This is a guest post by Gabriel Dvoskin, a journalist and wine blogger based in Argentina. I met Gabriel at the European Wine Bloggers Conference held in Brescia, Italy, this past October. Gabriel recently visited the Napa Valley to interview various Latino winery owners.
Ceja Vineyard – Cute vineyard, great Pinot, inspiring story
The light in the Fall of Los Carneros (Napa County) over a waning afternoon is, above all, expressive and mild, and yet elegantly kind. Very much like the Ceja Pinot Noir 2007 I was drinking that late afternoon with Amelia Ceja, the legendary California-Mexican “viñatera.” Sitting out there in the patio of Ceja Vineyard, surrounded by vines, a few trees, and arranged garden chairs, I also tasted peace. I remember having more words to describe that fantastic example of Napa Pinot. The end in the mouth was so balanced and persistent, while the scent was naturally expressive. But the idea that can summarize my memory of that Pinot is its own personality – so far from a Pinot from la Bourgogne and yet coherent with this Carneros mildness, its elegance and my indomitable thirst for one more glass. Very much what inspire the light in a late afternoon in Carneros mild wine slopes.
In this season of Los Carneros, Amelia Ceja likes to sit outside instead of the comfortable tasting room the family has inside the house. While opening the bottle she told me how everybody enjoyed this Pinot Noir in the London Tourist Market Fair the week before. Amelia and her daughter Dalia had just came back from London, where they were more as film stars than as winemakers. “We were there for the premiere of the film “Dreamland,” a movie produced by the California tourist office (Visit California), and in which the Ceja family is one of the main groups of characters. “The story follows a remarkable ensemble of Californians who are pushing the boundaries of possibility, and our family, our story was selected to be one of them,” she explained. As she kept telling me about how she enjoyed the exclusive screening in the famous Royal Opera House, I remember thinking how natural everything sounded: she struggles for healthy winemaking, she makes a fantastic Pinot Noir with her family, they are chosen as one of the eight role models of Californians, she walks in the Royal Opera House of London as a character of the film to be screened, everybody loves their wine. I think of “Dreamland.” “During the film we were served Chardonnay with pop-corn and everybody loved the wine and the match, and then at a different event we were served the Pinot… “It was just great,” she added.
The afternoon faded away smoothly in front of our glasses. There was a gentle breeze and leaves swaying in the open patio overlooking the almost too perfect vines. I suddenly freeze my eyes on that vineyard and tried to imagine the same surface some 40 years ago, when Amelia and her parents crossed from Mexico to pick grapes in Napa. I imagine her as a 12-year-old immigrating from Jalisco to harvest Robert Mondavi’s Tokalon Vineyard in 1967. A “back-breaking work'” she had told me with a smile, referring to her pain after the long days harvesting – sometimes under cruel heat. She knows those hard-work days make her family, and a few other Mexican immigrants, different than most winemakers in California: she learned the small secrets of the harvest herself, she has a “campesino” background and soul, and that’s a plus when you become the president of your own wine company.
“It was hard work though I quickly fell in love with the wine universe,” she recalled. But Amelia did not only fall in love once those days. She met this Mexican boy from Michoacán who had also come to pick grapes. Their love story around vineyards ended in marriage, family and later one of the most successful small wineries of California. The name of the Mexican boy is, of course, Pedro Ceja. “We both knew we wanted to live our lives in this industry, and in 1983 we partnered with Armando Ceja, Pedro’s brother, to buy our first parcel here in Carneros”.
The family grew along with the vineyards, and in 1990 the Ceja wine production company was born. Family, wine, hard work, love and Mexican-Californians are still so attached to the natural soul of Ceja. Although Ariel and Dalia, their son and daughter, are not involved in the vineyard full time these days, they are key for Ceja wines and for the family passion for wine and food.
More recent history shows Ceja Vineyards as the “best boutique winery in Napa and Sonoma” a couple of times, Amelia selected as “woman of the year” by California legislature and, more importantly, the winery producing critically-praised wines. “We feel our wines really expressed the character of Los Carneros,” she remarked. The valley is about 400 feet high (120 meters) and has cooler weather, which is the inspiration for the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay. “Soils are mostly clay and very thin and shallow (approximately 3 feet/1 meter deep), providing poor drainage and fertility,” explained Amelia. She showed me how the crop yields are small due to some winds coming off the Bay north of San Francisco and told me that this makes it difficult for the grapevines to retain moisture. This can also delay the grapes from ripening sufficiently. It is said that vintages with a long, drawn-out growing season allow the grapes to ripen, so intense and vivid flavors can develop.
Amelia thinks this valley can make the best Pinot Noir of California, and the wine she is pouring in our glasses doesn’t seem to go against the statement. “There is no secret to making this wine. A lot comes from nature, from this soil, and the rest is our hard work and our engagement with the environment. We have worked in all the processes of the winemaking and learned from each of them,” she said.
The night finally covered the vines. The energy stayed in the air, the wine clearly spotted in my memory.