NEAR MISSION — Rows of vines set the stage for the harvesting of the prized Blanc duBois grape picked by hand — keeping with an age-old tradition of making wine.
In about nine months, those grapes will become the next batch of white wine that will be made in the only winery in South Texas.
Family members and ranch hands picked the grapes Wednesday morning at the Jaber Estate Winery along Western Road north of Mission, where owner Jorge Jaber and his family were busy preparing the Italian-made press that would squeeze the juice from the rest of the plant. Towering, cylindrical metal vats stood nearby, ready to house this year’s harvest.
“The juice is placed in those containers where a chemical process takes place, over time the sugars are converted into alcohol,” Jaber said.
Owning a winery has been the lifelong dream of Jaber, 80, who has been drinking wine with his meals for more than 50 years.
After retiring from a lifetime of work in the oil and gas industry, Jaber decided to learn all he could about wine and winemaking.
“Wine is the perfect drink to accompany a meal, it brings out the flavor of the food and it creates a very rich experience,” he said. “After being a lifelong wine enthusiast, the next step was to go ahead and try to create our own wine.”
After spending months travelling and learning the details of winemaking, Jaber set out to grow his grapes.
But he soon learned that the South Texas soil and weather were not as conductive for vineyards as other places in the United States.
“Newer developments allowed us to use the blanc du bois and the black Spanish grape and we grew it three years ago,” Jaber said.
After months of work, the winery produced its 2011 vintage and now is in the process of fermenting the wine collected from grapes in 2012. Next month, the family will harvest its Black Spanish grapes and start the process for another batch.
“It was a mixture of so many emotions,” Jaber said as he recalled holding his first bottle. “I was proud, glad, but at the same time nervous because what if my wine was not the quality that I wanted. It was better than I could have expected.”
Wearing bandanas over their heads as protection from the summer sun, Lupe Escobedo walked the vineyard collecting about 3,000 pounds of white grapes — they’re actually a green color — that will become about 160 gallons of wine. Escobedo, along with several of her relatives, were there for the harvest which began 7 a.m. and went until the grapes were all picked.
“We look at the color of the grapes to make sure they are ripe — the more yellowish color is best — and if we find ones that went bad we discard them,” Lupe Escobedo said. “We try to make sure that the grapes are all good.”
Outside of the wine processing area, ranch hand Alfredo Peña inspected the 36 tubs of grapes being dumped, one-by-one, onto a conveyor belt that led to press.
“We remove the leaves and other debris that comes with the grapes and then we make sure that they are all ripe and that none of them have gone bad,” Peña said.
The press and fermenting vats are kept inside an air conditioned metal pole building, where Jaber’s son, Abraham, used a wooden paddle to help the grapes along into the press as his father oversaw the process.
“This is a family venture,” said 39-year-old Abraham Jaber, a classically trained chef who spent three years studying in France. “We are working on creating a full wine tasting experience.”
In addition to tours of the winery and wine tasting events, Abraham and his wife, Liudmila Usacheva Jaber, who is also a chef, have begun holding wine dinners where they prepare European dishes that best match the particular wine being served.
Because of the permit that the winery has, they can only sell the wine on location and are working on finding distributors so it may be found in local supermarkets or liquor stores.
For now, Jaber wines can be found locally at House Wine and La Jaiba restaurants, or during a winery tour.
FAST FACTS: JABER ESTATE WINERY
>> Rio Grande Valley’s only winery
>> Jaber Estate wines can be found at House Wine and La Jaiba restaurants.
Winery tours can be scheduled at www. Jabberestatewinery.com, at (956)330-3609 or at (956) 581-2480.
>> Jaber wines can be found locally at House Wine and La Jaiba restaurants, or during a winery tour.
>> A tapas and wine dinner is set for July 20 at the winery. Call to schedule a reservation.
>> To learn more, visit www.jaberestatewinery.com, or call (956) 330-3609 or at (956) 581-2480.