If you have ever met Alphonse Dotson of Wines of Dotson-Cervantes and Certenberg Vineyards, you will not forget that moment. His always present large smile coming from below the cowboy hat on top of his tall frame will immediately grab your attention. His witty conversation and stories will keep you attentive. I recently had the chance to talk to Dotson and learn even more about his background, including things that have not been written.
Dotson is originally from Houston, Texas. He said, “I grew up in Houston and was raised in all three neighborhoods from Studemont Heights, to Fifth Ward, and to Third Ward. That way I didn’t have to worry about getting beat up when I went to another area.”
There was probably a small chance of that happening for the future NFL defensive tackle. He graduated from Yates High School in 1961, and went to play football at Grambling State University where he earned first team All-American honors in 1964. In 1965, Dotson was the 24th overall pick in the NFL draft in the second round, but instead decided to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League. He played for a year with the Chiefs, another year with the Miami Dolphins in 1966, and then his best years from 1967 to 1970 with the Oakland Raiders.
After retiring from the sport, Dotson moved to Acapulco by a suggestion from a football friend, and he met his wife and Guadalajara native, Martha Cervantes, there. They lived there for 12 years before one of his children got into a little mischief in Acapulco. Three friends told him separately it was time to move back to the States. Dotson decided he was going back to grow grapes instead of playing chess and lying in a hammock all day. He mentioned that to his wife, and she just looked at him and smiled. They told the kids and they didn’t believe him.
The phone rang a couple days later and the secretary to Al Davis, co-owner of the Oakland Raiders, invited him to go on a trip to Spain for eight or nine days with some old teammates and coaches for an exhibition tour where the Oakland Raiders were playing. On this tour, he met a man and they spent time talking from Los Angeles to Barcelona, Spain. They kept running into each other over the next six days, and on the seventh day, the man said, “Hey, do you know me?”
Dotson replied, “Before this trip, no. I just met you Kam (McLeod).” To which McLeod replied, “Well, you’ve been nice to my wife Michele and I not knowing us prior to this trip. Do you know my father-in-law Ed McGah?”
Dotson said, “Sure, he owns part of the Raiders.” McLeod said, “Come see me when you come to California.” He told Dotson he lived in the Rutherford section of Napa. For a wedding present, McGah’s father-in-law gave him them a home with a 43 acre vineyard on it right across the river from McManis Family Vineyards.
Dotson told him he would be there to see him sometime. They talked over the next couple months and Dotson asked when would be a good time to visit. McGah asked what he wanted to do when he came, and the answer was he wanted to learn about growing grapes. McGah said he would introduce him to two guys, one that went to UC Davis and an old-timer who learned it the old-fashioned way.
Dotson and Cervantes went out there for four to five days and visited certain wineries and vineyards, and asked a lot of questions. Dotson said after coming home, he started jotting down everything they had heard. “So, my research started with my Oakland Raider family. That’s why on the back of the Gotas de Oro (their first Texas wine), I give thanks to my Oakland Raider family and Kam and Michele. It’s simply not just playing for the Raiders, but the fact that the research started with them.”
His thanks on the bottle is: “Thanks go to our Oakland Raider family Michele & Kam, the Davis family, the Smith brothers of sunshine, the Herdell’s, Hampton of Santa Maria, the Texas Dept. of Agriculture, T.W.G.G.A., the Aulers, Chris, Michael, and Alyosha, the Dotson-Cervantes family, Sterling A. Certenberg & God! Smile…”
After learning about growing grapes and deciding Texas was going to be the place to start a vineyard, it was now time to find the land. He first came back to Houston to tell his mother what he wanted to do. When he got off the plane, a little voice said, “Take them to the Alamo.” He kept hearing that voice.
The family decided to take a trip to Bandera, Texas, and Dotson’s mother rode with them. He kept hearing that voice say, “Take them to the Alamo.” After they got to Bandera, Dotson suggested they go to San Antonio for lunch. On the way there, that same voice said, “Why don’t you go to that spot where the gondolas turn around with the shops and restaurants, grab some lunch, and then go to the Alamo?”
Lunch was enjoyed in San Antonio, and after eating, they exited on Blum Street. Down this street was Blum Street Cellars with the sign “Texas wines.” Blum Street Cellars sold wines from the Hill Country. Dotson went in to introduce himself to the owner, Timothy Morgan at the time, and told him what he was doing. Morgan suggested he was looking in the wrong direction. Dotson said he would take the rest of the family to the Alamo and he would come back to talk to Morgan.
He came back and told him everything he had learned in Napa. Morgan told Dotson there were three areas for growing grapes in Texas. One was the Red River Valley, two was the High Plains, and third was an up and coming region at the time, the Hill Country. When Dotson’s family came back from the Alamo, he asked one more question to Morgan, “Give me a list of people to talk to that you’d leave your daughter with.”
On the list first, was his father who taught viticulture at Grayson County Junior College. Morgan said he could go visit his dad and stay with him as long as he wanted. The other names mentioned were Dr. Charles McKinney at U.T. who helped develop the vineyard at Ste. Genevieve, Dr. George Ray McEachern (viticulture), the Aulers (owners) at Fall Creek Vineyards, Hoss Newsom (viticulture), Nel Simes who owned Grape Creek Vineyards at the time, and Dr. Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards, along with some others.
Dotson went back home, thought about what he learned on that trip, and decided he would take the next year and a half to visit everybody on the list that was given. In doing that, he would always ask the same question, “Give me a list of people to talk to that you’d leave your daughter with.” In doing that, he wanted to see the consistency of who these individuals were recommending. For the most part, the same names came up plus a few more. In short, he was giving himself his own education on the Texas wine industry.
When it came time to make a decision on where to go, Dotson decided to make it simple and eliminate where he was not going to go. He wasn’t going to the Red River Valley and he wasn’t going to the High Plains. The primary reason for that decision was he wanted to stay within five hours of Houston in case he needed to get to his mother. He took a Texas map and determined where the furthest distance was and started working back. The furthest distance was Brady, Texas. Dotson had found a real estate agent in the Houston newspaper that said he was in the Hill Country, but didn’t say where. He called the realtor and coincidentally he was located in Brady. Dotson told him what he was looking for which was 60-100 acres of land and the maximum amount he would pay for it.
The ironic thing is his mother had two uncles who had been born in Brady, and the city had named a park after one of her uncles in the mid-50s called Willie Washington Park. Dotson decided the city can’t be too bad. In addition to that, Highway 71 starts out of Brady heading to the Gulf, and his number when he played for the Raiders was 71.
He pulled out the survey book for McCulloch County where Brady is located, and started looking at the soil composition of different areas, and then marked letters A through G on the areas, even though he didn’t know if the land was for sale.
Dotson’s realtor called about two weeks later and told him he had found three pieces of land to which he asked for a map or topography of the area. The realtor faxed him the information and Dotson started to laugh. He brought the fax to Martha, laid it out, and said, “Look at the three pieces of property I found.” She looked and said, “I guess we’re moving.” It was A, B, and C.
The vineyard is called Certenberg Vineyards, named after his grandfather, Alphonse Certenberg, and is located in Voca, between Brady and the winery in Pontotoc off Highway 71. Right now, Dotson and Cervantes have a 30-acre vineyard of which 25 acres are producing. They grow Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Muscat Canelli, Petit Verdot, and Muscat Giallo. About half an acre is Alicante Bouschet they planted last year. They currently only sell to Fall Creek Vineyards.
I asked Dotson what the proudest moment he has as a vineyard owner. He replied, “I would probably say the proudest moment has to be when harvesting the fruit, and saying the worst section gives a very good grape.”
This year had earlier warmer temperatures and Dotson said the warm weather started February 14. He said it’s going to be one of those years when you need to adjust the pruning as more of a hedge type as opposed to fine. He continued, “But I’m looking at it this way. As opposed to a fine pruning and considering we got hit by hail on May 9th last year and had never been hit by hail, I think I’d rather be in the predicament where I have to drop something as opposed to having nothing to drop.”
As mentioned previously, the winery called Wines of Dotson-Cervantes is located in Pontotoc. In fact, they hold two winery permits, one inside Fall Creek Vineyards and one at Wines of Dotson-Cervantes.
Their first wine was Gotas de Oro (“Drops of Gold”), and they followed it up with a wine called Something Red. You’ll have to read our previous post for the meaning behind that name. Now they have two more wines. The first wine is called Perseverance which is a white wine (75% Muscat Canelli, 17% Malvasia, along with Muscat Giallo and Chardonnay) whose first production was released in August 2015. That wine was produced in Pontotoc with 67 cases the first year and it sold out in less than a week.
They sold two cases of Perseverance to a location in San Angelo that weekend, two cases out of the tasting room that weekend, and was planning on bringing three cases to Salt Lick BBQ to sell. But after talking to Scott Roberts of Salt Lick, he wanted to buy them all. They decided they would sell half to him and keep half for the tasting room. By October, both Salt Lick and the tasting room were down to a few cases left. Salt Lick asked him about his next production and Dotson said the next production looked like it would be about 190 cases, which turned out to be 207 cases. Roberts said he would take an allotment total of 70 cases.
The fourth wine was just bottled last September 2016 and is called Patience that is a red wine (Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot). They discovered by accident on the way out of the 2017 Rodeo Uncorked! Roundup and Best Bites Competition that it had won a silver medal at the 2017 Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition, and in fact was a Texas Class Champion. The last two wines Dotson made with the guidance of Don Pullum who he has been working with for over 15 years.
During his years of growing grapes, Dotson even served as a President of the Texas Winegrowers Association (now called the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association).
I had to ask Dotson about his connection with Sports Uncorked who has been following Texas Wine Lover on Twitter and vice-versa for years. It is a great website that shows how sport celebrities are related to wine, their causes, and much more. Dotson said he was introduced to the owner as he was looking for athletes and what they were doing now, and especially if it was related to wine. One interesting thing found during that discussion was the Oakland Raiders had three different individuals doing different things involving grapes. Safety and cornerback Charles Woodson was making wine, coach John Madden was growing grapes, and Dotson was growing grapes and making wine. At the time, and it still may be true, there was no other team that had people involved with all aspects of wine. Sports Uncorked shows the public that former football players, as in Dotson’s case, can do something other than play football.
Dotson is very involved with the Texas Commission on the Arts. When people come to Wines of Dotson-Cervantes, Dotson asks if they are familiar with the Texas Commission on the Arts. About 70% will say yes. For those who are not, he explains the Commission is set up to assist schools and neighborhoods bring arts to their community. He is also one of the longest term commissioners running in the commission. Normally it is a six-year position, but this past December, he completed 15 years.
The first thing most politicians do when trying to save money or generate income, is to go after the arts. In Dotson’s opinion, that is backwards. From his experience with football and growing grapes, he said there are three things that keeps an individual moving. The first is going to work every day. The second is football during the football season regardless of what level. And the third is the arts, be it kids playing music, the theater, a movie, or listening to concerts during an evening out. As he said, “If you want people to go out and spend money to create taxes, why wouldn’t you keep people moving with a smile on their face?”
Perhaps that is why you will always find a smile on Dotson’s face.