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Secret of the Vine
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 • Posted March 20, 2013

“Dig deep!”

That’s the mantra many coaches shout at their players when it is clutch performance time.

One football player took it literally – on and off the field.

Alphonse Dotson was the 1964 Grambling State Football All American. He then went on to the National Football League where he retired from the Oakland Raiders as a successful defensive tackle in 1970.

From the bright lights of the football field to the Pacific bay lights of Acapulco, Alphonse found himself retiring in the middle of his life. However, during this time of relaxation and daily chess matches, he often thought of a childhood experience that put a secret desire in his heart. Not yet ready to act on that desire, he continued his daily life in Acapulco, where he soon met and married Martha Cervantes.

Sharing a Secret

After spending 15 years in the resort town, the scenery in the old city was changing, and so was Alphonse. He told Martha his nearly 40 year old secret... grapes.

A young Alphonse had taken his first trip to his grandfather’s Houston home. An afternoon exploration of the two acres led him to two boats parked under an arbor wrapped in grapevines and dangling grapes. The vision of grapes was a moment in time forever etched in his memory.

“I told myself, if you can grow grapes in Houston, you can grow them anywhere.” Alphonse said.

He wanted to grow grapes and he wanted to do it right. As he had exercised on the playing field, he educated himself and executed his plan in a way that would make him successful.

Martha was a working wife and mother; she had made her way into a top spot with one of the largest hotel and resort companies in Mexico City as an internal trouble shooter. While Alphonse took care of their children, he studied soils and his passion to create a vineyard grew stronger.

He was digging deep for information. Born and raised in Texas, Alphonse knew he wanted to take his secret back to the Lone Star state. He began consulting with experts in the grape growing field, reviewing real estate prices and educating himself on all aspects of the business.

“I had three already known grape growing areas to choose from, Lubbock, the Red River or the up and coming Hill Country.” Alphonse said.

After spending a year-and-a-half talking to producers, educators and studying soil compositions, Alphonse kept turning to the quiet town of Brady. His mother had always talked about the community and the city park had been named after one of his uncles in the 1950’s.

With his mind made up on McCulloch County he obtained a document on soil types issued in 1974 by the USDA-Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This tool would help him locate the prime grape growing areas in the county.

The Search is On

“I sat down and based on the soil I marked my top three choices, location A, B and C,” Alphonse said.

Shortly after studying the NRCS document, Alphonse traveled to Houston to see his family.

“While visiting my mother, I tore a real estate agent’s ad out of the paper, called him up and told him what I was looking for,” Alphonse said.

The realtor didn’t have anything to offer right then, but the ambition to grow grapes still lingered with Alphonse. Pure providence laid itself in Alphonse and Martha’s hands: a phone call to be part of an exhibition trip to Spain with the Oakland Raiders. During the trip Alphonse met the owner of a Napa Valley vineyard who extended an invitation to come to California to continue Alphonse’s grape growing education.

Back in Acapulco, the Dotsons returned to daily operations until a fax came one afternoon.

“I picked up the paper, never said a word and walked upstairs to see Martha,” Alphonse said. “There it was — properties that fit my A, B and C locations.”

The first pick of locations was Property A. Based on the soil survey book, it showed all the right elements for growing grapes, but was not yet listed on the real estate market. After a discussion with the real estate agent and a meeting with the landowner, Alphonse knew he was only a few plays away from purchasing his vineyard site.

Property A, located in Voca, was not only prime soil, it was located off of Highway 71, the retired Oakland Raiders’ football number, which Alphonse felt was not just a coincidence.

Research and Education

Before he made an offer on the property, in true Alphonse style, education was at the forefront. He walked into the local NRCS office in Brady and shook hands with District Conservationist John Newman.

“We spent the rest of the afternoon discussing soil types, conservation partner agencies and the community in general,” John said.

It has been said that timing is everything and it was certainly true in the Dotson’s case with purchasing their prime piece of property. Alphonse was an agent for his son, Santana, a pro football player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. During the property search, he successfully negotiated a deal for Santana to become a Green Bay Packer. The agent’s fee was one of the last puzzle pieces needed to purchase Property A.

When the dotted line was signed on the Voca, Texas purchase, Alphonse relied on a consultant to map out the vineyard design. Having learned of NRCS services on his first visit, he returned in need of some professional advice and tools to manage

his natural resources. Topography maps were created that showed the land’s contour and field elevations. Additionally soil samples were taken extensively around the acreage.

“Once we were on the property, we discovered an area that was documented as one soil type but in reality was 21different soils,” John noted.

Even though it was only a slight difference in soil type, to Alphonse it was critical. He wanted to know every inch of his land, and with the help of NRCS he learned about every soil in the region.

Time to Dig Deep

Even though the property did not yet have a home for his family, Alphonse was now ready to plant grapes. Over the Cinco de Mayo holiday weekend in 1997, Martha, the children and dear friend, Maria Santiago, road a bus from Mexico to San Antonio were Alphonse picked them up. In 48 hours the family, community members and local residents helped plant over 6,800 grapes on 11 acres. Certenberg Vineyard was born.

Martha returned home to Acapulco with the children and went to work Monday morning tired from her long weekend of intense labor. She realized at that point she felt a blissful peace; her husband had opened the door to his dream and it was time to live that life.

She walked into her boss’s office with a somber message. He had watched her give up family time for her career and knew what was about to become of his valued employee.

“I cried, I loved my job but I loved my family more.” Martha recalled. “He told me I would always have a place in the company but it was time, time for me to go be queen of the grapes.”

Tackling the Tough Issues

Alphonse was now in the grape business, with Martha by his side, but they soon learned they would have to fight off the Texas elements.

It became obvious early on to Alphonse that they needed an irrigation system. Using the topography maps obtained from NRCS as blue prints, Alphonse installed a drip irrigation system that would protect his young plants from drought.

In 2002 harvest production spiked at 110 tons on what was now a 22 acre vineyard; however, frost damage and a hail storm in subsequent years took its toll on the operation. Alphonse knew he had to overcome Mother Nature’s penalties to succeed in the business.

Help When They Needed it Most

“I had to do something so my banker would speak to me again,” Alphonse noted. “With (topography maps) help from the NRCS, financing from Mason National Bank and a prayer we installed an overhead sprinkler system in three days and put it to work on the fourth.”

The system saved the Dotson’s plants from a late April freeze, and the dark cloud that had come to unfailingly linger over the vineyard began to break. Or so he thought — in 2008 a hail storm came through the county that was nothing short of a disaster.

Alphonse believes in conservation. He worked with the NRCS and McCulloch Soil and Water Conservation District to develop a conservation plan for his operation. He participated in the NRCS-Environmental Quality Incentives Program to mechanically remove mesquite on rangeland adjacent to the vineyard. This practice improved the area for livestock grazing and reduced water use by the undesirable mesquite.

Fruits of their Labor

Alphonse’s main goal in this chapter of his life was to grow grapes, and he was soon doing that very well. With a contract in place with Fall Creek Winery in Llano, Alphonse received confirmation from the owner that he was growing grapes of 15 year quality on a 3-year-old plant.

“They told me we could make a forty dollar bottle of wine from my grapes,” Alphonse said.

So with his don’t quit attitude, Alphonse did just that. The Dotson’s worked with Fall Creek Winery to buy some of their grapes back as he resuscitated the plants abused by weather. Out of that purchase, Wines of Dotson-Cervantes was born.

The result: an award winning wine, Gotas De Oro, meaning drops of gold. It is the product of Martha and Alphonse’s careful calculation and formulation. They recently took home the 2013 Rodeo Austin Grand Champion White with their bottled masterpiece.

The contents of that bottle are not just premium grapes. They represent the education and outreach to professionals that Alphonse did to make this phase of his life possible.

“I have never met anyone more like a sponge.” John said. “He is an advocate for our agency. He has been exceedingly eager for ideas and they fall on receptive ears. He didn’t just sign a piece of paper and become a conservation partner, he called directors, asked questions and would try just about anything to see if it worked.”

Passionate Pursuit

The care and compassion Martha and Alphonse have toward those promising grapevine clusters are a result of what the two have shared for each other over three decades.

Together they hit the road on the weekends and try to visit the businesses that carry their product.

“If you don’t get out there and promote your wine, it will just collect dust on the shelf,” Martha expressed.

Since this is not a career-driving venture, passion leads the way for the family’s future plans. They will soon be opening a tasting room on Highway 71 in Pontotoc, and plans to build their very own tasting room in Voca are well underway.

“Large and flamboyant is not our thing” Alphonse noted. The Dotson’s believe if you do it right,

you don’t have to do a lot.

What started as a secret in the heart of a 9-year-old boy has turned into a shared passion and a flourishing business for the Dotsons. Their award winning wine is the result of a well kept secret shared with the right person, at the right time.

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