Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Big "Salud!" to Ceja Vineyards

One of my goals on my latest trip to Napa Valley was to meet someone I consider a "powerhouse" in the wine industry. She epitomizes everything I aspire to be. Her warmth and generosity is a million-fold and she is a little "firecracker who moves mountains!" Her name is Amelia Moran Ceja and her amazing story will move you and stay in your heart forever!

Amelia and I had met on Facebook and Twitter. We mutually support each other's endeavors and I tried very hard to get together with her on previous visits but unfortunately, it was not to be. A few weeks ago before I left to go to Napa Valley, she contacted me and asked if I would be interested in stopping by. I was thrilled! We exchanged phone numbers and although we were going to meet at an extremely busy time for her (the morning of the anniversary of the winery), she agreed to meet with me on their Carneros property, which is not normally open to the public. They have a beautiful tasting room in downtown Napa, which is open to the public and Amelia's son, Ariel Ceja, has a nice little restaurant in downtown Napa, Bistro Sabor, where you can go Salsa dancing and eat some wonderful authentic cuisine! I'm going to check out the restaurant the next time I am in town!

Now on to that heart-warming story...Amelia began her life in a tiny village in Mexico. Her father was a migrant worker who came to California to seek a better life for his family. At the tender age of 12, Amelia arrived in Rutherford, California (in the heart of the Napa Valley). She spoke no English. It was in these early years that, as fate would have it, she would meet her future husband, Pedro Ceja. During those years, they picked grapes at the "new" Robert Mondavi Winery and Amelia spoke fondly of Robert, almost as if he were a mentor. Her epiphany was the day she tasted Merlot grapes and noticed the difference between how succulent and wonderful these grapes were compared to ordinary table grapes. This is how she decided to delve into wine.

After graduating from high school with honors, she attended college in southern California where she studied nutrition. But, her interest in wine continued to grow so she continued to work along side her parents in the vineyards. After she and Pedro married in 1980, Amelia's mother spotted a "For Sale" sign on a piece of property in Carneros, on the southern end of Napa Valley. Though Pedro and Amelia could not afford the nearly half-million dollar property, they chose to try and make it work. At that time, there were few vineyards in the area.

After a year of trying to make their dream a reality, they ended up putting the land up for sale only to be rescued by Pedro's brother, Armando Ceja. He had just graduated from UC Davis with a degree in Enology and Viticulture and he helped get them a deal to grow grapes for Domaine Chandon's sparkling wine program. They planted their vineyard in 1986 and have not looked back since!

I ended up meeting many members of the Ceja family that day! Armando Ceja, the winemaker (shown above) and his wife Martha, Amelia's daughter, Dalia (who does the marketing for the winery and is a wonderful person and a real sweetheart!), Amelia's husband, Pedro Ceja and even Amelia's mom, Francisca Moran and Pedro's mom, Juana Ceja!! They were all so generous and treated me like family. Dalia got me started on some wines while we were waiting for Amelia to come back from a shopping trip.

The Ceja family now owns many vineyards, located in the Carneros district of Napa and in Sonoma County and the Sonoma Coast. Their wines are moderately price and will dazzle you! They make many! I was able to sample quite a few of them that day and later that evening when I attended their anniversary fiesta! Just an example of a few that really stood out for me:

2009 Ceja Vineyards Sparkling Brut ($40)--Crisp, clean and vibrant! This perfect Summertime sparkler rivals the best of the best that Napa Valley has to offer when it comes to sparkling wines! 60% Chardonnay/40% Pinot Noir! Citrus Zest and smooth apple flavors. Very enjoyable!

2008 Ceja Vineyards Bella Flor Dry Rose ($22)--Swoon!! This Rose is amazing! Made from 100% Syrah from their Adobe Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast. I cannot get enough of this wine! The cherry, strawberry flavors just explode in your mouth and the finish is so smooth! This is the perfect Summertime wine with spicy foods or just for sipping on the deck!

2008 Ceja Vineyards Chardonnay ($34)--Creme Brulee meets Key Lime Pie in a wine glass! Just a lovely Chardonnay with a nice, round, creamy mouthfeel and smooth and balanced finish. Hails from their Carneros vineyards in the region where some of the best Chardonnays come from!

2007 Ceja Vineyards Vino de Casa Red Blend ($20)--A very unusual blend of 40% Pinot Noir/40% Syrah/20% Cabernet Sauvignon, this very tasty, easy drinking red is the perfect every day wine. It's smooth, full of plum, dark cherry and chocolate flavors. At a crazy price that everyone can afford! This should be a staple in everyone's wine rack!

2007 Ceja Vineyards Sonoma Carneros Merlot ($38)--I almost didn't get to try this one as I was running late, but Amelia insisted I try it because she said Carneros Merlot is the BEST. This wine gives me hope that Merlot will make a comeback! Those of us who never stopped drinking it know better! And she's right! This Merlot is scrumptious! Smooth and velvety with a powerhouse of dark cherry flavor!

Amelia went on to discuss the "Fiesta" that the family was holding later that evening and invited me back to Carneros. She said there was "magic" in Carneros and that I would discover this after I visit. She was right and although my day was crazy afterward, I got my second wind and made the trek back to Carneros that evening to partake in the fiesta. Boy! This family knows how to celebrate!! I spent several "magical" hours eating delicious food (this amazing corn on the cob dipped in creme fraiche and cotija cheese and awesome paella!!) I sampled wines, mingled with the guests, met friends, listened to the mariachi band and simply enjoyed my last Napa Valley evening in style!

At the end of the evening, Amelia and Pedro unveiled their plans to build a brand new winery on their Carneros property! It is going to be gorgeous! I wish them the best of luck with it and I hope to be there not only for the grand opening but for many fiestas to come! Salud!

To Amelia and her amazing family, thank you for making me feel like I belong there and for taking me in like family. Your spirit, friendship, drive and love makes the world go around and I am forever blessed to know you. I have truly discovered the "magic" of Carneros!

For more information on Ceja Vineyards, please visit their website at For more information on Bistro Sabor, please visit their website at

"You Saw It Here First"...This post was created solely for "Cellarmistress' Cellar Talk" by Grace Hoffman. Grace is an Italian-born, American-bred wine blogger/educator with an all-consuming passion for wine and all it encompasses.

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