The Ceja family celebrates a winemaking journey
By L. PIERCE CARSON
Register Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 1, 2002
It comes as no surprise that one of the newest entries in the local wine trade is Napa's Ceja family.
Virtually raised in and around Napa Valley vineyards, brothers Armando and Pedro Ceja spent after-school hours and summer vacations learning how to graft grape varieties, prune vines and taking part in the harvest every fall.
Pedro's wife, Amelia, who heads up the new family business, was also raised by parents who earned their livelihood tending local cabernet and chardonnay vines.
Armando's wife, Martha, who is serving as vice president of the family business, was born in the Napa Valley to immigrant parents also employed in the local wine industry.
After spending considerable time working for others, three years ago the Cejas felt the time was ripe to launch their own wine brand, an effort that has been well received by both consumers and the wine press.
To date, Ceja Vineyards has released bottlings of chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot, and is set to take a 2000 cabernet sauvignon to market this coming fall. Waiting in the wings is another new product, a proprietary wine that includes syrah in the blend.
Now involving three generations of people who originally came from small towns in Mexico, the Ceja family is not focused on lofty goals. At present, production is set at 1,000 cases, with plans to grow to 5,000 cases within the decade at hand.
Should the market for wine continue to grow, Ceja Vineyards could increase production to as much as 10,000 cases and still have plenty of fruit to sell to other producers. For example, family members point out, grapes used for Ceja wines account for only 5 percent of the total grape crop in an average harvest.
Designed to appeal to consumers who want a quality wine from a specific appellation, Ceja Vineyards is what the trade would term a niche brand.
"We want to stay small," says vineyard manager Armando Ceja. "We set out to be identified with a particular style, to become recognized as making quality wines that can compete on the open market.
"We know where we come from. I think I can say that we are but an example of the hundreds of people who work in the fields every day. We got to this point because of hard work and dedication, sure. But I also think luck had something to do with it."
Brasero to bodega
Pablo Ceja brought his wife, Juanita, and 10 children from Aguililla ("Little Eagle"), Michoacán, to the United States in 1967, after spending over a decade in the brasero work program. The family eventually settled in St. Helena after initially following various crop harvests up and down the Golden State and as far north as Washington and Oregon.
Pablo Ceja passed on his grasp of working the land to son Armando. The fact that this particular son chose to remain in viticulture was vital in the family's decision to market its own wine.
"We'd all grown up working in the vineyards," Armando says of his siblings. "For years, our backyard was indeed the vineyards. Going to work for a vineyard company was only a natural extension of what I'd learned growing up.
"My mother worked in the vineyards, too. One day on her way home, she saw a 'for sale' sign on a piece of property in Carneros. It was then we pooled our resources and decided to go into business for ourselves."
That was easier said than done, Pedro points out. The family managed to purchase the 15-acre site. But there was no money left over for vines. The fact that Armando was a respected veteran field rep and crush manager for Domaine Chandon -- he'd worked with the company since his high school days -- allowed the family to achieve its goal. "That's where the luck came in," he readily admits.
Domaine Chandon was in the process of planting new vineyard in Carneros and had more vines than available acreage. The company offered the Cejas 8 acres of pinot noir vines in exchange for harvested fruit.
The dream was slowly coming to fruition. But it would take the yeoman efforts of the strong-willed Amelia Ceja to turn a business plan into reality. Amelia, Pedro readily points out, left a well-paying job in order to complete the mountain of paperwork required by federal authorities alone in establishing a new wine brand. And it is Amelia who's out and about these days, marketing and delivering Ceja wines.
Employed by a Bay Area firm that manufactures, among other things, gas chromatographs and other equipment used by businesses as diverse as hospitals and wineries, Pedro says his paycheck goes, in part, to help pay the bills incurred in establishing the new wine operation.
Winemaker as well as viticulturist for the family business, Armando has been a home winemaker since his youth. In fact, with a little coaxing from family members, he'll pull out a homemade pinot or cabernet from the mid-1980s or the early '90s just to show fruit development comparisons of today versus yesterday.
The first Ceja wines were fermented and cellared at Rombauer Vineyards. The newest wines have been produced at MacRostie Vineyards, located on the Sonoma County side of Carneros. The family has been evaluating several Carneros locations for their own production facility, slated some time down the road.
The family's original site -- which is home to Pablo and Juanita Ceja as well as Pedro and Amelia and their children -- contains 15 acres of pinot noir and another 5 acres of chardonnay vines. There's another 8 acres of pinot noir on Ramal Road. Armando and Martha and their three children live on a vineyard site on Arnold Drive. It's planted to 20 acres of chardonnay. The Cejas have another 8 acres of merlot on an adjacent leased parcel. The fourth family-owned tract is located on Adobe Road, not far from Petaluma. It's planted to four grape varieties -- pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and a little known Italian varietal from Piedmont called arneis.
The family's first commercial vintage came from the 1998 harvest. It included but one barrel of chardonnay and three barrels of pinot noir. The first Ceja chardonnay, by the way, took home a bronze medal from an established wine competition.
As the Cejas use but an average of 5 percent of their total harvest for Ceja wines, grapes go to a variety of clients, including Beringer, Rombauer, Mumm, Domaine Chandon, Gustavo Thrace, Dutch Henry and Sonoma Creek.
In the marketplace at present is the 2000 Ceja chardonnay, a crisp, complex wine with tropical and citrus fruit notes, plus both pinot noir and merlot from the '99 crush. The pinot literally bursts from the glass with aromas of ripe cherries, which are matched on the palate, while the merlot is supple and ripe with a mouthful of black fruit and chocolate.
In a few months, the Cejas will release their first proprietary wine, a '99 Vino de Casa, a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 32 percent merlot and 8 percent syrah.
Pablo, Juanita, Pedro, Amelia, Armando and Martha Ceja envision the next generation easily slipping into the business when studies are completed. For Pedro and Amelia, the wait won't be as long as 21-year-old son Navek -- the first Hispanic student trustee at Napa Valley College -- is transferring to UC Davis this coming fall to complete his degree. Navek intends to get his bachelor's degree in communications, his masters in enology.
"I want to learn as much as possible about the industry and see my communications degree as a means to an end," says Navek. "My goal is to be a winemaker, but I want to learn much more. I'm at the point now where the journey is more important than the destination."
Navek's brother, 19-year-old Ariel, who will soon appear in a music video from Mexican singing sensation Paulina Rubio, is a student at Occidental College, while his sister, Dalia, 17, is a student at Vintage High School. Armando and Martha have three children as well -- two daughters, Belen, 14, and Elizet, 9, and one son, Julian, 11.
"We are the product of farm labor families," Pedro says when asked about the importance of the Ceja wine brand. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if what we have accomplished could be a spark for others who've come from poverty, who also have goals of achieving the American dream?"
"There are a number of people who helped us and we have to thank them," Armando adds. "But let's be frank -- we got to this point by 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration. We also realize our community needs leadership. We only hope we can be part of it."
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Ceja family came together to share family recipes and family wines. Amelia and daughter Dalia spent several hours preparing a heady mole to be served with skewers of chicken and skirt steak.
Also on the menu was asparagus with shallot vinaigrette sauce, a Spanish torta, homemade tomatillo salsa, queso fresco, chips, sautéed marinated shrimp, and a remarkable flan. Armando contributed his favorite dish, salmon ceviche.
Early Peruvians ate raw fish and seaweed seasoned with aji (chile), notes Amelia, family history buff who studied literature and history at UC San Diego. The Moorish women who came with the Spanish to Peru added lime juice and onions, she points out.
"The Central Andes area is one of the six places in the world where plants (including capsicums) were first domesticated. It was also the center of the largest and most developed Andean civilization. Later, Peru was the political, social and economic power of the Spanish in South America. Peru was, and still is, the culinary center of South America. From these facts one can conclude that the basics of ceviche indeed originated in Peru. It has of course extended to almost all of South America and Mexico and has taken the character of these various countries."
Ceviche is a raw seafood dish that has been "cooked" in citrus (usually lime) juice, says Amelia. "This citrus marinade firms up the fish and gives it a solid coloration.
"Ceviche recipes vary widely depending on the seafood and accessories available in the area. Some ceviches are packed with full-bodied octopus and dogfish; others are lighter with the more delicate scallops and baby shrimp. The seafood is often paired with flavorful chiles and fresh herbs. The long marinade period blends the tastes together. Ceviche is best made with extremely fresh fish."
Most of the ingredients Amelia uses for her Mole Negro de Oaxaca can be found at Napa's Latino Market, 2993 Jefferson St.