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Patience is a virtue in wine production

If you’re going into the winery business, don’t get in a hurry.

Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo got interested in making and selling wine back in 1977 and bought an acre of land near Bryan, Texas. Now, they crush grapes from as many as 600 vineyards across the state; some owned, some purchased under contract from other growers, to make a variety of wines for their Messina Hof Winery.

But it took a while to get from there to here.

Bonarrigo, during a winery tour last summer, recalled selling just 1,100 gallons of wine in 1977. In 2009, they’ll sell 300,000. “We had to self-finance,” Bonarrigo said. “For the first five years we had no income from the vineyard. It took nine years to begin to break even.”

He said in hindsight, self-financing was a blessing. “If we had gotten a loan we probably would not have been able to pay off the debt. We started small and built up. Now, we pay as much as Napa Valley wineries for grapes, about $2,000 a ton.”

He said anyone contemplating starting a vineyard will invest around $2,500 per acre to get started. Later, routine vineyard maintenance will take significant investment. But the opportunities are expanding.

Bonarrigo said the No. 1 goal for Texas wineries is to saturate the state with Texas wines. “If we do that, we’ll sell out.” And that possibility is becoming more likely as Texas increases consumption. “Texans have discovered wine,” Bonarrigo said. He doesn’t claim that Texas wine consumption has achieved the status it enjoys in Europe where “wine is part of the culture,” but said the age group from 21 to 40 in Texas “is learning to enjoy wine.”

And more wineries are being built. “We’re adding from 10 to 15 wineries in the state every three months. In 1977, we had 13 organized wineries in Texas.” Those were built to see if the wine industry was feasible.

“Now, Texas boasts 177 wineries and is the fifth largest wine producer in the country, behind California, Washington, New York, and Oregon. In 1977, Texas was last.”

But hurdles remain. “We’re still the only state with a shortage of grapes,” Bonarrigo said. “We need five times the number of (current) acres to meet demand.”

He said grapes can compete with other crops in some areas, and with subsurface drip irrigation wine grapes use less water than some row crops.

Messina Hof looks farther than the Texas state line to market wine. They recently sold 2,000 cases to Japan, 400 to Norway, and distribute to eight states.

“We compete well with California,” Bonarrigo said. “And most of our wineries are family operations that derive 75 percent of their income from grapes.”

Winery tourism is a bonus. “The No. 1 wine touring region in the country is Napa Valley. No. 2 is Texas. Fredericksburg is a tremendous winery destination with 22 wineries in the area. They get twice as many visitors as the Presidential Library.”

He said Texas wines are on the White House wine list.

Even though the industry is still growing Texas has a long history of wine production. “The first grapes were grown in Texas in 1536,” Bonarrigo said, “in a vineyard just big enough to grow grapes for sacramental wine.”

By 1900, Texas had 19 wineries, but the temperance movement and Prohibition all but destroyed the industry. “When Prohibition ended in 1933, Texas had one winery left, in Del Rio. It still exists and it survived by selling wine to the Catholic Church.”

Bonarrigo can trace his family’s involvement in the wine industry to the early 1800s, and back to the Messina area of Sicily. It’s a profession he enjoys.

“We participate in the most joyful times of people’s lives,” he said. “That’s amazingly satisfying.”

He said patience is a virtue in the wine industry. “It takes one generation to be recognized,” he said. “The second phase is the Rodney Dangerfield era; you ‘get no respect.’”

He said the third phase is the best. “We’re in the position where people are enjoying quality Texas wine. Post production is the most satisfying.”

Messina Hof Winery also includes a quality restaurant, gift shop and bed and breakfast.

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