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Secret of the Vine

story by Jaime Tankersley

"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.

In 1997 Martha and Alphonse planted the first grapes that would become Certenberg Vineyard and later, Wines of Dotson-Cervantes.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 the 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 21 different 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 where 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.

After planting over 6,800 grapes in Voca, Texas, the Dotson family installed an irrigation system that would protect the young plants from drought."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.

Secret of the Vine (continued)