South Texas' Rio Farms unveils wine grapes; first was table grape vineyard

Times are changing for South Texas agriculture. And if Rio Farms in Monte Alto has something to say about it, wine grapes will be part of South Texas' future.

At an “unveiling” of Rio Farm's wine grapes on June 17, spectators were not only treated to a look at the magnificent clusters of grapes in the five-year-old vineyard, but also to a taste of the wine.

A vineyard isn't new to Rio Farms. In fact, the vineyard itself goes back to 1992 when it was established for research on table grapes. This project proved to be unsuccessful. Pierce's disease took its toll and after six years, the disease had pretty much devastated the grape vines.

Since the trellising for vines, which is a big expense, was already in place, and they had already collected rootstock, Rio Farms decided to branch off into a different area — wine grapes. They also collected area dooryard plants for rootstock. They started with three varieties: Black Spanish, Blanc du Bois and Convent grapes. All three proved resistant to Pierce's disease, which could be significant to the wine industry in California, also struggling to control the disease.

“We mainly concentrated on the Black Spanish and Blanc du Bois,” said Andy Scott, research director at Rio Farms, “since they have the most promise and proved to be the most resilient and resistant to disease.”

Enter wine making

“This research,” said Scott, who concentrates on growing the grapes, “took us to a place we didn't know anything about. And that was wine making.” For this he enlisted the help of Dennis Goldsberry, a fourth generation wine maker originally from California.

Goldsberry, in his garage, with rudimentary equipment and in 100-plus degree temperatures, came up with the wine that was offered at the unveiling. Everyone agreed that the Black Spanish Port, sweet and full-bodied, and the dryer Blanc du Bois, were delicious. “Just think what could be done with proper equipment,” said Goldsberry. “We could have a quality wine.”

“We have tangible proof that we can grow wine grapes down here,” said Scott. He isn't the only one convinced. James McAllen and his sister, whose great great grandfather grew grapes on the Santa Anita Ranch more than 100 years ago, were interested in re-establishing a vineyard and received cuttings from Rio Farms to do so. McAllen now has one and a half acres with 300 vines on the ranch north of McAllen.

Attorney R.E. Lopez also received cuttings from Rio Farms to start a vineyard in San Diego, Texas, in Duval County. “They're the ones who got me started five years ago,” said Lopez. It has become more than a hobby for him and he hopes to sell his wine soon. “We are taking our own cuttings and creating our own rootstock.” Lopez has five acres of wine grapes.

Water quality concern

Water quality was a concern for Lopez since South Texas water has high levels of salt, boron and sodium. But he was reassured by testers from the University of Texas that his water was good enough to grow quality grapes.

The original trellises at Rio Farms were spaced 14 feet apart. But experience shows that they need to be placed only 7 feet apart. There has been no insecticide or fungicide sprayed on the fruit or the foliage.

Though keeping up a vineyard is labor intensive, growers see lots of possibilities. “There is no doubt that wine grapes can be profitable,” Scott says. For established vineyards, grapes can yield $1,500 to $1,800 an acre. Growing wine grapes is a way to diversify in agriculture, and that's what South Texas needs.

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