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South Texas winery beating the odds

Dr. Juan Anciso, 956-968-5581, j-anciso@tamu.edu

Video of Dr. Juan Anciso describing the history of the Jaber Estate Winery in South Texas

MISSION  –  Dreams of a successful winery in the Lower Rio Grande Valley have turned to nightmares for countless of would-be vinters in the last 100 years, thanks to aggressive plant diseases that routinely wiped out entire vineyards.

Harvesting of grapes at Jaber Estate Winery northwest of Mission ended June 22. The winery will soon begin marketing its dry red and white wines.

But thanks to new and improved grape varieties, the dream may finally be coming true for a Mission man who is preparing to market his newly bottled red and white wines, according to Dr. Juan Anciso, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service horticulture specialist.

“Jorge Jaber of Jaber Estate Winery northwest of Mission may finally be putting all the pieces together to finally have a highly successful winery here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Anciso said.

“The winery just completed its second year of harvesting red and white grapes, which will eventually result in 25,000 bottles of wine ready for sale to the public. Some 9,500 bottles were harvested from last year’s crop, and Mr. Jaber calculates he’ll bottle another 15,500 this year.”

Jorge Jaber (pronounced JAY-burr) is a retired 80-year old Mexican businessman who is finally living his dream of a successful winery on a plot of land he bought here decades ago.

“I’ve been wanting to make wine for many years,” Jaber said in Spanish. “For 30 years I’ve been a faithful consumer of wine; I drink it daily with meals. I’ve visited many wineries, including those I saw on my trips to Europe, but where I was living in Mexico was not considered a good place to grow grapes.”

Twenty-five years ago, when he bought his property in the Valley, he was disappointed to learn it wouldn’t be possible to grow them here either, thanks to diseases such as Pierce’s disease and cotton root rot which quickly killed off entire vineyards.

“But just a few years ago,” he said, “I asked Texas AgriLife Extension Service and Rio Farms again and they said it was now possible, so I said, ‘Say no more,’ and I began planting immediately to build a winery. There is no other winery in this area.”

An entirely hands-on owner, Jaber spoke as he filled the role of chemist, carefully mixing aggregates and enzymes into the newly crushed grapes to control the fermentation process and improve the wine’s taste and aroma.

“I always dreamed of retiring and spending the rest of my life making wine, and now I’m making it,” he said. “I’m glad I made the decision.”

Three years ago, Jaber planted two and a half acres of Black Spanish grapes for red wine and three acres of Blanc duBois grapes for white wine. Harvesting this year ran from June 9 through June 22.

“It’s a quick turnaround,” Anciso said as he watched workers harvest robust bunches of small, deep purple grapes. “It only takes a year and a half to go from planting to harvest, and one year from harvest to wine. And in just his second year of production, Mr. Jaber is almost ready to go to market.”

The years between planting and bottling are not without their challenges, Anciso said.

“The weather is always a factor, including a hail storm that hit this vineyard pretty hard back in April,” he said. “It’s a struggle, but we now have rootstocks and grape varieties that are more resistant to Pierce’s disease, a bacterial disease that caused lots of problems in the past. We still encounter cotton root rot, a fungal disease, and bunch rot when it rains.”

But grapes like what the Rio Grande Valley usually has in abundance, Anciso said.

“Hot, dry weather,” he said. “This area is known for that and grapes love it. Rain basically causes spoilage or decomposition of the grapes which affects the wine quality. But with so little rain here, we’re more than likely to have very good crops.”

Counting Jaber’s vineyard, Anciso estimates that six growers currently have some 20 acres of grapes in production, with plans for another 20 to come online soon. But only Jaber has the facilities and state-of-the-art machinery, imported from Italy, to mechanically crush grapes and bottle wine.

“A winery is an expensive endeavor,” Anciso said. “Drip lines, wire for the grapes to grow on, 630 plants per acre at $3 to $5 per plant, the land, labor, facilities, equipment, it can easily run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Expenses seem to be the last thing on Jaber’s mind as he watches a conveyor belt dump plump bunches of grapes into a hopper connected to a hose that feeds grape juice to three 10-foot tall stainless steel tanks.

“I measured this morning and there was no sugar, so it’s fermented,” he said. “It’s gone from grape juice to wine. With no sugar you’re left with a dry wine, so both my red and white wines are dry wines. But in the future, we’ll make other types of wine.”

Jaber said his next step is to begin marketing his newly labeled Jaber Estate Winery vino, a dream finally come true.

Find more stories, photos, videos and audio at agrilife.org/today and view this story at:
http://tinyurl.com/6trxdyz

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