Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo: Where Italian Tradition Meets Texan Attitude

Messina Hof Winery and the Bonarrigo family are where old world meets new world. Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo have been making wine in Texas since the 1970s, but the Bonarrigo winemaking tradition dates back to the 1800s when Paul’s family was making wine in Sicily.

That tradition was reborn in the United States when he and Merrill pioneered a viticultural experiment in the 1970s which set the foundation for the Texas wine industry as we see it today. From three wineries in the 70s to 250 today, that determination and excitement has spurred the Lone Star State on to become the 5th largest wine producer in the United States.

In anticipation of the Bonarrigo’s upcoming presentation at the International Wine Tourism Conference in Italy, we talked with Paul about going back to Italy, Texan wine tourism and how his family has developed Messina Hof into the most awarded Texas winery in domestic and international competitions.  

1. Having been a part of the 2011 conference, what are some of your favorite memories and what are you most looking forward to this year?

Last year every winery, restaurant and lodging could not have been nicer.  Texas means friendly, I could not have been more surprised how everyone was so friendly.  I have been to Europe many times. Wine and Food people know the hospitality industry. 

2. Italy is known as a land of great wine, but for you Paul, it’s also the land of your forefathers; what are you looking forward to most in Italy?

As an Italian American who grew up in a very ethnic area of the Bronx, there was only one type of wine consumed: Italian and Home Produced. Every time I return to Italy I feel the warmth of the people and the common bond of ethnic customs.  Italy has so many wines that are not known in America.  There are so many grapes that I am not familiar with.  Perugia is an area of Italy I have not been and I am looking forward to visiting the area and meeting the people. 

3. You host wine and travel lovers all the time at your hotel and winey; what advice do you have for people travelling and tasting through wine regions?

When people travel thru a new area it is so important to take many pictures and many notes.  When you complete a wonderful trip those pictures remind you of those fabulous memories.  In Italy it is important to know what grapes grow best in that area. Some wines are blended and some are not. The interaction of the grape blends and the pairing with the regional foods enhance the regional cuisine. 

4. Texas is not the first place people think of for wine, but from reading your blog, it appears to have played a huge role in the industry. What should we know about the history, wines and wine tourism in the Lone Star State?

Texas wine began in 1640 when the Spaniards established missions and planted grapes. In 1977 Messina Hof was part of a great experiment planting 50 varietals in 13 locations throughout Texas. There were 3 wineries in 1977, now we have 250 wineries in Texas. Texas is 5th in wine production in the USA. Messina Hof is distributed in Texas and 8 other states.  We produce 100,000 cases. 

5. Which Italian wines do you hope to see in the Jane Hunt MW Grand Wine Tasting Wines of Italy?

In Jane Hunt’s wine tasting, I am looking forward to new grape varietals, new techniques and new blends. 

Join the 2012 International Wine and Tourism Conference this January in Italy and network with Paul, Merrill and 2-300 more attendees.

4 responses to “Paul and Merrill Bonarrigo: Where Italian Tradition Meets Texan Attitude

  1. I am so excited that these two terrificTexan winemakers going to be at the IWTC again. Thoroughly enjoyed meeting them – what a discerning and knowledgeable couple! Learnt so much from them, but eager to learn more about Texan wines from this flamboyant duo!

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