It is a mid-July evening and I am in Bryan, Texas where I have just arrived at Messina Hof Winery. The temperature is a ‘balmy’ 92⁰ and I am here for their Moonlight Harvest, an event where I will be picking grapes, followed by stomping them and then, this having bonded the 40 or so participants, finishing with a dinner.
6:55pm: we sign in and are given a lethal looking knife with an orange handle (kind of a bowie knife in a hi-vis safety outfit). This is for hewing bunches of grapes off the vines. We each sign a waiver that we acknowledge the knife is sharp and assume the risks of self-injury.
7pm: we assemble in a room above the restaurant where CEO and Winemaker Paul M. Bonarrigo welcomes us and gives us the lie of the land. This vineyard is composed of the Lenoir grape. It is at ideal ripeness for vinification into a rosé wine. In three weeks it will be riper still and used for Messina Hof’s best-known wine Papa Paulo Port.
7:15pm: our group heads out to the vineyards to the two rows of vines that we are being unleashed on. The rows of vines stand, as if in defiance of us, stretching back what seems miles (in reality, it is just a few hundred yards). On one side of me, a square box makes a sound like a hawk, apparently scaring away any grape-eating birds not deterred by the site of 40 ragamuffin humans with knifes bearing in on them. We spread out and start searching for fully ripe bunches under the massively abundance leaf canopy.
To make things fun, there will be a prize for the biggest grape cluster (Big Kahuna) and a prize for the most unusually-shaped one.
The key thing is to only harvest clusters that are fully ripe. On these, all the grapes are a deep iridescent/purple blue. Not unlike blueberries. Many clusters show partial ripening (some grapes are green) and need a few more days before harvesting.
I fill up a palette with grapes, separating out the largest cluster for tagging as the Big Kahuna. Someone from the winery in a yellow sweatshirt obligingly gives me a new, empty palette for my second load. I am already respecting the guys who spend eight hours in the vineyard doing this. It is, to use an overused phrase, backbreaking work.
Our group does eventually pick over the vines near me so I jump down the row for some fresh clusters. People are getting the hang of this now and producing clusters, for the unusually-shaped cluster prize with shapes that resemble such shapes as “South America”, high heeled shoes, and various animals. I’m outclassed in this category.
Stomping Grapes After Our Harvest
08:15pm: We move over to the crushpad where are palettes are emptied into large bins. The Big Kahuna and interestingly shaped cluster competitions are narrowed to the 10 best examples. It turns out the rules change at this point. To move from top 10 to top 1 the participant must perform some ‘talent show’ act like singing, dancing, making a seal talk, etc. For the top 10, this is the ‘big curve ball’. The rest of us get a free show as the embarrassed winners use any means necessary to advance. In the end it is all in vain for the adults as a little girl is the cutest and wins by acclaim.
[INSERT IMG_1735.JPG NEAR HERE. Caption “Messina Hof Sophia Marie Rosé. This Vintage Contains My Feet”]
09:00pm: Time for dinner. A sumptuous buffet and eight varieties of Messina Hof wines await us as the group of who are now our friends eats a well deserved meal. If you choose a room at ‘The Villa’ at Messina Hof you only have 100 yards to go to bed so trying all the wines is no problem. Lots of time to talk to Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo, the winery’s founders in 1977, and son Paul M. Bonarrigo and his wife Karen, the generation who acquired the torch last year (in a past life, before acquiring a winemaking certificate from the University of California, Davis, Paul M. served two tours of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Marines. I daresay he finds handling our crowd doing harvest a little more straightforward).
11:00pm: Leaving the tasting room to a happy group head to bed at the Villa in a bed that is older than Dallas.
Moonlit Harvest continues for each of the next three Fridays at Messina Hof’s Bryan winery. Check in advance for weather or other issues. Best place to stay is in The Villa Bed and Breakfast on the winery premises.