Clucking and Trilling

Bryan's Messina Hof winery is a feast for the senses. Just be sure to confirm your reservations.

Everything I'd ever heard about Bryan's Messina Hof Wine Cellars made me hunger for a visit. The winery has racked up ribbons in national competitions and has even beaten California wines on their home turf. Co-owner Paul Bonnarigo is a seventh-generation wine maker from a family that's still in the marsala business back in Sicily. The mansion the winery occupies has a notable (if convoluted) pedigree, too, stretching back to San Antonio's King William District in 1880. The winery offers daily tours and tastings, and has an on-site restaurant, called the Vintage House, which serves Angus beef bred at nearby Texas A&M University.

The prospect of fine wine, historic architecture and a hearty meal made me dizzy with anticipation. It seemed a trip dripping with romance and charm. A road trip wasn't just tempting -- it was mandatory. A friend, Bill, who is in graduate school at A&M, signed on for the expedition, and I allotted it an entire Friday in my first visit to Houston since moving away in early 1998.

Appropriate for a day in the country, the trek got off to a rural start. We took an unrushed back-road route, following FM 1488 and FM 1774 past the Texas Renaissance Festival and picking up Highway 6 in Navasota. Once we reached Bryan, we found Messina Hof easily (green signs clearly point the way from the airport exit) and arrived for the last tour of the day, at 2:30 p.m.

Messina Hof Wine Cellars hides its history well. Sometimes it even hides its better traits.
Amy Spangler
Messina Hof Wine Cellars hides its history well. Sometimes it even hides its better traits.
The Dixie Chicken burger: A glorious, slippery mess.
Amy Spangler
The Dixie Chicken burger: A glorious, slippery mess.

The first sight of our destination was disorienting. I mistook a construction sign announcing the "Villa at Messina Hof" for the entrance to a residential subdivision, instead of a luxury bed-and-breakfast that incorporates the winning design from an architecture school competition.

I grew more confused as we maneuvered the car around an oversize tour bus that had commandeered the parking lot. The visitor center's history had made me expect something that looked, well, historic. (Using 1880s-era brick from San Antonio, the Ursulines built the structure in 1900 based on Gothic architecture; in 1932 it was reworked into a French country-style mansion, which housed an ambassador's residence and, later, a military academy.) Three boxlike buildings flanked the parking lot, but none of them jumped out as a mansion, historic or otherwise. In fact, they would have fit in comfortably in The Woodlands, where our journey had begun. By process of elimination (walking up to doors and reading signs), we identified the smaller building in the middle as the guest center.

Inside was a spacious, high-ceilinged room with Burgundian trusses, award displays, racks of wine, vinegars and accessories -- and a mob of retirement-age individuals, heavy on women. They obviously had arrived on that bus swamping the parking lot. But if we had to accommodate their massive vehicle outside, it was nothing compared to what we had to accept inside. Because of the seniors' tight schedule, the tour would be cut short, announced Blaine, the earnest young man who collected our $5 fees. He proceeded to rattle off background facts: Messina Hof's name combines the hometowns of the owners' families in Italy and Germany. The first vines were planted in 1977; the first vintage was 1983. Texas is the nation's fourth-largest wine-growing region, after California, New York and Washington. And with that, he was off, with 30 of us scurrying behind him.

And so the tone was set for the tour, which included as much wine-making information (and the occasional joke) as the clock would allow. Standing at the edge of the vineyard, we learned that it grows only Lenoir grapes, a black Spanish variety that's native to Texas and used for port. Although Messina Hof also owns extensive vineyards in West Texas and outside Fort Worth, all the wine production is done here. It begins just a few steps away (our cue to head left), beside the guest center, in a pair of enormous steel contraptions called the destemmer and the bladder press.

In their looming shadow, we learned that only juice from the crushed grapes is used to make white wine, whereas the skins and seeds are also tossed in for red. They're the source of tannic acid, which is in turn the source of health claims for red wine. "If you're interested in lowering your cholesterol, drink red!" Blaine said with a laugh, directing us into a chilled tank room that promised comfort at the height of summer.

I shuffled in behind a hand-holding college-age couple in edgy all-black attire, who looked to have beamed in from the East Village. When we reached the center of the room, Blaine was well into his next spiel, wowing us with the capacity of the stainless-steel fermentation tanks (3,500 gallons) and comparing the workings of the filtering machine to a swimming pool's.

Around the corner we faced floor-to-ceiling racks of barrels, and Blaine explained differences among them that were imperceptible to us: the American oak barrels were aging red wines, while the French oak contained dry whites. He also revealed the origin of drinking a "toast," which comes from the practice of putting a flame to an oak barrel to release the wood's flavors.

After indulging a few questions around the inactive bottling machine ("Do the vines have any pests?" "Yes, birds. Any other questions?"), Blaine led us to a covered deck for wine tasting. At many a winery, this point of customer contact is a not-so-veiled exercise in encouraging wine purchases. Here, it was a lecture laced with stand-up comedy.

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