Clucking and Trilling

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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.

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.

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.

But that was lunch, and it was high time for dinner. Giving up on adventure, we didn't even consider looking for a restaurant nearby. Instead, we headed for the comfort and reliability of the pasta bar at The Woodlands' Carrabba's, where Bill goes so frequently that the staffers know him by name and dining habits. One look at the menu confirmed the wisdom of our choice. There was the perfect cap to the day: a chicken breast with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, called Chicken Bryan Texas.

You bet I ordered it.

Messina Hof Wine Cellars, 4545 Old Reliance Road, Bryan, (409)778-9463. Dixie Chicken, 307 University Drive, College Station, (409)846-2322.

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