Work and wine

Saturday, March 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:00 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Frank Gordon, a recent retiree, owns 21 acres of land, of which six are vineyard, which he purchased eight years ago, just outside of Columbia on Route O. Gordon also holds a part-time job at the Columbia Public Works Department and as a weekend blackjack dealer at the isle of Capri Casino. He plans to devote his time exclusively to the vineyard in a few years once it’s in full production.

Frank Gordon spends many of his weekdays with the Boone County Public Works Department as a part-time storm water outreach coordinator. He spends some weekends dealing blackjack at the Isle of Capri Casino in Boonville. And he spends his spare time from February through October tending his six-acre vineyard west of Columbia on Route O.

He’s been retired since 2002.


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Three years earlier, while still working as a soil conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Gordon, 60, bought six acres of land outside Columbia and planted Norton and Chardonel

wine grapes. That way, when it came time to retire, he’d have seeds to sow and a crop to manage.

“I like growing things and working with my hands,” says Gordon, who grew up on a farm in Chariton County.

After three years of retirement, three crop yields at Crown Gordon Vineyard and three seasons of lag time between harvests, Gordon suited up to deal blackjack. “I don’t gamble,” he says, laughing.

“It’s just totally and completely out of character for me. But that’s why I wanted to retire, was to be able to do fun and crazy things.”

About the same time, he heard there was an opening for a storm water outreach coordinator with Boone County. “I was always open and watchful of something like this,” he says. “It’s a good fit.”

In his temp job with the county, he is involved with issues similar to those he handled at the USDA, such as water quality and storm water runoff. But instead of dealing with the technical side,Gordon now works more in education, organizing stream cleanups and projects with Boy Scouts and school groups.

If it seems like an odd patchwork of activity, there are connections that make sense for Gordon. He is used to working with the land and playing the hand that nature dealt. He learned on the farm, and later in Vietnam, that he couldn’t control everything. He wanted to make enough money to buy a little freedom. He was never one to sit around and do nothing, and he likes to learn.

Gordon remembers how his father, who spent his life farming, never retired. The older Gordon raised cattle and crops and then, in his later years, kept a garden until he died at 87. He grew strawberries, sweet corn and a vast array of vegetables.

“He would raise so much stuff that he fed half the neighborhood,” Gordon says. “It was just stuff for him to do. My dad was always active, and I think that if he hadn’t been, he would have died sooner.”

Gordon took that connection to the land to MU, where he earned a degree in forestry in 1968. It was a turbulent time: “You were either in ROTC, or you were a hippie,” he remembers.

Gordon was in the former camp. Within a year, he went from being an undergraduate ROTC officer to serving as an infantry lieutenant in Vietnam.

“It was an obligation,” he says. “Do it and get it over with. We didn’t have a choice.

“I guess through that whole experience you find out you have very little control in life. You just try to make it day by day and then at some point you realize ‘Well, maybe I’ve got a career’ and pretty soon it is over and you think ‘Well, what am I going to do now?’”

He leaves that big question to God, trusting he’ll be shown what he should do in his later years. Until them, Gordon is finding plenty of ways to keep busy.

“I just do whatever has to be done until it’s time to quit,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff out there you have absolutely no control over. You just try to make the best of it.”

In early October he finished his seventh harvest at Crown Gordon Enterprises. This year he picked seven tons of Norton grapes, which make a premium red wine for Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta.

“I guess that’s my form of gambling,” he says of viticulture.

He deals cards some Saturdays and Sundays at the casino. He was so unfamiliar with gambling when he started that he had to learn a new language.

“They said they’d be doing checks,” he says. “I’m like ‘What? A check is something you write at the grocery store.’”

He later found out that, in gambling, checks are chips. In a typical shift at his table, Gordon often deals $6,000 to $7,000 worth.

And when he’s not checking his grapes or dealing chips, he’s at his office in the city, handling water issues. The joke: he left one job to take on three.

“It’s my choice,” he says. “I do it because I want to do it, not because I really have to.”

Gordon hasn’t started collecting Social Security yet. He could get by, for now, on his USDA pension.

“But it’s always nice to have a little extra coming in,” he says.

And thus the vineyard, the blackjack table and the city office. Those little extras provide cash for the occasional meal out and special vacations, like last summer’s family trip to Branson, or monthly payments that keep rising, like property taxes and health insurance. Gordon’s life outside work is just as varied.

Every fall, as the temperature drops and the leaves change color, Gordon bowhunts in Colorado alongside his 72-year-old brother, Bill, and 26-year-old grandnephew, Kevyn. The sport requires extreme patience, exacting precision and physical stamina.

“To get up there in that high country, up in the Rocky Mountains, God, it’s something,” Gordon says. “You just keep doing things until you physically can’t do them anymore.”

Closer to home, Gordon’s two daughters and two grandsons provide an anchor to Columbia. One of his daughters teases that she has three children: the two boys and Dad.

“And that’s about the way it is because I didn’t have boys,” he says. “I had the two daughters, so now I’ve got my boys and we act like it. And boy, do we have fun times.”

In between family time and work time, he can be found sipping wine — either Les Bourgeois’ new Fleur de Vin wine, or a glass of extra-dry Norton, of course.

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tom burkett September 1, 2009 | 9:35 p.m.

My son Keegan works for the new viticulture program at MU and has been all over the state working grapes, and he says there are no better grapes than Frank Gordons!!!!!! He enjoys the time he gets in Franks fields in Mu's test plots and always commentas that Frank's grapes are the best he's seen....

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