Love and Time Yield Healthy Vines
The grapevine has long been an integral part of Amelia Ceja’s life.
At age 12, Amelia left her village in the Mexican state of Jalisco to join her father, Felipe Morán, in Napa Valley. Morán had immigrated to Northern California to serve as foreman at Robert Mondavis then-fledgling vineyard.
It was far from glamorous. “They were living in a barn, and desperately needed a job,” she says of her father and other Mexican workers under Mondavi’s employ. To help make ends meet, Amelia went to work harvesting grapes immediately upon her 1967 arrival at the Mondavi estate. She befriended other children who had left Mexico for “El Norte,” among them Pedro Ceja and his brother, Armando.
From the moment she arrived, Amelia knew that her future was steeped in wine. “The dream of having vineyards of our own was born the day we first experienced tasting the grapes,” she says. “In Mexico we were farmers, and that same tradition was brought over here. It wasn’t legumes, of course. It was grapes. We had no idea when or how to begin.”
As a student at the University of California at San Diego in the late 1970s, she developed the idea of pairing wines with traditional Mexican dinners. Meanwhile, Pedro Ceja studied engineering in the San Francisco Bay area, and Armando Ceja entered the University of California at Davis, known for its viticultural technology programs. “We understood what it was like to work at a vineyard, but there’s also the need to hone the tools and skills that come from a scientific point of view,” Amelia explains.
Pedro and Amelia wed in 1980, and together moved forward with their dream to start a winery. Both had great jobs but little money for such an investment. By late 1982, the Cejas found their first property, in the then-unknown Carneros region.
“There were cows roaming around the property, and there was no water,” Amelia says. “We had pears, plums, walnuts, sheep, but very few acres planted for vines.” To further complicate matters, interest rates on business loans at the time started at 12%.
Placing their faith in Amelia and Pedro, the Moráns and Cejas came to their aid, selling three homes to raise money for a hefty down payment on the Carneros property. “People thought we were crazy, but I think you have to take a risk and be a little crazy,” Amelia says.
They had no business plan. They went on gut instinct – and nearly lost everything. Able to meet only half of the property’s monthly mortgage, family members scrambled to contribute the other half. Each of their parents then concurrently lost their jobs, forcing Amelia and Pedro to sell their house in Silicon Valley.
By 1984, Amelia and Pedros dream was fading. With money drying up and wines years away from production and bottling, the property was put up for sale. A year passed without one person expressing interest. “Who’d want it?” Amelia says with a laugh. “It wasn’t a vineyard, and it was in an area that very few people knew.”
In 1985, with a huge monthly mortgage straining the family, they all moved into a farmhouse on the property to save money. Pedro commuted to Silicon Valley. Amelia quit her job to focus on developing the land. “It was so hard,” she says. “But in 1986 we planted our first vines and we had our first harvest in 1988.”
Today, Ceja Vineyards has emerged as one of Napa Valley’s leading boutique wineries, producing 23,000 cases annually. It offers a Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot from its original vineyard; a Pinot Noir, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc from a Sonoma Coast property; two sparkling wines; a dessert wine, Napa Valley Dulce Beso, and Bella Flor Dry Rosé.
A tasting room in downtown Napa is open seven days a week; the Saturday night salsa and merengue dance moved from the tasting room to a nearby restaurant due to its popularity.
The Carneros appellation was officially established in 1993.
While toil and time are a significant part of Ceja’s success, there also are investments in state and federal licenses as a bottler and vendor of alcoholic beverages as well as the usual business license. “Anyone who produces alcohol is highly scrutinized,” Amelia says. “It discourages people, and one needs to provides so much information and endure background checks.”
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