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First, though, we made an unscheduled detour into confusion. As we filled the deck, a bevy of young female assistants appeared, each holding out her bottle as if she were a game show hostess displaying a prize. The team swarmed around the picnic tables and hurriedly poured the first wine.
While the group followed Blaine's instructions to hold off tasting until he had taught us how, one person balked at the amount she'd been poured. Perhaps her German accent was confusing, or maybe the pressure of the clock clouded Blaine's listening comprehension. "It's against the law," he shot back, inscrutably, adding that he couldn't give her more without charging a second tasting fee. The woman tried again: Four tastes that big were going to be more wine than she could drink; could she put the excess somewhere? "No. Company policy," he barked and launched into instruction while jaws dropped.
It was the longest exchange any of us had with him. As the second wine circulated, an elderly woman tiptoed to the railing and discreetly poured off her excess. Although this had happened behind his back, Blaine suddenly dashed into the building and returned with plastic buckets, which received immediate contributions.
Four samples were waiting for our eager palates, but first we had to learn the proper wine-tasting techniques. First came the glass-holding. Grasp it by the stem or the base, but not by the bowl, Blaine instructed. Hands adjusted all around, including mine. Blaine introduced each wine with the appropriate tasting technique. For the two dry wines (a white, Sémillon, and Gamay Beaujolais), Blaine showed us how to "cluck," which involves tilting the head back and clucking the tongue to send the wine to the rear taste buds. Everywhere I looked, clouds of white hair tipped back and faces broke into grins. I never got the hang of it.
For the sweet (gew¨rztraminer, which he pronounced "geh-werts-ah-meener"), Blaine demonstrated trilling, sucking air through a mouthful of wine to bounce it on the front of the tongue. For Papa Paolo's Port, he taught us to look for legs and tears: Turn a glass sideways, straighten it, then look for transparent, spidery rivulets running down the glass, which are traces of sugar and alcohol.
Unlike the other sample, which left me cold, the port did justice to Messina Hof's reputation. It was terrifically restrained, not treacly sweet, and full of depth and character. I made a note to order a glass with dinner, along with the port wine sundae that Blaine glowingly described. While he cleared the tables and the senior tour group filed out, Bill and I refused to budge until we'd downed every last drop of the port.
When we later returned to Messina Hof for our dinner reservation, we spied a garden to the right of the Vintage House. Sprouting from the carefully tended rows were elegant little eggplants, yellow and green squash, long red peppers and tiny lettuces. The mere sight of produce so exquisite whetted our appetites.
Our anticipation quickly evaporated in the dining room, where we were met with looks of consternation. The restaurant was closed for a wedding, and no one had a record of my reservation, for this or any other day. A young manager offered to recommend another place and suggested we come back on Sunday. We declined both suggestions, each time emphasizing, "We drove up here all the way from Houston." Well, she was sorry.
So were we. As we trudged back to the car, Bill observed that his sister, who owns a restaurant in Minnesota that's consistently booked to capacity, never would have let us out the door without feeding us.
With that disappointment hanging in the air like fog, I had to cling to the memory of my lunch earlier that day when I had had the second-best cheeseburger of my life at the legendary Dixie Chicken, an A&M hangout Bill had recommended. Founded 25 years ago, the joint is covered inside and out with weatherworn wood paneling and old commercial signs, like some three-dimensional interpretation of Jerry Jeff Walker's Viva Terlingua! album. "The Chicken," in local parlance, is home to numerous attractions worthy of marvel and slack jaws: a live rattlesnake in the front window; urinal troughs filled with ice; and, above all, the Aggie ring ritual. In this rite of passage, seniors earn the right to put on their brand-new class rings by dropping them in a 32-ounce mug of beer and downing the liquid contents. (They get to keep the mug, too.)
For me, though, the ultimate attraction was the combination of a quarter-pound cheeseburger, a basket of fries and a soft drink or beer for less than five bucks. The burger was a glorious, slippery mess of gooey cheese, crisp lettuce, tomato slices and a perfectly thin patty, approaching the best I've ever had (which was at Lankford Grocery & Market at 88 Dennis in Montrose.) The fries were finer than they needed to be, medium in both length and width and nongreasy to boot. Even the draft Shiner tasted better than any beer in recent memory.
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