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The Seed Flourishes

Former NFL player turns idea sowed in Houston into notable grapes and wines in Central Texas

An impressionable 10-year-old Alphonse Dotson happily trailed his grandfather, Alphonse Certenberg, as they toured the old man’s Kashmere Gardens backyard in 1953 North Houston. They walked past two grazing mules, chicken pens, rabbit pens, a vegetable garden and two fishing boats underneath a carport draped with an arbor of … grapes?!

Grandson asked grandfather, “You can grow grapes in Houston?”

In response, Certenberg just smiled, and off they went for deep-sea fishing in the Gulf.

“It was the first time I had been to his house,” Dotson remembers, “and it was the best vacation week I ever had! The seed was planted.”

That “seed” was Dotson’s fascination with growing grapes, and the allure would lie dormant for decades—throughout a successful football career—and finally come to life in the sandy loam of the Hill Country, 115 miles northwest of Austin. There, Dotson and his wife, Martha Cervantes, became vintners. Their boutique winery in Voca grows several varieties of grapes and produces the award-winning Wines of Dotson-Cervantes from their 32-acre Certenberg Vineyards, a fitting homage to Dotson’s late grandfather and a boyhood experience that was a harbinger for his future.

Alphonse Dotson and LucyLu in his vineyard in Voca.

Dave Shafer

“Maybe once a week, from 1953, did I not think about growing grapes,” says Dotson, 77, who was an NFL defensive end from 1965 to 1970, primarily playing for the Oakland Raiders and maverick owner Al Davis (“Just win, baby!”). Dotson played for Jack Yates High School in Houston’s Third Ward, then at Grambling State University, where in 1964 he became the first small-college player named to a major All-America team.

There were days when he’d sit in his favorite restaurant at the Berkeley Marina, listening to a jazz pianist and pondering what he was going to do “after being, humbly, a gladiator.”

And in those moments of deep thought, he kept returning to those grapes. Yet when the Sunday stadium din of Raider Nation ceased, Dotson began a journey to define his post-NFL life. He was destined to grow grapes for a living, but, for a change, that was somehow the furthest thing from his mind as he dabbled in event promotion, oil field trucking, being a sports agent and traveling—most fortuitously to Mexico and Spain.

Dotson settled for 15 years in Acapulco, which is where the Raiders caught up with him in 1994. NFL teams often include former players on junkets, and the Raiders invited him to travel to Barcelona, where the team was playing a preseason game against the Denver Broncos.

Also on the trip was Kam McLeod, son-in-law to one of the Raiders’ part owners. McLeod owned a vineyard in Rutherford, California, and invited Dotson and Cervantes to visit.

“My research into growing grapes started with my Oakland Raiders family,” Dotson says. “I visited with [McLeod] and was introduced to different kinds of soils, grapes and came back to Acapulco and started charting all that I learned. Martha said, ‘You don’t grow no plants here!’ But you have to be listening to who’s talking to you that you can’t see, and then you have to pay attention.”

By 1995, Dotson was fully locked in to learning about grape growing and the wine industry, and Cervantes came aboard, reluctantly. The couple met in Acapulco, where she helped him find a residence. She was a highly valued employee for a timeshare company that managed resorts worldwide, working her way up from concierge to director of member services. Dotson says he kidnapped her from a job she couldn’t be fired from.

“I fell to the ground when he said, ‘We may have to move to Texas,’ ” she says with a laugh, but move they did—away from the lush mountains, Pacific Coast beaches, nightlife and other attractions of Acapulco, to Central Texas, where “the only neighbors you have are cows and horses. The kids said, ‘Mom, you gotta get us outta here!’ But we never gave up. God kept us together.”

Alphonse Dotson with a glass of Gotas de Oro at his winery in Voca.

Dave Shafer

Dotson’s last act as a sports agent was to negotiate a deal with the Green Bay Packers for his free-agent son, Santana, who also played at Yates and was a 1991 All-America defensive end at Baylor University. Dotson used his commission to purchase the land for his vineyard, and the couple moved to Texas in 1997.

“We didn’t know doodly-squat about growing grapes,” Cervantes says.

For all he and Cervantes lacked in grape-growing and winemaking knowledge, they made up for in hard work and study, talking with soil and winemaking experts, scientists, grape growers, and other experts who took the time to mentor and advise them. And they hit it big in 2008 with their first wine, Gotas de Oro—drops of gold. Made from orange muscat grapes, the wine is described as “a medley of fruits—pears, star fruit and ripe peaches.” Among its many awards, Gotas won gold at the 2019 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Before producing their own wines, they focused solely on growing grapes (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay) for Ed and Susan Auler, owners of Fall Creek Vineyards in Tow. Ed Auler has called Dotson’s grapes “the best in Texas.”

Jeff Cope, founder of the Texas Wine Lover website, declares, “I can honestly say that he has perfected white wines, dry all the way up to sweet.”

Despite the couple’s initial success, several years of late freezes caused grape production to drop, from yields of 110 tons to only 2 tons. Now there are plans for growth, including an expansion of the tasting room that will add a dining area and paving the dusty, rocky access road that is not unlike Dotson’s path to success.

Ever amiable, Dotson flashes a wide, toothy smile and welcomes visitors to the tasting room, adorned with oversized photos of his playing days and magazine covers featuring him and his wife. Between sampling sips, he explains the design of their label, which features his signature floppy cowboy hat and a rose, symbolic of the yellow roses he gave Cervantes when they courted in Acapulco.

Dotson-Cervantes winery’s trophy collection.

Dave Shafer

The label is distinctively silver and black with a background of the Raiders’ shield.

“I wanted a label that represents both of us,” he says, “but I also wanted to give a nod to Al and the guys I played with … and to agitate the damn Dallas Cowboys!

“When I asked Al’s permission, he said, ‘Just have fun, baby!’ ”

Michael Hurd is a historian who grew up in Houston cheering for the mighty green and gold Worthing High School Colts of the Prairie View Interscholastic League. He’s a former newspaper journalist, former director of Prairie View A&M University’s Texas Institute for the Preservation of History and Culture and author of Thursday Night Lights: The Story of Black High School Football in Texas. He’s not a wine expert but makes killer cheesecakes.