Messina Hof Winery & Resort in Bryan is gearing up to welcome thousands of visitors to its vineyards to participate in a multiweekend wine stomp ‡ la I Love Lucy.
Guests can pick and stomp grapes, drink wine with lunch, attend food and wine pairing seminars, dine to murder mysteries and attend a tasting to benefit Mysoldier.com over the next five weekends during Messina Hof's 28th annual Harvest.
Paul Bonarrigo, who owns the winery with his wife, Merrill, said the harvest season is traditionally a festival time because crops would determine a village's economic success for the next year.
In 1984, just over a dozen international students volunteered to pick grapes at Messina Hof during harvest season to feel closer to their home countries. Since then, Harvest has exploded into an annual event with thousands of participants.
"Every year we get more people because word spreads," said Bonarrigo, who is president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association. Last year, Harvest brought in 4,000 guests, and participation rises about 15 percent every year.
The Bonarrigos say they want to educate their guests about the health benefits of wine, wine appreciation and the evolution of the family farm into a combination of tourism and agriculture, or agritourism.
"The most important element of the thing is the opportunity to educate people about the industry while having a lot of fun," Paul Bonarrigo said.
Many people have seen the episode of I Love Lucy where Lucille Ball stomps grapes, Bonarrigo said, and they want that experience, too. So Messina Hof hires extra staff and invites everyone to share in the wine-making process.
"You're actually seeing the birth of a wine," Bonarrigo said.
People can learn about wine year-round, he said, but when the grapes are being picked and crushed in front of them, the visitors get a unique chance to witness the wine-making process.
Harvest's popularity also stems from the winery's central location in Texas. Bonarrigo said 90 percent of the state's population lives within a three-hour drive of Messina Hof, and Houstonians account for 80 percent of Harvest participants.
Bonarrigo estimated that this Harvest season will have a $1 million economic impact on the Bryan-College Station area. The rooms at the Villa, Messina Hof's bed and breakfast, have been booked for three months, he said, so he's already referred customers to hotels in the area.
He also said that the recent dry spell was a boon for the wine industry. The wet, rainy spring, followed by the summer drought and topped off with the last two weeks' showers, will produce the "harvest of the decade," Bonarrigo said.
But, he said, he's glad the rain came when it did.
"Even though we irrigate [the vines], there's nothing like natural rain," he said.
This year's growing conditions resulted in grape clusters that are 15 percent heavier than normal, and the vines have dark green leaves and "very dark" grapes with excellent flavor, Bonarrigo said.
After decades of growing grapes in Texas, he said he finally understands why farmers don't like to go to Las Vegas.
Farmers, he said, "gamble every single day."
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