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Val Verde Winery

Written by Rob McCorkle.

When most Texans head for the border, their tongues thirst for the tingling taste of a Mexican cerveza or frosty, lime-laced margarita. A goblet of ruby-red port is probably the farthest thing from their minds. A stop in Del Rio at Val Verde Winery can change all that.

Texas’ oldest bonded winery sits in the heart of the city between the Rio Grande and San Felipe Springs. Since 1869, the springs have helped irrigate Del Rio’s crops, including black Spanish grapes introduced by Franciscan friars centuries ago.

Val Verde has 12 acres of the original land where the winery got its start in 1883 under the guidance of Frank Qualia, a farmer who immigrated to Texas from a small town near Milan, Italy. Today, the Texas winery, which backs up to the vineyards, operates out of a two-story, white stucco hacienda tucked away on a quiet, palm-lined street named for the Qualia family.

The young Italian winemaker quickly turned his avocation into a commercial winery that has survived Prohibition, pestilence, and the vagaries of the nascent Texas wine industry. Grandson Tommy Qualia has been running the winery since 1973, when he took it over from his father, Louis.

“Contrary to what some have written, Grandpa didn’t leave the Old Country with cuttings in his pocket headed for Del Rio to start a winery,” Tommy says. “He had gone to Mexico seeking a Spanish land grant to take up farming. He lived in San Antonio before heading to Del Rio, where he had heard of plentiful land and the pure water of San Felipe Springs. The Lenoir, or black Spanish grape, was already growing here.”

Val Verde’s reputation as one of the state’s finest wineries extends well beyond the Texas border. Tommy recalls that when the mayor of Oporto, Portugal, visited the winery, Tommy and his wife, Linda Kaye, were out of town.

“He bought a bottle of our tawny port to take back,” Tommy says. “It’s supposed to be in the Museum of Port in Portugal. I’d like to go see it someday.”

The Del Rio vintner doesn’t take such acclaim lightly. After all, it was in the 1970s, when Tommy took over the business, that the winery switched from screw caps back to corks. The winemaker is determined not to stray too far from his family’s winemaking tradition.

Tommy tries to keep operating and distribution costs down, production comfortably low, and the quality of the wines high. Tommy and his small work force still produce a handcrafted wine that is bottled and corked three bottles at a time.

Val Verde’s wines have profited in recent years from America’s growing affinity for all things Italian. Under the Tuscan Sun—the recent best-selling book and movie that pay homage to the country Italian lifestyle and Tuscan wines and cuisine—have imbued the winery with a certain cachet.

“The business is really starting to come around,” Tommy concedes. “Italian wines are becoming very popular.”

Visitors to Val Verde can take a 15-minute tour that includes a look at the fermentation tank area, where they learn about the winemaking process. Then it’s off to the “big barrel” room and “small barrel” room, where the wines are aged. Tours conclude in the tasting room, where visitors can sample and purchase the various wines.

The winery’s Don Luis Tawny Port, named for Tommy’s father, retails for $25. Val Verde’s other European vintages—Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Texas rosé, Muscat Canelli, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese—sell for a bit less.

The Qualias buy most of their grapes from other parts of the state, primarily the Panhandle and Texas Hill Country. Val Verde’s Sauvignon Blanc—a slightly sweet European-style white wine—is made from grapes grown at Becker Vineyards in Stonewall. The Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc come from Pecos County grapes in more arid West Texas.

The affable winemaker’s eyes light up when he speaks of the winery’s new Italian-style wine—a 2001 vintage, ruby-red Sangiovese, made with grapes grown in Blanco—that won a Bronze medal in its first competition in San Francisco. The vintner hopes to match that success with an Italian white, a homegrown Pinot Grigio, as soon as his grower can boost production.

Though Tommy admits Val Verde Winery is “150 miles from nowhere,” intrepid oenophiles find their way to his door—some via the Pecos Wine Trail, a circular route that leads from Del Rio to Fort Davis to Fort Stockton. Go to www.texaswine to learn more about the state’s seven wine trails.

Despite the Texas wine industry’s and Val Verde’s success, Tommy Qualia says he never forgets the advice his father passed on to him decades ago: “If you make a good bottle of wine, they’ll beat a path to your door.”

Not content to rest on his laurels, Tommy recently purchased his uncle’s 1929 house just a few doors down from the winery. There he has planted four acres of the winery’s trademark Lenoir grapes and embarked upon another vocation straight from the hills of Tuscany, growing olive trees.

“Now, I’ve got something to do for the rest of my life,” he says, alluding to the challenges of growing olive trees in the heavy, black soils of the Rio Grande floodplain.

Perhaps soon, future generations of Texans will be able to enjoy Qualia olives along with a glass of Val Verde’s finest ambrosia, both made under the Texas sun.

Val Verde Winery lies just south of downtown Del Rio at 100 Qualia Dr., 830/775-9714. Hours: Mon-Sat, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sun.

Ciudad Acuña, just across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, offers shopping and sightseeing that’s hard to resist. Drop by the popular Corona Club for a cerveza or margarita before heading to dinner at one of the border city’s famous eateries, such as Crosby’s.

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