Rio Farms is an agricultural research facility located just a few miles north of our winter home. The Director of Research there is a friend from church. Several weeks ago he invited us to attend their up-coming "Grape Growing Seminar" which was to be co-sponsored by Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas A & M AgriLife Extension, and USDA-ARS. The event was to include specific grape growing information, as well as introductions to the wineries and vineyards of the Rio Grande Valley and tasting of their vintages.
It sounded interesting, even though we are neither grape-growers nor connoisseurs of wines. So we went. As we arrived, we were invited to enjoy appetizers of Gulf of Mexico-caught shrimp from Shrimp Outlet, a developing new industry located in Brownsville. As we sipped on wine samples (some of us, that is!) we heard illustrated presentations by an expert viticulturist and a plant pathologist. We had no idea there was so much to know about growing grape vines!
After sitting for awhile, it was time to walk a bit. Most of the 150 persons in attendance loaded into school busses which drove us out to the Rio Farm Vineyards. These vines were planted in 1998 after a previous trial with table grapes was unsuccessful due to Pierce's disease, a common vineyard threat.
The growing of wine grapes on a small scale in the Rio Grande Valley dates back to the early 1900s. But only recently has it begun to be considered as a viable option for diversifying the agriculture of the area. With "citrus greening" threatening the citrus industry, the growing of wine grapes is becoming a more attractive alternative. About a decade ago, Southwest Farm Press estimated that established vineyards could earn between $1500 and $1800 per acre.
Three types of wine grapes have been found to be resistant to Pierce's disease and other vineyard threats: Blanc du Bois, Black Spanish (Lenoir), and Convent. Rio Farms has vines of each. Currently, there are 60 acres of vineyards in the Rio Grande Valley, 45 of those acres in Hidalgo County where we live. Last year, these vineyards sold more than 25 tons of grapes to long established wineries in the hill country.
As we returned to the auditorium, a generous and delicious meal had been prepared for us. As we dined representatives of four Valley wineries introduced us to their vintages. In addition, several home wine makers spoke of their experiences.
Many of those in attendance took home souvenirs of the day: bottles of wine made from Rio Grande Valley grapes! What an interesting, informative -- and tasty -- event!