By Maureen Qualia
As most know, my family has owned and operated Val Verde Winery since 1883. When my great-grandfather arrived in the Del Rio area to settle, he opened the winery as an Italian tradition to serve the community. It was passed on to my grandfather and then to my dad. I grew up in the tasting room, cellar, and lab. Surprisingly the lab was quite sophisticated for the time (owing to the help of a well-known consultant, Enrique Ferro).
Growing up I did not see the glam or romance of wine. It was hard work and a lot of cleaning. I did not have the understanding or appreciation of wine or tradition until I lived in Italy. I was a Rotary exchange student twice to northern Italy. I spent a summer there when I was sixteen and a gap-year between high school and college. There, wine was a way of life. We would go to the local co-op and fill crates of bottles with wine that would be returned to the cellar at home and brought out every night for lively dinners. It was also in Italy that I began to appreciate history, tradition, and culture, and understand my own.
My undergrad studies were in nutrition and food science at UT Austin. As I made my way through chemistry courses, I was brought back to the lab in my dad’s winery. I could apply and understand so much of what I was learning to wine. It was a combination of those two events that led me to pursue a career in wine.
After graduating from UT, I stayed in Austin for a few years working in social work. I also spent quite a bit of time travelling in Central and South America (not wine related, unless you consider Ica, Peru wine country!). (Editor’s note: It’s Pisco country!) During this time, I did take an introduction to wine course through UC Davis via distance for which I received a box of VHS cassettes to watch! (We have come a long way in distance education!)
In 2005, I moved to Fresno to study enology at CSUF. I graduated with an MS and worked in CA until 2013. I worked with a number of great winemakers in Northern Sonoma County for several years and in 2010, decided I needed a bit more of challenge. I also wanted to work in a region that was more climatically similar to Texas. Through a meeting with Don Brady in Paso Robles, I landed a job managing a production facility in the central coast region. It was the challenge I was looking for and came with a vertical learning curve. It was also great fun.
My goal in all these endeavors was ultimately to return to Texas. I had been watching the industry and was excited to see where it would go. In 2013, I took the position with TTU and moved to Fredericksburg. I was tasked with developing and teaching the Texas Tech Winemaking Certificate Program. It was an exciting challenge and certainly a change in pace from driving folk-lifts and dragging hoses! Over the past ten years, I have had over 500 students. It has been a rewarding demographic to work with. Most are second-hand career individuals entering the wine industry with vast and varied backgrounds. I also teach the undergraduate enology curriculum.
The most rewarding aspect of being in the Texas industry is the enthusiasm, and the drive to keep improving. We still have much to learn about grape growing and winemaking in the state. I think our biggest challenges will come from climatic and weather driven events that will (and have) forced us to adapt quickly.