If you’ve ever wanted to help pick grapes from the vineyard and then squash them with your feet, now is the time to do it at Messina Hof. The winery’s 2010 Summer Harvest continues every weekend until August 15.
I was fortunate to have been invited to their July 16 Moonlit Harvest Dinner and got to be among the first group of people to pick the grapes. Messina Hof is just a short two-hour drive heading northeast from Austin, in Bryan, Texas, the perfect distance for a daycation.
Upon check-in, I was handed an information packet, a t-shirt, and a knife, which looked more like a little sickle. Then, we were led upstairs to meet the winemakers and to be seated for an information session.
“How do you turn a beer drinker into a wine drinker?”
“Give him an education and a good job,” joked Paul Bonarrigo, Messina Hof winemaker and CEO, who says that he can tell this joke because he drinks both.
This is the type of good humor that Paul, who always wears a red beret and can only be described as an “Italian Santa Claus”, brings to the wine industry. Wine is not all fun and games for Paul, however; it runs in his blood. There is a 200-year-old tradition in his family that the oldest son is always named Paul and, at age 16, is taught to make wine. Paul’s family back in Sicily still makes wine today.
Paul and his wife Merrill founded the winery in 1977. The name Messina Hof is a combination of their ancestral homelands of Messina, Sicily and Hof, Germany. Following tradition, Paul’s son, Paul Mitchell Bonarrigo, who graduated from the Navel Academy and serves as Officer in the Marine Corp, is learning the art of winemaking.
Messina Hof has received awards for its excellent Texas wines; The Villa, the winery’s romantic bed and breakfast; and the Vintage House restaurant, which serves up dishes prepared using Messina Hof wines and as much locally-grown produce and meat as possible.
Following the short presentation about winemaking in Texas and the Messina Hof winery, we headed back outside. After a quick blessing, we were told to pick up a white square bucket and head out to the vineyard with our knives and start picking.
While picking, we were to keep our eyes peeled for the “Big Kahuna”—grapes that are in unique and interesting clusters. I found one that looked like the country of Brazil and my boyfriend found one that looked like the bust of a horse. We took the mandatory “cheesy” pictures and, once the rows of grapes were picked clean, we gathered around to vote for the best Big Kahuna. The winning bunch was shaped like Africa, picked by radio producer Yo-J from Houston.
The ten Big Kahuna finalists were invited to be the first to step into the large tubs of grapes—after washing their feet off first, of course! After stomping around for a while, some of the winery staff members help the stompers step out of the tub and onto their t-shirts so that they can leave their purple footprints as a souvenir. We were told that the grapes we picked and squished today would be used in a rosé that will be called Sophia Marie, after Paul’s first grandchild, born earlier this year.
Then, we all shuffled into the cool storage area, where Paul taught us a little about the wine-making process and showed us the facility. Everyone had the chance to sample three of their wines, except for the children, of course, who were given sparkling grape juice. We should note that children are welcomed on the grounds during the day, but they are not allowed to spend the night at the resort so that it is as quite and romantic as possible.
After all the picking, stomping, touring, and sampling, I was ready to eat. We were directed back to the room we had the initial presentation in, which was now set up for dinner. In the back of the room was a beautiful spread of food with everything from meat and cheese trays, salad, and a highly recommended mushroom soup, to pasta, an assortment of meats, and delectable vegetables.
While people were still serving themselves, Paul told us that one of the dishes, Treberwurst, is only available during the harvest festival. It is an annual harvest tradition that started in Germany and Switzerland when harvesters would bring sausage and bratwurst to pack in the grape seeds and skins (called “must”). They would then marinate and bake the meat over coals before eating it with crusty breads and mustard. After hearing this, some of the guests went back to get more of the Treberwurst.
Pairing the Messina Hof wines with our food made it a wonderful meal for omnivores and vegetarians alike. We ended the meal with a trip to the dessert table, which offered cute cupcakes frosted to look like tuxedos, mini-cakes, and the healthier option of fresh fruit.
After saying goodbye and taking photos with Paul, we left Messina Hof in good spirits with full bellies, our souvenir t-shirt, and a bottle of their 2005 Papa Paolo Port.
You can read more about the Messina Hof winery traditions, food and wine recipes and pairings, and events on their blog at www.blog.messinahof.com.By Vicky Garza