A few days ago we had the pleasure of spending some time (about three hours, actually) with a winery owner that with a one-of-a-kind experience in the wine business. We visited Ceja Vineyards in Napa and tasted wines and toured the estate property with founder Amelia Ceja. During this visit, we learned about the inspiring Ceja family story and was a poignant reminder for us that every great wine has a great story. Of course, it begins with amazing fruit, but amazing fruit does not just happen by accident: amazing people have to nurture the environment and show love and respect for the terroir where the grapes grow. We could see this love and respect in every bottle of Ceja wines.
In 1967, Amelia Ceja (then Amelia Moran Fuentes) moved with her parents and the rest of her family to Napa Valley. Prior to relocating the entire family to Napa Valley, Amelia’s father had been coming to California for several years picking fruits and vegetables up and down California farm country. Ultimately, he finally decided to bring his whole family north to take advantage of the opportunities in California; they settled in Napa Valley. Around the same time, Pedro Ceja moved with his family (including six children at the time, which would eventually become ten) to St. Helena, in the northern part of Napa Valley.
Both Amelia and Pedro worked side-by-side with their parents harvesting grapes; Amelia still remembers being a 12-year-old girl picking grapes at the famed Mondavi To Kalon Vineyards and struggling to hoist the bucket of picked fruit into the collection bin. Picking grapes and speaking no English, Amelia first met Pedro. An immediate friendship was born, according to Amelia, but many years passed before their relationship took on a new dimension. About six years, to be exact: when Amelia was home for the summer from U.C. San Diego and reconnected with Pedro. We did not get all of the details, but we got the sense that “the rest was history.” Amelia and Pedro married in 1980 and just three years later Pedro and Amelia partnered with Pedro’s brother and parents to buy 15 acres of land in the an area that, three years later, would become the second A.V.A. (after Napa Valley) in California.
For several years, the Ceja family grew grapes and sold them to other premium wineries in Napa and Sonoma, capitalizing on the prime location of their land for producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. In 1999, Amelia and Pedro, along with Pedro’s brother Armando and his wife Martha, decided to found their own winery operation. Ceja Vineyards was born. Since then, Ceja Vineyards have been producing a wide range of premium wines sourced 100% from their estate vineyards, which have expanded beyond Carneros to include over 100 acres of producing vineyards. In addition to its Carneros estate vineyards, Ceja also has estate property farther west in Sonoma County in the extensive Sonoma Coast AVA. Very shortly, this plot will be part of a smaller, more defined AVA called “Petaluma Gap.” We expect that the wines that today are identified as “Sonoma Coast” on Ceja labels will eventually show the new AVA.
We met Amelia Ceja at their estate vineyard on Las Amigas Road in the Carneros region, in the middle of their luscious vines. We spent over 3 hours with Amelia tasting wine, hearing the inspiring Ceja story, and taking a tour of the impressive property. When we first arrived, Amelia greeted us with a glass of the 2014 Ceja Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from grapes from their Sonoma Coast estate vineyards. Tasting our fist offering, we got a clear sense of the Ceja wine making philosophy: a balanced approach to the wines with a minimalist approach. Like all of the Ceja white wines, the Sauvignon Blanc has been aged in stainless steel and neutral oak barrels with no malolactic fermentation. As we would expect from this type of approach, the Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and dry with strong minerality.
Following the Sauvignon Blanc, which is a typical opening white wine in a Napa or Sonoma tasting, Amelia shared with us their unique rosé. Most wines of this type in Napa and Sonoma are made from Pinot Noir grapes; by contrast, the Ceja rosé was made from Syrah.
Like the Sauvignon Blanc, the rosé was balanced, with a lovely fruit aroma but dry on the finish. Like the other Ceja whites, the rosé did not undergo the secondary malolactic fermentation; it was fermented in neutral oak and “sur lie,” or on its lees (in other words, the wine was left on the lees, or the dead yeast, which yields a more yeasty aroma and flavor). Many of the rosè wines we have tasted in Napa Valley, or Sonoma, have been overly sweet and are often described, even by their winemakers, of having the flavor of candy (we have even heard a winemaker describe his rosè as “Jolly Rancher”). Ceja’s rosè is no Jolly Rancher: it has a gorgeous aroma but is also dry, crisp, refreshing and retains a strong hint of minerality.
After the Sauvignon Blanca and Rose, Amelia took us through their strong offering of red wines. We tasted wines on their tasting menu as well as several special wines that Amelia was gracious enough to share with us.
After the lighter wines, we dove into the Ceja red wines, starting with a couple of selections of their Pinot Noir. Side-by-side, we tasted the 2011 Carneros Pinot Noir and the 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Both wines were elegant, balanced, subtle and superb; one of us preferred the Carneros Pinot, the other the Sonoma Coast. Next, we tried the 2011 Ceja Vino de Casa (literally, “house wine”), a very unique combination of Pinot Noir and Syrah. It is so unique, in fact, that we cannot recall ever having a red wine composed of these two varietals. Ceja bills this wine as an “everyday wine,” and we agree with this characterization. At $30.00 a bottle, the wine is a fruit-forward wine with a nice finish and enough complexity and tannin to hold up to a variety of foods.
We finished our tour of the red wines with a taste of Ceja’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, a classic Napa Valley-style Cab: strong aroma and flavors of dark fruit, anise, and chocolate, with firm tannins and a strong finish. Like all of the Ceja wines, the Cab was structured and balanced, with strong fruit aroma and flavor but also depth, minerality and structure. Even the Cabernet Sauvignon has less than 14% alcohol, a reflection of the Ceja approach to not over-ripen the fruit or use new oak to over-manipulate the wine in the cellar. We found an incredible consistency in the Ceja wines, evidence of a strong underlying approach and guiding philosophy.
On top of the six wines that we tasted, Amelia also shared their regular Chardonnay with us, which was crisp, balanced, dry and refreshing. For our final offering, Amelia opened a bottle of their 2009 late harvest Chardonnay, a classic dessert wine.
Often, sweet wines can be, well, just sweet – unsophisticated and unbalanced. The 2009 Late Harvest Chardonnay is anything but unsophisticated or unbalanced. While it is certainly sweet, it has finesse and subtlety, with a variety of flavor rolling across the palate. With a glass of the Late Harvest Chard in hand, we left the tasting room to tour the property with Amelia.
The current property at the Ceja vineyards can accommodate a great visitor experience for members, with plenty of outdoor space, bocce courts, and cooking areas. To enhance this experience, the Ceja team is in the process of expanding the estate property to add a new winery and tasting structure, which is currently under construction. As an homage to their roots, the Ceja’s have started their initial build-out with a chapel that pays tribute not only to Catholicism but also the other religions of the world.
When we completed our tour of the property, we made our way back to the tasting room to purchase several bottles of Ceja wine. After we got in the car and headed home, we both reflected on the amazing experience spending time with Amelia. She is truly a powerhouse and an inspiration. For starters, they were able to scrape their money together and, with the help of significant debt, purchase an initial stake of land in Carneros. Over 100 acres of land later, Amelia and her family have become not only a grape growing powerhouse, but also a premium wine making operation. Moreover, Amelia, using the force of her impressive personality, has become a true icon within the wine industry. She is a frequent speaker at wine events across Napa and Sonoma; she is a driver of positive change in the industry; and she has become one of the most powerful social media forces in the wine business. Several of her YouTube videos have gone viral and her exposure on Facebook and Twitter (where we first met her) are the envy of many other vintners.
There is an old joke about the wine business which goes like this: “Q: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? A: You start with a large fortune.” Amelia, her husband, his brother, and their sister-in-law started with no fortune, no advantage, no head start. They were immigrants from Mexico, working in the fields picking grapes as their first job. They went to college, saved their money, leveraged all of their savings to buy land, and became well-known grape growers and then well-known wine makers. For us, the time with Amelia was a touching reminder of the power of the American dream.
There has been much talk in the media this year about the impact of immigration and about “making America great again.” It is just our opinion, but the time we spent with Amelia Ceja has convinced us that America has been great all along. It has also reinforced for both of us how important immigrants are, and have been, to making and keeping America great.
John & Irene Ingersoll
September 23, 2016
7 thoughts on “An All-American Story.”
Thanks for this great profile of these winemakers.
Re sweet wines, I find when I go to the U.S. that everything tastes much sweeter. I think food companies and restaurants are adding a little sugar where they didn’t years ago. Even savory foods are sweet. With palates trained to expect sweetness, people appreciate sweetness in wine, too. Jolly Rancher wine sells. Yet a dry but fruity wine can be so wonderful.
The dry wines are making a comeback. We were in Oregon for a week and the commitment to European winemaking was evident.
What a fantastic profile! The Ceja story is truly an inspirational reminder of what The American Dream is all about. I have had, and loved, their Vino de Casa, and now I am looking forward to trying even more, especially their Rose wine. I prefer a dry Rose and this one sounds amazing! I will also add Ceja Vineyards to my list of places to visit next time I’m in the area. That list grows longer with each of your posts I read!
As a child of an immigrant (my mother is Spanish and I have dual US/Spain citizenship) and the husband of a Russian Jewish exile, we have a real appreciation for these types of stories. Farm worker to wine CEO was hard to pass up! Thanks for the feedback, as always.
Thanks for the great story. I had the opportunity to visit the winery a few years ago to capture photos which ran with a story in an airline magazine and I admire their enthusiasm and commitment. Great story. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the comments! It is always nice to meet people like this.