Notes from the Wasteland (and Fruithurst, Alabama)

Becky pauses for a pose among the muscadine vines at the Fruithurst Winery Company.

Becky pauses for a pose among the muscadine vines at the Fruithurst Winery Company.

It’s April 22, aka Earth Day.
(Editor’s note: It was indeed April 22, 2014, when I wrote the above sentence. The current date, according to the Gregorian calendar, is May 6, 2014. Of course, if you, in the tradition of all the Tsars of all the Russias, adhere to the Julian calendar, it is only April 23. So fret not, There is still time.)
I see Elin Nordegren is trending No. 1 on Yahoo. This news hits me like morning sunshine snaking through window blinds and makes my heartstrings dance like freshly illuminated dust motes.
In layman’s terms, I am embracing, however tenuously, hope. If the beautiful and famous woman Tiger Woods was married to until she notoriously was no longer married to Tiger Woods can befriend the beautiful and famous skier Tiger Woods is being carnal with nowadays, what lies beyond the realm of possibility?
Almost anything, I suppose. Almost.
Apparently it’s going to take divine intervention to save me from myself. Once I find a god I can develop a meaningful rapport with, self-actualization should be right around the corner.
I wrote the above blog “headline” in homage to my never-ending malaise. T.S. Eliot never entered my mind until it I beheld the words on the screen and thought, “Hey, it is April, after all. The world outside is flowering gloriously, so why should I resist the lure to bombast?”
I don’t know if April is the cruelest month. And I can’t offer anything apposite about The Wasteland, except I have always been dazzled by its opening paragraph.
I do find the wind-blown redolence of lilacs intoxicating. A more evolved sensibility (et tu, Mr. Faulkner?) might say their pungent aroma carries the rotten sweetness of corruption.
Nonetheless, I loved walking about the careworn streets of Bremerton or Tacoma during the early days of May and finding my senses overwhelmed by the unmistakable fragrance of the lilac. (Here in the northeast, lilacs normally bloom in accordance with Eliot’s imagery. They’re behind their time this year. In the Northwest, they don’t pop until May.)
When lilacs last in southeastern Pennsylvania bloomed, we frolicked on Florida’s Gulf Coast. I arose each morning and cleared my head with a stroll on the beach and a dip in the Gulf of Mexico. I spent the rest of the day writing frantically.
Seemed like I was headed somewhere.
Now spring is here, and I again mourn my ever-returning sense of doom.
It is my first Pennsylvania spring in more than 20 years. I tend to imbibe the bittersweet cocktail of memory and desire without due caution. It tantalizes the dull reaches of my hippocampus and makes me a fool all over again.
On the subject of roots in need of a good sprinkling, I had one of those experiences yesterday that temporarily jolts a body free of the shackles of complacency.
Max and I had walked to a nearby playground. On the way home we stopped at the library. As Max appraised vending-machine selections in the outer hall, a man exited the bathroom and entered the field of my peripheral vision. On his way by, he stopped and tilted his head in our direction. He screwed up his eyes, paused to allow recognition to coalesce in his mind and said, “is your last name Wallingford?”
He had me there.
I recognized him immediately as David V., the next-door neighbor of my ancient youth. For a couple years we were best friends. We played street hockey in the cul-de-sac at the end of his driveway. We watched Flyers games and complained about the Phillies.
We even talked politics. He seemed to form a world view early, and I was a ready disciple. I guess we were young conservatives.
My most salient memory from those days is a dubious one. One steamy day during the summer of 1978, with snot-nosed malice aforethought, we slipped inside his parents’ house and skulked to a room with a telephone.
We had hatched a scheme to get on big-city radio and deliver a powerful political message at the same time. Our phone call was inspired by the recent shooting death of Philadelphia Police Officer James Ramp. He was killed on Aug. 8, when the cops’ attempt to disarm the radical group MOVE, a collection of back-to-nature misfits who lived in a squalid compound of filth and fear in West Philadelphia, went horribly awry.
(MOVE, by the way, is almost entirely black. Officer Ramp was white. If you think race had anything to do with our little plan, you most likely are right.)
After we fine-tuned our carefully chosen editorial remarks, I furtively lifted the phone from its cradle and dialed the number for local radio station WWDB, which at the moment was airing a talk show hosted by Philadelphia broadcasting legend Frank Ford. He answered in congenial fashion, and I spluttered a line or two of adolescent vitriol. In accordance with the script, I averred the city’s best option for ending the MOVE standoff would be to blow the compound – rats, rabid dogs and little kids, too – to smithereens with the help of a Patton tank.
Of course we didn’t know the City of Philadelphia would actually put an equally insane plan into action before too long. City officials dropped a bomb on the MOVE house in 1985, igniting a fire that reduced an entire block to ashes and killed 11 people, five of them children. At least we were just dumb teenagers with too much time on our hands.
It had been a long time. Damn long. By the end of high school, we had drifted in different directions. Dave, who graduated a year before me, joined up with Uncle Sam’s Army and became a Ranger or Green Beret or some similar warrior-specialist. I lost track of him, though once every 10 years or so we’d run into each other in the old neighborhood and engage in awkward conversation. Then my mom sold her house and that was that.
We had a nice chat this time, though. Old Dave has a pretty good memory. He recalled a conversation he’d had with my dad not too many years ago, from which he learned I was working on a book (Yet another unfinished project).
I winced. Everything fell into a rather bleak perspective. My dad died seven Aprils ago, four months prior to Max’s arrival.
Anyway, another seven years buried, and nothing to show.
At least not yet.
So I move on. Onward and backward. Again.
Now I head back to Tallapoosa, Georgia. It has been nearly a year since we arrived in the driveway of Anthony and Audrey Williams, which spills onto U.S. Highway 78.
In Georgia, they call it 78 Highway. The perpetual whoosh of traffic is the soundtrack to the days and nights on their porch. “Waves of economy,” Anthony calls it.
I love the way they talk. I had met Anthony once before, though I don’t think I could’ve picked him out of a police lineup. Once we’d parked the Behemoth into their driveway, it stayed there for 11 days.
It was the most fertile period of the trip. It was also the place where the narrative fell apart. I never got it back together again. There was so much, too much, it overwhelmed my poor power of organization.
I’m going all way back in an effort to come forward one step at a time.

The Fruithurst railroad depot.

The Fruithurst railroad depot, from Wayne Ruple’s “Cleburne County.”

Tuesday, May 7, 2013: Fruithurst, Alabama

In his quest to expose me to the region’s every crevice, notch and gopher hole, Anthony brought me to the Fruithurst Winery yesterday. From the Williams homestead on 78 Highway in Georgia, it’s a short jaunt over the Tallapoosa River and into the Central Time Zone and then up County Road 49. As we plunged into the eastern Alabama countryside, the piney woods rose before us.
Inside the doors of Fruithurst Winery Co., Anthony recognized the woman behind the tasting bar as Vicki Laminack. She’s the mother and aunt, respectively, of co-proprietors Joshua and Dylan Laminack.
Vicki lives in Alabama, but she’s a Tallapoosa girl through and through. You can tell by the company she keeps. She grew up with a father named Bunk, then married a fellow named Chicken. Cleon “Bunk” Thompson ran the Tasty Treat, a Tallapoosa institution, for a decade or two. Chicken and Bunk. Scratchy and Beefy.
This is a place where names are applied at birth and then quickly forgotten.
“What did I tell you?” Anthony said with his muscadine-sweet drawl. “Smm-mmall town.”
Running into Vicki Laminack in Fruithurst, brings a smile to Anthony’s face. This is not a rare feat. The sun rising in the morning brings a smile to his face.
You name it, and he smiles. Wild Turkey and homemade wine, sunshine and rain. A pint jar of moonshine that left Tallapoosa in 2003 and now had made an expected and thoroughly unlikely return a decade later.
Even recalling the car wrecks his parents took him and his brothers to witness when they were just boys, even this makes him smile. (I suppose each represented a valuable lesson in the unpredictability of life and the wages of sin.
On our way back into Georgia yesterday, Anthony recalled a couple of these object lessons. First was the time an 18-wheeler (they call them transfer trucks down here) took the approach curve too fast, careened out of control and pinned a luckless flagman against a bridge berm. Anthony remembers what time the accident occurred, because the deceased man’s watch had stopped at 2:17 p.m.
Then there was the Sunday morning wreck that Clara and Ollie Williams figured might deliver a more powerful message than a run-of-the-mill sermon at Riverside Baptist Church.
“This bridge was a two-lane bridge with an iron berm in the middle,” Anthony said. “A man had got hit on this side of the bridge. They found one of his shoes on this side of the bridge; they found another shoe on the other side, and he was rolled up like a ball. His legs was over his shoulder, his head was turned sideways.”
He shook his head and smiled with wonder.
“Why would my mother …?” he began before letting the thought expire. “It was my mother!”

Vicki Laminack shows off the wares of the Fruithurst Winery Company.

Today, Becky and I returned to Fruithurst. At Anthony’s insistence, we got there in his pickup.
The Fruithurst Winery renaissance is unfolding in a place locals call Rosewood, which sits about six miles north of Fruithurst proper, which lies at the confluence of U.S. Highway 78 and County Road 35. It is a dusty oasis on the road from Atlanta to Birmingham.
The first white settlers called it Summit Cut, or Summit Gap. By the final decade of the 19th century, when northern entrepreneurs imagined it as a seed-bed of world-class wines, the smattering of Scotch-Irish who farmed this sleepy crossroads called it Zidonia.
For the most part, the men who dreamed up Fruithurst came from the Chautauqua region in western New York, which was and remains Concord grape country. They were serious people, and they didn’t mess around.
By 1894, they had set their plan in motion. Soon, the landscape was transformed. More than 3,000 acres were planted with more than 100 grape varieties. A battalion of blue-collar workers made their way to eastern Alabama. They came from all corners of the United States and Europe to prepare the ground, plant seeds, tend vines, pick grapes and more. (Pickers, by the way, made 30 cents a day.)
For those fortunate enough to get by without engaging in manual labor, there were amenities aplenty. Fruithurst even had an 80-room hotel, complete with bowling alley, billiards room and barber shop.
By 1898, when 23,000 gallons of wine were produced, and the model town of Fruithurst had bloomed to include more than 800 residents.
It seemed the dreamers’ dream was coming to fruition.
Alas, Fruithurst’s heyday turned out to be short-lived. Two decades after it boomed, it went bust in spectacular fashion. Myriad forces conspired to doom Fruithurst. When things went wrong, they went wrong in spades.
Fire was a constant nuisance. Two wineries burned to the ground. So did an excelsior mill, which produced wood shavings used in the packaging of wine bottles, and a planing mill.
Natural blight and unnatural fervor were the main culprits in Fruithurst’s demise.
The first came in the form of Pierce’s disease, which troubles California winemakers today. Spread via the efforts of a cicada-like pest called the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the Pierce bacterium savaged Fruithurst’s vineyards.
Even bigger trouble was brewing 125 miles away in Montgomery, where Alabama lawmakers under the influence of temperance zealots prepared the death blow.
They had worked for four years to return statewide prohibition after the 1909 liquor ban was repealed in 1911. They finally succeeded in 1915. Alabama’s “bone dry” law, passed over the veto of new governor Charles Henderson, banned making or selling anything that “tastes like, foams like or looks like beer,” as well as the sale of any drink in a bottle that resembled a whiskey flask.
It took a few years, but one by one, Fruithurst’s wineries died on the vine. By the time the Depression hit, Fruithurst’s wine boom was a fading memory. It continued to fade for the better part of a century.
You can read some of Wayne Ruple’s chapter and see some wonderful photographs of old Fruithurst here.

Vicki Laminack relaxes while giving us the grand tour of Fruithurst Winery.

Vicki Laminack relaxes while giving us the grand tour of Fruithurst Winery.

Seven generations
Fruithurst’s wine renaissance began in the fertile, no-nonsense head of Joshua Laminack.
Vicki Laminack’s only son is as serious as any of his grape-growing forebears, and he is the driving force behind the winery. A Delta Airlines pilot, Joshua Laminack is a consummate man of business. He doesn’t even drink wine, a fact I found kind of disappointing.
Not that he lacks a sense of humor. Vicki says he likes to share this nugget with visitors: “We’re the seventh generation of Laminacks to make alcohol, and the first to do it legally.”
Just 33, he’s never met a problem he didn’t figure he could outwit or outwork.
“He’d butt heads with the devil himself,” Vicki said. “Joshua is never satisfied with anything. His goal is to make this farm profitable so everybody can stay home and run the farm and not have to travel to work.”
His cousin, Dylan Laminack, makes the wine. He is the resident artist, a kilt-wearing giant with a gentle demeanor. His day job is tuning and moving pianos. Now he’s a certified oeonologist with a degree from the University of California Davis.
Unlike his partner, Dylan’s not above sampling the fruits of his labor.
“He was back there one day and he was singing to high heaven, and it’s like a free concert back there,” Vicki said. “After a while he comes out and says, ‘it’s a hell of a day when you get paid just to get drunk.’ He’s a doozer.”
Neither of the Laminack boys were around during our visit, but Vicki more than held her own. She was a delightful and generous guide.
Unlike their Fruithurst predecessors, the Laminacks limit their vineyards to a single grape, the muscadine. They planted their first seeds in 2005 and sold their harvest to wineries and produce outlets.
But Joshua had a better idea.
“One day, as the story goes, they were in the field workin’ and Joshua says, ‘Cousin you can make wine; why can’t we just have a winery?'” Vicki said. “And Dylan says, ‘the county’s a dry county, and we can’t just have a winery in a dry county.’
“And Joshua says, ‘well, we can change that.'”
And so they did.
They collected signatures and support for two years, and in 2008 Cleburne County voted to turn wet.
“The night of the election they had this building built already and they had juice frozen,” she said. “They celebrated the county turning wet by starting to thaw their juice. And it just snowballed from there.”
They harvested more than 74,000 pounds of muscadines in 2012 and bought another 10,000 pounds. They made more than 6,000 gallons of wine in all.
“We only sell out of this front door,” she said. “So far they’ve not been able to grow enough fruit, make enough wine that we don’t run out of muscadine wine by about September.”
I’m no wine critic. All I can say is their wines are tasty. And we tasted every damn wine the Fruithurst Co. had to offer.
We’d had our share of fun. On the way we fell under Vicki’s sway. She’s a down-to-earth human being and a delightful guide. Not a drop of pretense in her body.
We stumbled outside, the Alabama sunshine falling on our faces like a holy benediction. We traipsed tipsily about the vineyards and soaked in the good vibrations.
When we returned pick up our wine purchases, Vicki had a ready lagniappe for us.
“I’ve enjoyed y’all so much, here’s you some grits,” she said.
Here’s you some grits.
I neglected to mention that they also sell grits. Chicken’s Grits. There is, of course, a back story.
“Johnny (aka Chicken) had an old stone,” she said. “He’d had it for years. His boss bought an old mill in Cleburne County and gave him another stone. Well, he was gonna put it all together in a little grist mill and just kind of play with it. Not with Joshua. You don’t play for anything around Joshua. If he sees a dollar sign in it, you’re going to do something with it. So he started grinding the grits and corn meal so now we sell them here in the store and we also sell them at a supermarket in Heflin. That just tells you a little something about Joshua. You don’t do nothing for fun around him.”
If you’re ever find yourself on the road from Birmingham to Atlanta, stop by the Fruithurst Winery. Get you some wine. It’s a lot of fun.
They have a tasteful, intimate operation going on here. And I did I mention the wines are tasty? One even captured a gold medal at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
Nonetheless, Vicki says you shouldn’t expect the Laminack boys to become wine snobs anytime soon.
“The boys really went to make good wine, and they want to have a good business, a good reputable business, but as far as foo-fooing with all the foo-fooers, they’re just not interested,” she said. “They just want to make a living, an honest living.”
Yes indeed. To hell with the foo-fooers, y’all.

 

 

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