A Sip and A Thought: The Ladies of The Vine

By: Ruben Borjas, Jr.
| Published 06/11/2024


THE WOODLANDS, TX -- I received an email a while back, from one of the staff members of The Woodlands Wine & Food Week Founder Constance McDerby, and was determined to attend at least one event. This was the 20th Anniversary of ‘Wine & Food Week,’ and I’ve got to hand it to Constance and her team for the wonderful work they do each year. I’m amazed at how McDerby and her crew continually top themselves in the creation of new memories born of the unique and creative experiences that Wine & Food Week goers love and appreciate. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Ladies of the Vine,’ Tasting, Luncheon & Panel Discussion, held at The Club at Carlton Woods, in The Woodlands this past Friday. And being one of the few men in attendance, I was honored to be in the same room with many of the most business savvy and beautiful women that Montgomery County has to offer.

Not only did I Sip on the wonderful selections of wines during the reception, but listened to the Thoughts while interviewing the Ladies of the Vine panel and event goers along the way. Then I was invited to the Luncheon afterwards. I quickly rescheduled my next event to a different day (with the excuse of having heart palpitations while being rushed by ambulance to St. Lukes). I then spent the next two hours being regaled with a banquet fit for my relative’s wife, Camilla (married to my 15th cousin, who knows how many times removed, King Charles III). The luncheon had its own set of wines paired with the four courses, and truly deserves its own column, but I will not let the ladies be outshined on this one.

I lauded the accomplishments and the sacrifices of the Ladies of the Vine, who all had well planned out careers ahead of them, only to be ‘vinesided’ in various ways into the wine trade. And I say, “Thank God for it.” Wine needs a woman’s touch, and I would have been totally bored if the event had been called ‘Men of the Vine.’

I love Monique Studak, who MC’d the event. Her personality is infectious, and filled with as many bubbles as the wines she informs enthusiasts about. I’m a moth to her flame. She moderated the luncheon and panel discussion with precision, and kept the ladies at the cool peoples table, the chatterboxes, in reduced tones. If Monique had gone to war, I would have followed her with a bottle of wine in one hand, and a rifle in the other; as long as the bayonet was in the shape of a corkscrew worm. Her company, ‘Thirst for Knowledge,’ was birthed from her years of experience at Messina Hof, E&J Gallo, and Pernod Richard. Studak has traveled the globe, tasting, and training the trainers in wines. She is an expert in initiating those new to wine to taking the road to connoisseuring, and if someone called her, “Not an Expert,” I’d immediately challenge them to a duel. It was a joy to see and hear her, along with Constance keep the event moving along.

The first of this year's panel that was introduced was Jennifer Chapple, who is VP of Sales for ‘Share A Splash.’ She grew up in her Mother’s French Academy. Chapple started with wholesale wine and spirits distributor Young’s Market Company in Southern California. Jennifer then moved to Trinchero Family Estates, and Constellation, in working the supplier side of the isle. H-E-B then recruited Jennifer as their corporate wine buyer. She has worked in sales and management roles for some impressive companies. Jennifer’s role in the consortium of wines that are part of Share A Splash is important, and has helped the company blossom into a growing international powerhouse whose aim is to create long standing relationships world-wide touting wines with affordable price points.

‘Pur Noire Wines,’ represented by Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer Carissa Stephens, is a most welcomed woman of color to this year’s panel. She graduated from the UH Bauer College of Business (Go Coogs!), and worked in the corporate accounting world before being vinesided into the wine culture. Carrisa and her husband represent about 0.7% of Black owned global vino producers, as well as being the first from Houston. Pur Noire Urban Wineries have done very well with California sourced grapes, despite launching in the midst of the pandemic. They were rewarded in 2022, with the ‘Innovator of the Year Award’ from HUE Society’s Roses and Rosé Awards in Atlanta. Pur Noire has even launched a second label called ‘Erion.’ and the winery’s portfolio has already garnered international awards. Stephens’ ‘Pur Noire Napa Reserve Merlot,’ paired so well with the Pecan Smoked Allen Brothers’ Beef Tenderloin. It was two dreams in one.

From Houston we travel up to Aggieland, Bryan to be precise, and Messina Hof Winery. There you will find second generation owner Karen Bonarrigo, who works alongside her husband Paul Mitchell, virtually around the corner from my nephew and his family who live off Old Reliance Road. Quaker State born, Karen attended George Washington University with an eye towards law, when she met a vintners’ son from Texas who was attending the U.S. Naval Academy. After being a U.S. Marine’s wife in North Carolina, and stressing through several of P.M.’s combat deployments to Afghanistan, the couple moved to Texas in 2010 to start the process of relieving from duty, M.H. founders Paul V. and Merrill Bonarrigo, who launched the M.H. product line back in 1977. While her husband handles the vines and production, Karen runs the place, continuing its success with its different departments in promoting the Messina Hof brand, not only educating those interested in her wines, but all strengthening M.H.’s name via its culinary side.

‘Renaissance Wine Marketing’ owner Denise Ehrlich started her full-service wine brokerage in 2010, and I’m thinking of transferring all of my assets from my financial planners to her shop. Do they have ROTH Wine IRA’s? Denise works with wineries from Cali, to Europe and South America. She has experience in many aspects of the industry, supplier, distributor, and importer, in her over 30 years in the wine business. I’m a fan of the great Chef Auguste Escoffier, and Ehrlich is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier which promotes the Arts of the Table. She is a charter member and former head of both the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo Wine Committee, and Women of Wine Charities. Denise is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to wine.

And we all need to bow and give thanks to Wine & Food Week Founder Constance McDerby, who is the prettiest founder I’ve ever met. Her willingness to risk has been rewarded. Constance has a media background in television, radio, print, and social media. She already had the tools in place to find the right people and get the word out for an event like inaugural Wine & Food Week two decades ago. Constance was serious about her studies in college, and didn’t start appreciating wines until going on a European honeymoon, where the Spanish wines entranced her, and so began her love of the fruit of the vine. Now in its 20th year, The Woodlands Wine & Food Week, its success and passion, are all owed to Constance, in her continual quest for the new and interesting, when it comes to Food & Wine in The Woodlands.

The Woodlands Wine & Food Week:

Share a Splash:

Pur Noire Wines:

Messina Hof:

Renaissance Wine Marketing:

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