Amelia Morán Ceja – Success is in the Culture

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By John Black

In wine, they say, is truth. Speaking with Amelia Morán Ceja, President of Ceja Vineyards in California, we also learn that in wine there is family, friendship, life, and love. There are thousands of stories of everyone who helped make the wine you taste, from the people who planted the first grapes to the distributors who brought the bottle to your table.

“I started out as a young girl of twelve, harvesting grapes with my father and even then I wanted to learn about the fruit and the land and the wine that came from them,” Ceja said in an interview with Color Magazine. “I’ve always had a great passion to learn, not just from books or in school but to learn about how things are made, whether it’s wine or food or just about anything else. When I am passionate about something, I want to learn everything there is to know about it.”

As a young girl, Ceja’s first passion, naturally, wasn’t wine. It was food, especially the food she helped her grandmother, Mamá Chepa, make growing up in Las Flores, Jalisco, Mexico. “She was a strong, beautiful woman,” she said. “I watched her cook meals for the entire village, and saw the love and care she put into every dish she made. It was amazing to watch her take these simple ingredients and create something magical from them. I think about her a lot when I cook today.

“Both Mamá Chepa and my mother taught me so much,” Ceja continued. “They loved me unconditionally, and that allowed me to grow up, to be confident about who I was and believe that I could be whatever I wanted to be. They encouraged me to explore the world and find my place in it rather than try and force me into becoming anything I didn’t love.”

Fast forward a few years beyond cooking by her grandmother’s side and past those early days of harvesting grapes with her father. Move past the school years at Robert Louis Stevenson School in St. Helena and her years of studying history and literature at UC San Diego. Stop the clock in 1980 and you will find Amelia, her husband Pedro, his brother Armando, and their parents Juanita and Pablo Ceja pooling their resources to stake their claim in the world of wine by creating Ceja Vineyards.

“It was a huge risk. You don’t just put up a sign and suddenly start selling wine,” Ceja said with a laugh. “We still kept our day jobs. Pedro was working in Silicon Valley—which was ninety miles away—and I was working at another local winery, but also raising three children at the time. There was a lot of sacrifice, but the dream was always before us. Everything we did brought us a little closer to making it real. The job I had at the winery taught me a lot about how the industry really works, and I started taking business classes so we could come up with a plan to be successful not just for the time, but for the future. Looking back on it, it was a crazy way to live, but it formed the basis for everything we have today.”

What Ceja and her family have today is a very successful, award-winning winery—Ceja Vineyards was twice named “Best Boutique Winery in Napa & Sonoma” by Best of Napa and Sonoma Valleys, based on the 2008 and 2009 popular polls. Although Ceja Vineyards was founded in 1999 and the partners voted Amelia as the First Mexican-American woman ever to be elected president of a winery, they had been grape growers since the 1980s, selling their grapes to wineries all over the Napa and Sonoma counties. By starting their own wine production company—Ceja Vineyards—they were able to release wine under their own label. Today, Ceja Vineyards still sell 85% of their total grape harvest to other wineries, using only 15% of their own production. She has been recognized by the California legislature as “Woman of the Year” in 2005 for “breaking the glass ceiling in a very competitive business,” and was named Business Woman of the Year by the Sacramento Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2008. Inc. Magazine selected Ceja Vineyards as the “Entrepreneur of the Year 2004” (one of seven) in the January 2005 issue. The Harvard Business School published a case study titled Ceja Vineyards: Marketing to the Hispanic Wine Consumer and the California Latino Legislative Caucus awarded the vineyard owners the “2012 Latino Spirit Award” as recognition of “individuals that exemplify the spirit of the Latino community that have contributed to the State of California.”

While all the awards and special recognitions are great, Ceja is perhaps proudest of the way Ceja Vineyards has helped to change the way the world looks at Latinos and Latino culture. “Nobody in the wine industry ever really thought about the Latino community when it came to marketing. They see Mexican food and they only think of beer and margaritas. They never imagined pairing Mexican cuisine with wine,” Ceja said. “First of all, they really don’t know what Mexican cuisine is—to them it only means really spicy, hot food which is not what authentic Mexican food is all about. We wanted to show them how wrong they were and what they were missing by not understanding what Mexican food and culture was all about.”

A self-proclaimed “tech geek,” Ceja used the Internet as the perfect marketing tool to reach the Latino audience that every other winemaker was ignoring. She started making a series of cooking videos that not only showed how authentic Mexican food is made, but what wines could be paired with each meal. Fun and informative, the videos give viewers a taste of what it’s like in Ceja’s kitchen, chatting with the chef as she prepares a warming batch of Pozole or a Menudo. You can take a mini class in pairing wine and cheese, the perfect way to make Nopales (Cactus) Salad or her Award-Winning Super Bowl Chili—Carne con Chili. The success of the cooking videos has spawned not only a series of virtual trips through the Ceja Vineyards, but has led to Chef Ceja shooting a pilot cooking show for PBS where she will not only share recipes and wine pairings but serve up a slate of guest appearances with people she thinks are important to know more about. One of her first guests, for example, will be Dolores Clara Fernández Huerta, the American labor leader and civil rights activist who was the co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW).

While the virtual world has become an important marketing and educational tool for Ceja Vineyards, Ceja is the first to tell you that nothing compares to actually coming to the vineyard and spending time with the family that makes the wine you have come to taste. When asked what makes a visit to her vineyard different than a stop at any of the other vineyards in Napa or Sonoma, Ceja sums up everything she’s learned about the industry—and about people—in three simple words: “It’s our culture,” she said. “Mexican people are very warm and welcoming, so people will immediately feel comfortable when they walk through the door. We make every tour special too. I can talk to a person for a few minutes and know exactly what kind of wine they will like. From there I can serve them what they are familiar with, and then take them outside [of] what they know to try some new wines they don’t know about, but I know they will like.

“And, of course, there will be food,” she added. “It all goes back to Mamá Chepa and the hospitality she showed to everyone she served food to. It’s part of my culture that I’m happy to share with whoever comes through the door.”