Driving down a neighbor- hood road in Del Rio lined with palm and pecan trees, you’d never expect to find the oldest continuously operating winery in Texas. Val Verde Winery is not only that, but the ninth-oldest in the country.
Del Rio is just across the border from Mexico in Southwest Texas and an unlikely place for a winery, but the Val Verde Winery has been owned and operated by the Qualia family for four generations. Val Verde Winery was established in 1883 by Italian immigrant Francesco Quaglia, who simplified the spelling of the family name upon settling in Texas. Francesco was born and raised in Milan, Italy, and traveled with a group of Italian men to Mexico City, where they were charged with draining the lakes and teaching the residents how to grow crops. Francesco had heard there was an opportunity for a Spanish land grant for farming there. But the men were treated poorly and decided to continue searching for a better place. They made their way to San Antonio, Texas, where there was already an Italian community working to build the railroad, but because they were looking for land to settle on as farmers, they continued heading west.
When Qualia arrived in Del Rio, he found Lenoir grapes flourishing under the warm Southwest Texas sun. The grapes had been introduced by Franciscan friars centuries earlier. It was on this land that he founded his winery on 10 acres leased from a local landowner. The San Felipe springs provided the water needed to irrigate the vast farmland. During the 1860s, several local landowners had built a dam on the San Felipe Creek to establish a series of canals to help get the water to different land plots both for irrigation and for drinking water. Thus, the San Felipe Agriculture, Manufacturing and Irrigation Company was formed.
On his land, Qualia planted vegetables between the rows of grapes to help feed his family of seven children and pay for the land by selling his crops. The family would add a quarter acre each year in grapes until all 10 acres were used for grape-growing. Louis, the youngest child, stayed and helped his father with the winery. They were able to keep the business open during tough times. During Prohibition, the winery was given permission to sell its wine to churches and for medicinal purposes. They made grape juice out of the grapes that they didn’t sell. They also sold grapes to other communities.
After Qualia’s death in 1936, Louis took over the vineyards, introducing the French Herbemont grape — used in white wines — to Texas. Louis was able to put new methods into place to make the winery flourish. He taught his youngest son, Thomas, how to run the winery and passed the winery to Thomas in 1973. Thomas has since been able to increase production. The winery has added the Blanc du Bois grape for making some of its white wines. In addition, Thomas introduced a crop of olive trees to the vineyard several years ago; they produce olive oils that are also sold at the winery.
Michael Qualia, Thomas’ son, is the fourth generation who’s become a part of the winery. He started a membership group, the 1883 Wine Club — members receive two three-bottle orders of wine chosen by the winemakers each fall and spring — and has worked to make the winery a family-friendly place, offering light snacks in the tasting room. “We’ll get a group of young ladies,” he says, “who like to come hang out and catch up in the tasting room.”
The winery is still housed in the original building that Francesco built in the late 1880s to hold the equipment and animals that worked the vineyards. The building is made of thick adobe walls. A side room houses the port barrels with the wine aging inside. It’s like stepping back in time. When you stop in for a tasting, you can see some of the original wooden winemaking equipment in the tasting room. If you want to experience the climate, you can sit outside and enjoy a bottle of wine while looking at the grapes growing in the vineyard.
Today the winery also gets grapes from a few other vineyards in Texas, namely High Cross Vineyards in Sonora, Young Family Vineyards in Brownfield and Mesa Vineyards in Fort Stockton. The Val Verde Winery offers a variety of red and white wines that are reasonably priced, producing about 3,000 cases per year.