, Jim Frascone says:
My wine-making started with my family back in the 1950s and 1960s, 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 specialty wines. Some made dry dago red wines like my family, and others made sweet white wines, like our friends.
The Oak Island wines were made in the same manner, using a 120-year-old wine press, with a little hand-squeezing and foot-stomping thrown in for good measure. The process hardly differed from that used in the old Minneapolis neighborhood when the D’Aloia and Frascone clans did their yearly pressing.
The Pre-Hurricane Ike Winepress
Like a closely-knit family, the friends, neighbors, and employees of the Frascones worked, played, struggled, and drank together: never imagining their distinction as the Texas winery closest to the Gulf would be their undoing.
While everyone along the Texas coast knows that hurricanes are inevitable, the possibility always seems remote and slightly unreal until the water rises, and the winds begin to blow.
When Hurricane Ike came calling, it wasn’t only the winery that disappeared. The Frascone home washed away, as did most of Oak Island, Anahuac, and Double Bayou. In a terrible bit of timing, even the grasses meant to feed migrating birds were stripped from the prairies, and wildlife refuges became death traps.
The Frascone’s daughter, Maria, had come back to Oak Island for refuge after Hurricane Katrina, only to find herself 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.
But not all was lost. While Wine Spectator reported that nearly 1,000 bottles of Frascone wine had been destroyed by the storm, much was reclaimed. As the storm surge receded, nearly 4,000 bottles were pulled from area fields and ditches: bereft of their lovely Frascone labels and no longer suitable for sale, but otherwise unharmed.
As the bottles were washed and placed into coolers, it was impossible to identify varieties except in the most general sense: red or white by color, certain fruit wines by bottle shape. At that point, the Butchers grew creative, designing new labels that proclaimed the wine Le Frutta dell’ Uragano (“The fruit of the hurricane”) and describing each bottle as a “mystery wine salvaged from the Ike-ravaged remnants of the Frascone Winery, Oak Island, Texas.”
These were the bottles that filled Terry’s cooler at the market. I bought some, of course. Lying about in full sunshine in a ditch filled with seawater may be no way to age wine, but something about the thought of uncorking one of those unbroken bottles still appealed.
Weeks later, glancing at the bottle I kept on a kitchen counter, I realized the sort of debris pile shown on the label nearly had disappeared from the landscape. The thought seemed cause enough for celebration, so I opened one of the reds.
To my surprise, the color was vibrant and not at all muddy. With no tang of salt, no remnant of seawater, no sharp bite of memory, and no faint edge of bitterness to overpower the wine, there was only a clear, dry sweetness, suggesting days made perfect for recovery.
Gazing across the placid water, I raised my glass to Jim and Glenda, Maria, and Oak Island. They had been tossed together, pressed down, and poured out, but 2009 was coming. It might, I thought, be a very good year.
In fact, 2009 was a good enough year for the Frascones, but it took some time for things to right themselves. After going first to Key West, Jim traveled in Alaska, then worked on the East Coast. In 2011, he returned to Oak Island: one of twelve residents blessed with a new home through the compassion and substantial efforts of singer Neil Diamond.
New elevation requirements for rebuilt homes meant that Jim’s house was on stilts. Looking at the space beneath, he felt old winemaking urges beginning to bubble. He poured a concrete slab, purchased new equipment, brought in grapes, blackberries, and blueberries from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and began the long process of rebuilding.
On August 31, 2014, with a new sign, a new tasting room and bistro, and a ready supply of optimism, the Frascone Winery re-opened.
When I finally heard (via the grapevine, of course) that they were back in business, I made time for a visit. I found an easy combination of competence and charm, the friendliness of rural Texas crossed with Italian family tradition, and some of the best fruit wines I’ve tasted since Grandpa tended his gallons of dandelion, cherry, and rhubarb.
There were tokens of the past, including bottles from the old winery, pulled from ditches and displayed before a question that’s always a good subject for conversation in hurricane country: “Where you you when the wind blew?”
But Jim Frascone was focused on the future: eager to talk about his experiences, his wine, and new ventures like bee-keeping. More than happy to share information, he provided a tour of his vats and casks (stainless steel for white, oak for red), the bottling machines, and vineyards.
Jim Frascone, with the tools of his trade
And, since the wine is the point of it all, we spent some time in the tasting room, where I chose to sample a variety of fruit wines — blackberry, peach and cranberry — a very nice chocolate dessert wine, and mead, a honey wine that’s becoming more popular.
Active with the Liberty County Beekeepers, Jim hosted their 2015 Mead Day, and will have his own mead available for tasting in 2016. Named “Oak Island Buzz” and made with Double Bayou honey, it’s light and not overly sweet: a nice, crisp wine that I’m saving for our first real cold front.
It’s true, of course, that there are no guarantees. It’s entirely possible that another, still-nameless hurricane could roll through Oak Island, pick up Jim’s equipment and his six-hundred-pound barrels of wine, and carry them off to Sigsbee Deep.
But he’s choosing to focus on other, more certain truths: that recovery is possible, that communities can rebuild, that help often arrives from unexpected quarters, and that new opportunities can arise from the rubble of the the old.
Pouring a sample of Oak Island Buzz into my glass, Jim grinned. “You know,” he said, “it looks like 2015 will be a very good year.”