Braceros to vintners in a generation

Times Staff Writer

Lunch begins with lightly smoked salmon.

"You have to drink our 2000 Chardonnay with it. It comes from right out there."

Amelia Moran Ceja is standing at the stove in the family kitchen, gesturing toward the vines 250 yards from her front door in the Carneros district of southern Napa.

"I came here from a small village in Mexico when I was 12," she says with a fierce sense of pride. "I didn't speak a word of English. It was September 1967 -- harvest time -- and my parents went right to work in the vineyards."

Amelia's husband, Pedro, was also born to immigrant farm workers, as are all the top executives of Ceja Vineyards. Amelia is the president. Pedro is the secretary. Pedro's brother, Armando, is the winemaker. Armando's wife, Martha, is the vice president.

In the span of a single generation -- less, really -- the Cejas have gone from braceros to entrepreneurs, from grape pickers to winemakers and winery owners, producing their own Pinot Noir, Merlot and Chardonnay, as well as a red table wine called Vino de Casa.

This week, Ceja is releasing its first Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 2000 vintage. Later this month, it will release its 2001 Pinot and 2001 Vino de Casa. Next summer, it will release its first white Vino de Casa and late this year -- "in time for the holidays," Amelia says -- the winery will release its first Syrah, both from the 2001 vintage.

As Pedro and I begin to nibble at the salmon and sip the Chardonnay -- she's right, the tropical fruit and lemon notes in the wine do make it a good match -- Amelia is busy stuffing ancho chiles and mixing flor de mayo beans with garlic and onions, then sauteing them with poblano peppers and olive oil. She talks as she cooks.

Amelia, it seems, is always talking. It's easy to see why the family voted her into the company presidency. At 47, she's bright, energetic, passionate -- a born marketer -- and she thinks her eldest son, Navek, 21, a junior at UC Davis, may follow in her footsteps.

"He studied viticulture at Napa Valley College and now he's studying communications and then he's going to get a master's in oenology because you need both the wine knowledge and the communications skills," she says in one breathless sentence.

Meanwhile, the couple's 19-year-old son, Ariel -- the middle of their three children -- is a sophomore at Occidental College, so every time she drops him off or picks him up, she visits restaurants and wine stores in Pasadena and the surrounding area, touting Ceja wines. Several now carry them.

"She's a natural," Pedro says.

Amelia beams and lifts her skillet to point toward outdoors again.

"This olive oil is from our own trees," she says. "The oregano I'm using for the chile ancho is from our garden too."

She pauses to taste the beans, then starts talking again.

Family history

"My father first came to California in 1947. He kept coming for 20 years. He worked all up and down the state and up into Oregon and Washington, picking apples and cherries and pears and olives -- and grapes. He met Pedro's father a lot, working in the same vineyards and orchards, but we lived in Jalisco and they lived in Michoacan and we came here separately."

Pedro interrupts -- gingerly.

"It's time to go outside," he says.

Pedro is an engineer -- "the only one here with a day job," he jokes -- but in addition to being the Ceja secretary, he is the all-round "I'll do whatever needs to be done" guy in the family wine business, helping with everything from production to marketing.

Today he's fired up the grill and is preparing the vegetables, "right from our own garden," Amelia says. Pedro is also grilling carne asada. "Skirt steak marinated in garlic, olive oil, lime juice and red pepper flakes," he says. "It will be ..."

"Perfect with our Pinot," Amelia interjects. This time she points toward the Ceja Pinot Noir vines, just beyond the patio where we're now sitting.

When Amelia's and Pedro's parents came to Napa, they settled near each other -- Amelia's parents in Rutherford, Pedro and Armando's in St. Helena.

Armando studied oenology and viticulture at UC Davis, then worked in vineyard management. Amelia picked grapes as a teenager, studied history and literature at UC San Diego, then studied winemaking and worked in the wine industry -- "sales and marketing, crop projections, hospitality events, anything that would give me experience."

In 1983, Amelia and Pedro and Pedro's parents and Armando (who was not yet married) pooled their meager resources, took out a bank loan and bought 15 acres in Napa -- the land on which their home and vineyards still sit.

"After we bought the land, we were broke," Pedro says. "We had trouble making our monthly payments. We couldn't afford to buy cuttings to start growing grapes. It was a complete disaster. We tried for two years to sell the land. No one wanted it."

Pedro takes the carne asada off the grill and encourages me to help myself. I need little encouragement. "It's the best I've ever had," I say.

He nods and resumes his story.

"Armando had worked at Domaine Chandon when he was in college, and he'd stayed friendly with the people there. They needed some grapes about then, so we made a deal. They gave us cuttings, and we promised to pay them back with the first five years of grapes we grew."

113 acres and growing

Once the Cejas had repaid Domaine Chandon, they began selling their grapes elsewhere -- and using the profits to buy more land.

In 1998, they made their first wines. Now they have 113 acres and five (soon to be seven) different wines.

Quantities range from 350 cases each of the Syrah and Merlot to 1,000 for the Pinot Noir -- slightly more than 3,000 cases total.

The Cejas hope to build their own production facility "within the next two or three years," Amelia says, passing a basket of freshly made tortillas.

It's getting uncharacteristically warm in the Cejas' backyard -- "too warm for the wines to show well," she says. "Let's finish eating inside."

As we walk in, Pedro points to a bronze bell in the living room -- a model of the bell that appears on all Ceja wine labels.

"Every Mexican village has a bell," Amelia says. "It's the symbol of celebration, of life. It's where we've been and who we are."

She points out the inscription, "Vinum, Cantus, Amor," on the bell as it is on the Ceja label: "Wine, Song, Love."

She and Pedro smile at each other, but Pedro is shaking his head.

"I was worried at first," he says. "A name like Ceja and a bell? I was afraid it would make people think of Taco Bell and figure we were producing cheap wines."

No, not cheap. But not cult wine prices, either: $30 for the Chardonnay, $32 for the Merlot, $38 for the Pinot Noir or the Cabernet. The Syrah will be $38. The Vino de Casa -- a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (32%) and Syrah (8%) -- is a modest $18. (In the next release -- 2001 -- Pinot will replace Cabernet, and the blend will be 60% Merlot, 30% Pinot and 10% Syrah.)

They're not Robert Parker or Wine Spectator 90-point wines, but the four we drank -- Chardonnay, Pinot, Merlot and Vino de Casa -- all were enjoyable and all went well with the lunch that Amelia and Pedro prepared (especially once we moved inside, out of the heat).

Of course, Amelia's simple dessert may have helped me cool off.

"Tunas de nopales," she said, handing me two unfamiliar pieces of fruit -- one bright green, the other a deep burgundy.

I asked what they were.

"Fruit of the cactus," she said.

They were deliciously refreshing.

Now I think the Cejas should develop a dessert wine to go with them.

*

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com.

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