DEL RIO, Texas – In the fertile soil of Val Verde Country just a few miles from Mexico, Del Rio has the distinction of having undoubtedly the oldest winery in the Lone Star State.
Thomas Qualia is the third generation of wine makers at the Val Verde Winery, a vineyard whose roots got planted in 1883, making it the 9th oldest winery in the country.
“We’re proud of what we do because we started from the ground up. We grow it, we make it, we sell it,” said Qualia.
Thomas has spent his entire life cultivating, harvesting, and producing a fine spirit full of Texas soul.
This story starts with a young 18 year-old Italian named Thomas Qualia who immigrated to Mexico but found work on the Macorini line in Texas. Soon after, he found himself in Del Rio seeking to satisfy his thirst. He planted a 10-acre vineyard quenched by the San Felipe springs and not much has changed.
“I give all the credit, though, to my father and grandfather because they’re the ones who did it,” Qualia said. “I was just lucky enough to inherit it, and so, at times I wonder about that luck, but anyway.”
Thomas’ father Louis took over the winery in 1936 – three years after the end of prohibition, which the winery survived by making sacramental and medicinal wine. As a young man, Thomas grew amongst the grapes and had a few learning curves along the way.
“I drove a pickup when I was probably seven years old and if my foot slipped off the clutch and threw somebody out the back of the truck, and I was running for my life,” said Qualia.
The fond memories don’t just include the memorable mishaps. As the vineyard grew and new methods were put into places, Louis Qualia made the fruit flourish.
“These were all grafted by my father in the late ‘30s onto native mustang grapes, and I’ve had a large number of people request information about the Herbemont, and I have not been able to find it. There was a Count Herbemont back in the east that supposedly had something to do with it, and it was named after him. Either he bred the grape or he brought it over,” Qualia said.“It’s been a real mainstay for the winery. We’ve made a lot of cuttings from it to propagate other vines.”
The Qualias produce around 3,000 cases of wine of year, not exactly enough to get around the entire state but enough to keep the family business in operation.
“I’d rather make a good bottle of wine at a fair price and keep it that way,” said Qualia.
Today Thomas works with his son Michael and the next generation is already learning the vines.
My sister and I are working hard, and fifth generation is coming along, so we’re excited,” Michael Qualia said. “Like any family business, you know, there’s challenging times. But no, it’s good. It’s nice to see things grow and but still continue to be a small, family-run operation.”
Uncorking a bottle of this wine made from the Lenoir or Blanc Du Bois grapes grown in the generational ground gives you an opportunity to taste a part of Texas history that fittingly comes from a country that happens to be the shape of a boot.
“It’s a labor of love, because it’s a lot of work, but I enjoy doing it and people, some people say, ‘What are you doing out there in a vineyard? Don’t you ever take a break?’ I say what would I do, watch TV? Go to the movies? No, I’d rather be out in the vineyard and talking to my vines or talking to the people at the winery,” Qualia said. “It’s a tradition that there’s not another one in Texas that’s this old, and Italian proud.”