Pigskin for Grape Skin

by Steve Wilson • Photography by Knoxy

When retired Oakland Raider Alphonse Dotson told his family they were moving from Acapulco to start a vineyard in Texas, they didn’t buy it. “The kids were like, ‘He’s gonna get out of the hammock and stop drinking mescal and playing chess all day?’” Dotson recalls. “No, that ain’t gonna happen.” True, the former defensive tackle had been leading a relaxing lifestyle in the resort town for a good 15 years, but nobody could argue he didn’t have drive. After Dotson’s mother caught him forging her signature to get on the football team of his Houston high school, he made it up to her by graduating in the top 10 of his class of 400. Though courted by the likes of University of Michigan upon graduating, he chose Grambling State University because “they were fast, agile and a little mean.” When he broke his foot and had to return to the team’s third string, he pushed himself so hard that he made first-team all-American. Even after going pro in 1964, he had to go through a couple of teams (“I would get verbal with the managers.”) before finding a home with the Raiders. “The team I’d been taught to hate turned out to be the one I loved,” he says.

Gridiron to Grapevine
Dotson stayed driven outside the field, too. In the off-season, he taught art and then special education at a high school in New Orleans. Leaving football in 1971, he worked with at-risk youth as a juvenile probation officer (“I only lost one kid to the system.”) and as a staffer at Julia C. Hester House community center back in Houston. When his attempted oil field trucking business imploded after his partner disappeared with a 20-ton poll truck, he flew to Acapulco to calm down. “I wasn’t there to chase women, just to cool out, to keep from doing 5-10,” he says. Instead, he wound up meeting and marrying Martha Cervantes, an internal troubleshooter for a hotel and resort company. Dotson and Cervantes merged their families from previous marriages in a house with a great view of the Pacific. But after more than a decade as a stay-at-home dad, Dotson’s old drive returned. This time, he got the bug to create a vineyard. Though he took a research trip to Napa Valley, Texas was the only place he ever considered—having been dazzled as a child by the grape arbor over his grandfather’s carport. “I asked [my grandfather]: ‘You can grow grapes in Texas?’” Dotson says. “He looked at me and smiled.”

Peel Me a Grape, Y’all
After a lot of homework and visits with several experts around the state, Dotson zeroed in on Lubbock, the Red River Valley and the Hill Country as potential vineyard sites. The three areas have the kind of sandy clay loam that retains nutrients but drains away excess water—perfect for grapevine roots. With an agent commission he earned when he helped his son sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dotson bought 83 acres in Voca (off Highway 71, his jersey number) in 1996—christening the land Certenberg Vineyards. The next year, he, his family and the local high school marching band planted 6,800 cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and merlot vines. The 30 acres yielded 27 tons in 1998, 50 tons in 1999 and 110 tons by 2002. Fall Creek Winery liked the quality of Certenberg’s crops so much that it struck up a partnership to become the vineyard’s sole client. Then came the challenges. Late freezes dropped the yield to two tons for the next seven years. Dotson installed drip irrigation and overhead sprinklers to fight off the frost, removed the moisture-sucking mesquite from adjacent land and cut back 10 acres to redevelop the plants. But to really save the operation, he took a more risky step: he created a full-fledged winery.

alphonse3

A Vintner by Necessity
Dotson and Cervantes launched Wines of Dotson-Cervantes in 2009—signing an alternating proprietorship contract to become an independent winery within Fall Creek. Dotson-Cervantes rolled out Gotas de Oro (“drops of gold”), a muscat canelli, later that year, followed by last year’s cabernet-merlot blend, Something Red. Both wines have won various awards around the state and beyond, thanks in no small measure to Dotson and Cervantes’ constant weekend trips promoting their product. The winery, which runs a tasting room in Pontotoc, Texas, sold 1,100 cases last year—a number Dotson would like to get up to “a solid 2,500,” but no higher than 4,300. “We don’t want to mass-produce,” he says. “We’re somewhat small and quaint.” Small, quaint and always there when his children need a place to “cool out.” They’re all grown and out of the house, but they know there’s room to come back for a spell if they need to. “I wanted to develop this not just for myself, but for my family, so the youngsters would always have a place to come back to and regroup and revitalize,” says Dotson. “But for now, it’s ‘Hey, get your ass out!’’’