Thursday, August 30, 2012

Messina Hof -- Deep in the Heart of Texas Wine

Paul Bonarrigo, center, flanked by Harvest guests at Messina Hof

In early August I attended a Harvest event as the guest of Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo at the Messina Hof Winery & Resort in Bryan, Texas.  I had some ideas about what Texas is all about.  Even worse, I had ideas about Texas wine, before I’d even tried it. But Whoa Nelly! My whole preconceived notion of Texas and Texas wine was blown double barrel style out of the water during my visit.

First thing to note: Texas in August—um, not for you delicate types or the heat stroke prone. But once I adjusted to the blast furnace effect as you step outside, it was quite tolerable, and of course all of the main buildings were blissfully air-conditioned.

Harvest Weekend--

Every year Messina Hof holds five harvest weekends where the wine club members and the general public come for a day long event of food, fun, and wine wrapped around a hands-on harvest. Feet-on harvest too, as part of the experience includes a romp in the bin a la Lucy Ricardo. There’s even a contest for that.

I’ve worked real harvests before {see here}  – and when I say “real harvest” I mean without all the accoutrements of a gentleman’s style deluxe harvest like the one I attended at Gloria Ferrer-- so I know a bit of what’s involved when it come to harvest—gentlemanly style or not. The bottom line is they can be very educational. But no matter how long you are in the vines, it is true physical work, and it’s good to get an understanding of that. Plus I find it’s always a thrill to see the grapes up close on the vine, handle them, feel their heft and of course taste them in their natural habitat.

The atmosphere at Messina Hof harvest was positively carnival like. Music was blasting down the vines as the guests scurried about filling their bins like kids at Halloween. There was a general buzz of joy as people cut the grapes keeping an eye out for the most interesting grape cluster, for which there was a prize.

Harvest at Messina Hof is big news
I met one guest who hadn’t missed a harvest in five years! People come again and again with their families and friends.  I’ve never seen anything like it. And in the center of it all was Paul Bonarrigo – Winemaker, CEO and Master of Ceremonies. Paul not only rallied the harvest troops-- he posed in his signature red cap for photos with guests, kissed babies, gave his blessing to an newly engaged couple, and kept spirits high. If not for the setting, one might think it was a political rally, with Paul greeting his admiring constituents. It’s that kind of atmosphere.

Merrill Bonarrigo working at harvest
Merrill Bonarrigo plays a crucial role too as co-owner, COO, Mom in Chief and Executive Hospitality Officer. Despite the scope and size of Messina Hof, it is 100% a family run operation. The next generation, Paul VII, (the son of Paul VI and Merrill) is working along side with his wife Karen. And their daughter Sophia Marie (already a savvy social media expert) and the newborn Paul VIII, are waiting in the wings, ready to carry the tradition and heritage of the Messina Hof empire long into the future.

Paul VII, Karen, Paul VIII and Sophia Marie tweeting on the iPhone
The next generation of family winemakers

The overriding philosophy of Messina Hof is family.  Family and respect for their customers is the cornerstone of the entire operation, and no amount of PR hype can fake the genuine enthusiasm and love guests have for Papa Paul and Merrill—the King and Queen of Texas size hospitality.

Mama Rosa
Even Paul’s mother is an active part of the operation.  She can often be found in the tasting room pouring her signature wine Mama Rosa Rose. I sat next to Mama Rosa at the Harvest dinner and I promised I would not reveal the details, but Mama Rosa and I are plotting a get away to Vegas. Shhhh.

My biggest impression from the weekend was how engaged their customers are in all the myriad of activities that take place at the winery. I know what some of you may be thinking, that perhaps Texas is not the most sophisticated wine market. But you would be so very, very wrong.  The Messina Hof guests are well traveled, well read, people from all walks of life, in all professions, and they know their wines. I met professors from nearby A&M University who had recently dined at the French Laundry in Napa, and had a fabulous conversation with a young woman about her favorite food magazine—Lucky Peach! It does not get any more non-stereotypical than that. But perhaps the whole Texas stereotype thing was in my own head, for everything I experienced defied my expectations. I attribute this attitude to the oath we take in California to believe we are the end all be all, but alas that’s not really true. ( I hope I don’t get booted out of the state for saying that!)

The Wines
Yes, Messina Hof does make over 80 wines!!! Yikes...but it’s all in the pursuit of pleasing the customers. It’s true, they make a White Zin—hey, the peeps want what they want—but they also make a Primitivo Cerro Santo Vineyard one of the nicest Primitivo’s I’ve ever had.

It’s hot and dry in Texas and some of the best selections I tried according to my palate were the Angel Late Harvest Riesling Merrill’s Vineyard, the Mistella Glory Late Harvest Muscat Canelli, the Muscato Tribute to Innocence, and the ethereal Solera Texas Sherry -- but while the sheer depth and breadth of the Messina Hof program is daunting—the truth is there are many fine wines in them thar Texas hills.

Also of note the Paulo Port, Cab Franc and Merlot.

The Villa Bed and Breakfast
I first met Merrill and Paul in Portugal at the International Wine Tourism Conference and spent time with them in Italy this year as part of the same event.  So the harvest weekend was also part of a mini-reunion for members of the blogger trip in Italy this past February. Melba Allen, Jennifer Waters and Tom Plant were part of our reunion group. We all stayed onsite at the Villa Bed &Breakfast. 

Reunion in Texas:  Tom Plant, Melba Allen, Me, Paul Bonarrigo, Jennifer Waters, & Merrill Bonarrigo
Each room is decorated with a different theme and filled with European antiques. I had the privilege of staying in the Hof suite dedicated to Merrill’s family history and I loved seeing the family resemblance of Merrill, and her granddaughter Sophia Marie, in the portraits of Merrill’s ancestors.

The Hof generations 

Paul and Merrill recently opened Messina Hof Hill Country a new resort in Fredericksburg that features a wine garten, onsite tasting room and private cottages called the Manor Haus B & B.

Vintage House Restaurant
My first night I dined with Merrill and Paul in the Vintage House restaurant which doubles as their barrel room for the winery. The atmosphere was wonderful and the food exceptional. This was truly fine dining; with a seasonal menu and a “secret recipe” Paulo Legend Salad prepared tableside. Many of the dishes are created with ingredients from the garden just steps outside the door.

Sicilian feast--Deep in the Heart of Cannoli
At a small private dinner in the Vintage Room restaurant on our final night, we reminisced about our travels together over a Sicilian feast prepared by the Vintage House chef.  My family is Sicilian and I can attest the food was authentic. Paul shared some of his library wines at the dinner and the Merlot was a stunner.

I'd like to thank Paul and Merrill, their family and staff, for all their hospitality. And I think someone needs to rewrite the lyrics to the song Deep in the Heart of Texas to mention Messina Hof-- because it's there at Messina Hof, through Paul and Merrill, that the heart beats strong and true for the love of wine & family. 

Mesinna Hof Winery and Resort
(979) 778-9463 

Wines mentioned above: 

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