Paul Mitchell Bonarrigo is the son of founders Paul V. Bonarrigo and Merrill Bonarrigo of Messina Hof Winery and Resort. Besides being the CEO of Messina Hof, Paul also takes part in the winemaking at the approximately 70,000 cases of wine a year winery. He took time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions for this month’s winemaker profile.
What did you do before becoming a winemaker (if anything)?
I grew up working in the winery through all aspects of viticulture and enology, but after high school I left to attend the United States Naval Academy and commissioned as a Marine Corps Officer. I served active duty for 5 years, deploying to Iraq twice and Africa once, and then another three years in the IRR. After I returned from service, I obtained my viticulture and enology certificate from UC Davis as I re-entered the wine business.
What is the toughest challenge about being a winemaker in Texas?
Consistency of the grape crop. Making great quality wine is much more likely when you have great quality fruit. As an industry that is in its growth phase, we are challenged with not having all the resources and expertise to be able to consistently deliver a quality crop. Messina Hof is very blessed to have growers that have been growing grapes for many years and believe in the concept that the wine and grape industry must be a team effort. The sharing of knowledge, equipment, time, and resources is an important foundation as to how Texas grape growers have overcome significant challenges. There are amazing things happening right now in viticulture in Texas, and estimates are that in the past two years we have increased the acres of grapes in the state by almost double. Through new resources, equipment, expertise, and passion there are great things to come.
Is winemaking an art or a science or both?
Art and science are absolutely essential in quality wine making. At Messina Hof we believe that you must have a solid foundation of science in order to build the artistic masterpiece that is wine. There are over 2,000 decisions that happen between the vineyard and the winery that creates a bottle of wine. Those decisions made by the vineyard manager and winemaker in partnership define the taste profile of the wine. If you look at national statistics, there are over 50,000 wines made in the United States. Each winemaker uses the tools available to him or her to produce the best wine that they can. We ensure that all our wines are consistently analyzed and we include multiple palates in the final decision of wine blends to ensure that each wine conforms to the artistic style of our winery.
What is your favorite food and wine pairing?
Messina Hof Paulo blend and a tenderloin steak. The Paulo blend won a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and it showcases the best grapes of Texas Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc in a boldly dynamic wine. This bold wine brings out great flavors in the tenderloin steak.
If you didn’t make wine, what would you do?
I would still be involved in the wine industry in some way. Wine is a fascinating part of our culture that will continue to grow for many generations. The opportunity to be a part of that cultural growth and pass it on to my kids is something I deeply value.
What first attracted you to winemaking and how long have you been doing it?
Family tradition is why I started learning about wine and is why I came back from the Marines to continue my wine journey. I have been involved with wine for 25 years, but the last 5 years I have been completely immersed in it. I enjoy a challenge that requires both creativity and analytics. Winemaking is a complex process that requires me to be both deeply analytical in order to ensure consistency and quality, as well as creative to be innovative in providing fresh ideas and wines that people will enjoy.
What is the most common question you are asked as a winemaker?
Which of your wines is your favorite? To which I respond, “all of them.” Every wine is like a child. You mold and shape every step of development and growth until the wine is ready to bottle. There is an emotional attachment to every wine that we make.
After a long day in the winery or vineyard, what do you do?
Go home, enjoy a glass of wine, spend some time with our children, and then do some more work. Winemaking is all about balance, so I believe that you have to ensure that priorities like family do not get lost in the process. There is also a never-ending opportunity to learn new things. As a winemaker or leader, I will never know it all. I must always be studying, growing, and learning to help our company to keep growing.
What’s the greatest part about being a winemaker?
Wine is celebration. Being a winemaker means that we get to be a part of so many peoples celebrations. If you cannot find joy in that, then you are doing something wrong. Wine is also challenging, which makes it incredibly rewarding during the “wow” moment when you taste the final blend of a wine you have been working on for a long time. The blend of art and science always keeps me on my toes, and it is great to have a mentor like my dad Paul V. to help guide me and share his almost 40 years of experience as we work together in the winery.
What is your winemaking philosophy, that is, what are you trying to achieve with your wines?
Part of our mission statement as a company is to make a gold medal winning wine in every varietal that we choose to put in our portfolio. Messina Hof is the most awarded winery in Texas and we pride ourselves in quality. In order for us as a winery and the industry as a whole to progress and grow, the industry must focus on quality grapes and wines.
Anything else you would like to add?
The Texas industry has a great opportunity to enter the world stage in the next couple years. Messina Hof has been very blessed as a company and I look forward to the years to come.