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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Ceja - an “Outlier” Mexican American Winery that will make you feel like family

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
In Malcolm Gladwell’s famous book, “Outliers,” he repeatedly mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule", claiming that the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours. In Napa, over 40% of the population is Hispanic and virtually no wine has been untouched by Hispanic migrant workers hands at some point in the winemaking process (fact: around 68% of U.S. hired crop farm workers were born in Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Thus, it should come as no surprise that Mexican vintners and winery owners are on the rise, proving that all those hours spent in the vineyard really do build expertise. Among these Mexican American winery owners is the Ceja family, who are not only getting it right, but hitting it out of the ballpark with their wine production, while managing to still create a warm, familial experience for visitors.  With family in mind, we visited owners, Amelia and Pedro Ceja on a lovely Sunday in November to celebrate my father’s birthday, at their Carneros Estate and experienced first hand their wonderful food-friendly wines and top notch hospitality.

The Ceja Estate at at 1016 Las Amigas Road was cozy and welcoming; as the sun was setting over the vineyard at our arrival, the experience was akin to arriving at a family home for Sunday supper.  Amelia Ceja had offered to host us at the alternative new tasting salon at 22989 Burndale Road, Sonoma, as there was construction starting for a new larger winery at the Carneros Estate. I had, however, heard great things about Amelia’s famed organic garden (fact: she’s a certified Master Gardener) and thought that for my father’s birthday visit, the intimate location and “international Ceja headquarters” would be more representative of the family-style Ceja experience. Amelia is a petite woman, but her personality is larger than life and as the first Hispanic female president of a winery, she undoubtedly has helped the brand to thrive and expand.  Amelia Ceja’s passion for her garden and love of cooking was even featured in Sunset Magazine in October 2013. This culinary focus directly influence the types of wines the Cejas produce, driven by great acidity and balance that make them so food-friendly.  The new winery being erected will naturally feature a Master Kitchen while the current Estate Winery will be converted into a bed & breakfast, furthering the tradition of food as an integral part in the family’s growing wine and hospitality business.  Amelia is the quintessential hostess and she welcomed us warmly as we sidled up to a tasting bar, not far from the famous dining room table that has hosted many a wine-focused dinner.  

Amelia Moran Ceja came from a town of 250 people near Jalisco at the age of 12, speaking not a word of English.  When not attending school, she worked in the vineyards, alongside her family where she met her future husband, Pedro Ceja.  Education was important to both Amelia and Pedro’s familes, and Amelia Ceja double-majored in history and literature at the University of California, San Diego before marrying Pedro, who became an engineer in Silicon Valley. Armando Ceja, Pedro’s brother, studied winemaking at the University of California, Davis and in 1983, Armando, Amelia and Pedo purchased 15 acres of Carneros vineyards which ignited Ceja winemaking.  The Cejas now own 113 acres of vineyard, and both Amelia and Pedro have been able to dedicate their careers to the winery.

Amelia is not only a talented chef and gardener, but a skilled marketer; she’d successfully woven a beautiful story of her family’s history and their ongoing pursuit of creating beautiful food-friendly wines that pair beautiful with all cuisines, including Mexican flavors. This emphasis on building a great marriage between tradition and innovation has helped Ceja win the honor of “Best Boutique Winery in Napa & Sonoma” by Best of Napa and Sonoma Valleys Magazine, based on its 2008 and 2009.  Amelia was named Business Woman of the Year by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2008, was recently featured on The Today Show, and has posted over 140 videos on YouTube to date. When I asked what she commonly features in her posts, subjects range from her famous cooking to unique food and wine pairings. Ironically though, the most popular posts feature the family cat, Dulce Beso, (which translates to “sweet kiss”), a friendly feline that we met at the tasting bar that evening.  
This same name is given to the late harvest SauvignonBlanc/Semillon wine that is comparable to a Sauternes.  Amelia tells me she made all three of her children sign up for Twitter accounts, which may have influenced her daughter, Dahlia’s path to working for the family winery as their Sales and Marketing Director. According to Dahlia, “technology and social media have been a great way to expand our presence,” referring to the tweeting and blogging she does regularly. Dalia’s growing role in the culinary world is reflected in the expanding presence of food on the winery’s website, www.cejavineyards.com, and on YouTube, where she has started publishing cooking demonstration videos - proving that food and wine pairing remain the focus of the Ceja’s ventures.

The Cejas are savvy when it comes to managing the financial health of their business and they subsidize their Ceja Wine label by selling about 85 - 90% of their grapes to other wineries. They produce approximately 9,000 cases of wine each year of which they primarily distribute direct to the consumer, though they have been know to also distribute to some top tier customers as well, including Morimoto and The President of the United States.  If the Cejas used all of the grapes they produce, they could easily make 75,000 cases, but they prefer to stay a boutique winery and have the ability to dedicate time and care into every bottle.  Many minority wineries are developing their own style and for the Cejas, the focus centers around family and taking wine to a new level which involves promoting awareness of authentic Mexican cuisine and its fresh flavors; the perfect companion for pairings that yield an ideal wine experience.

We tasted through a full line up of Ceja wines which included a Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah, Red Vino De Casa and Cabernet.  Before we could depart, Pedro walked in from outdoors where he’d been surveying the progress of the new winery construction, initiating another round of tasting!  Amelia brought out an assortment of nuts and fresh persimmons from her garden to pair with the famous “Dulce Beso” late harvest dessert wine, and a red dessert wine similar to a port. A Cabernet infused chocolate sauce was a special treat that paired sinfully with the Ceja Cabernet.  Reminiscing and bantering like family, a story came up from my own wedding in which I’d asked my father to saber champagne at the reception. At that, Amelia declared we’d need to open a bottle of the Cejas very own late disgorged sparkling wine! It was the perfect festive finish to my father’s birthday tasting - a gem of a winery not to be missed and an experience not to be rushed.

Tasting Notes (from Ceja):

2012 Sonoma Coast Sauvignon Blanc: $22 per bottle
Aromas of lemon-lime and citrus give way to grapefruit. The palate showcases bright mineral flavors layered with vanilla.

2012 Napa Carneros Chardonnay: $36 per bottle
Aromas of lively citrus, green apple, plump pear and honeysuckle. The palate is fresh, crisp and tangy. Extended sur lie aging provides rich and creamy qualities.

2010 Carneros Pinot Noir: $42 per bottle
The aromas are fresh and floral with red plum, black cherry blossoms and hibiscus scents. The palate showcases a savory medley of Jamaica tea, dried berry, herb and spice flavors. This is a bright, crisp and balanced Pinot Noir with soft tannins and layers of textures.

2009 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir: $50 per bottle
Aromas of wild berry, pretty plum, cola and earthy raspberry. The palate is smooth and richly flavored with a mix of savory dark berry, blackberry, mineral and sage flavors.

2009 Cabernet Sauvignon: $50 per bottle
Aromas of black cherry, dark chocolate, wild berry, plum and spicy anise. This is a classic Napa Valley Cabernet showcasing depth and well-structured tannins.

20010 Sonoma Carneros Merlot: $38 per bottle
Aromas of raspberries, chocolate spice, red currant and black fruit. The soft and supple tannins complement the long extended flavors.

1999 Dulce Amor Red Dessert Wine: $75 per bottle
A powerful yet silky wine, full of dark tannins, ripe fruit and rich texture. The palate showcases dried fruit characteristics of fig and raisin plus caramel and toffee.

2008 Napa Valley Dulce Beso: $40 per bottle
This wine has richness with an opulent concentration of white peach, vanilla, tropical essences and citrus accents.

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