From Vineyard Worker to Vintner

Amelia Morán Ceja brings a special flavor to Napa

Amelia Morán Ceja’s family moved from the small village of Las Flores, Jalisco, Mexico, to Napa Valley when she was 12 years old to join her father, Felipe Morán, a vineyard worker. A strong matriarchal tradition in her family propelled Morán Ceja to set big goals for herself, and she would ultimately become the first Mexican American woman to be elected president of a winery.

That winery is Ceja Vineyards, a multi-million-dollar Napa business that she owns with her husband, Pedro; his brother, Armando; and their parents, Juanita and Pablo Ceja. The family’s intimate understanding of grape growing and winemaking, combined with Morán Ceja’s understanding of flavors—cultivated by her grandmother’s home cooking and her own formal culinary training—allows the family to create wines that pair well with Mexican and other cuisines.
Under Morán Ceja’s leadership, Ceja Vineyards has become a unique and influential wine producer. The brand has attracted many newbie wine lovers, and its wines have popped up on menus at some of the country’s most acclaimed restaurants. Ceja wines were even enjoyed at one of President Obama’s inauguration events.

As a result, the California legislature has recognized Morán Ceja as a Woman of the Year and Inc. magazine chose Ceja Vineyards as an Entrepreneur of the Year.The winery was also recognized by the California Latino Legislative Caucus with the Latino Spirit Award.

Diversity Woman spoke to Morán Ceja about her first auspicious week in Napa, how her memories of her father’s experience as a vineyard worker influence her practices today, and what sets Ceja Vineyards apart from the competition.

Diversity Woman: Your grandmother strongly influenced you. What was she like?
Amelia Morán Ceja: Her name was Josefa Fuentes, but we called her Mamá Chepa. She was one of the strongest, most amazing human beings I’ve ever met. She had a garden [in Mexico], and my grandfather had a farm, and she was an awesome cook. She was hardworking but also generous and compassionate. After school, our friends all came over and ate. She was like the matriarch. She kept the village together.

DW: What are your first memories of the Napa Valley, as a 12-year-old?
AMC: My father was a foreman at a vineyard management company. He invited me to see what he did, and I picked Merlot grapes. I fell in love with the perfectly ripened grapes. I met Pedro, who’s now my husband, that same day. He now accuses me of eating all the grapes in a couple of hours, and it’s true. I knew then that I wanted to be in this industry.

I didn’t know the language, but I’m pretty quick to adapt. I was a citizen of the world after that. After I learned English, I continued working in the vineyards, because I wanted to learn everything.

DW: How did you get your vineyard?
AMC: Pedro and I were married in 1980. We spent every weekend looking for property in Napa and Sonoma, and everyone thought we were crazy, because we didn’t have any money. We put up an offer for a property in Carneros, which hadn’t even been named an American Viticultural Area [a federally recognized growing region]. But we knew it was ideal for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

We didn’t have money to plant a vineyard, so we leased the land to people with cows. We had three kids, and we lived in one large room. We were finally able to plant the vineyard and had our first harvest in ’88. We were one of the first Mexican American families to own our property and plant a vineyard. To celebrate, we had a huge fiesta.

DW: How did you launch your winery?
AMC: I worked for a high-profile winery and learned everything about the business. Then I quit my job, and in 1999, we incorporated Ceja Vineyards and I became the first Mexican American woman to be president of a wine production company. It was about time, because without a Mexican labor force, there wouldn’t be a wine industry. I’m proud of my roots, but it takes guts to make that jump. The stereotype of Mexican Americans in Wine Country is definitely not owning a brand. We launched our brand in 2001, starting with 750 cases.

DW: In 2013, the Academy of Marketing Science named you a “distinguished marketer.” What is your approach?
AMC: We built our brand by making wines not for the wine critics, but for our own palates. I said, “What kind of food do we love? We love Mexican cuisine.” When we launched our brand, no one was speaking about Mexican cuisine and wine. Everyone thought of beer and margaritas. Or tequila. No. Hard liquor doesn’t pair well with food. It makes spicy food even spicier, and it’s not pleasant. But if you balance wine with moderate alcohol and bright, wonderful acidity, it goes well with food. So we do very little manipulation in the cellar—just work really hard in the vineyards to consistently have the best grape source to make stellar, balanced wines.

Also, we demystify the wine experience. A lot of people are intimidated in a tasting room, but we make it fun. When anyone walks out our door, if we’re not on hugging terms, we haven’t done a good job.

DW: What is your leadership style?
AMC: It’s understanding that your first customers are your team members. Most small companies in Wine Country do not offer health benefits, vacations, or a simple IRA. But you have to take care of your employees so they can be your brand ambassadors.
When my father worked, if it was raining, he didn’t work, so he didn’t get paid. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that Cesar Chavez was instrumental in lobbying to change the laws here in California to protect farmworkers. My father was part of the United Farm Workers Union, and he was president of a local in Rutherford. I worked under the union myself, and I’m proud of that.

When Cesar Chavez would come to Napa, he’d stay at my parents’ house, so I’ve always been around people who care about the well-being of others. My dad was involved in founding the first health clinic here in Napa Valley [Clinic Ole]. In high school, I was a volunteer there. About two years ago, the clinic celebrated its 40-year anniversary, and we were invited to pour wines.

We’ve been able to raise a lot of money for nonprofits that help farmworkers with housing, health care, and education. And I love making sure that not only is the environment protected but the people who work in the vineyards are protected from harmful pesticides and insecticides.

DW: What advice would you give women who aspire to leadership?
AMC: Understand what business you’re in better than anyone else. You have to be willing to wash dishes, serve wine to the president of the United States, and do everything in-between. At the same time, you have to empower others. Everyone has ideas.

DW: What qualities do you look for when you’re hiring?
AMC: Curiosity. Flexibility. Hunger to learn. And one prerequisite is that they speak another language, because people who speak more than one language have more openness.

DW: What are you the most proud of in your career?
AMC: I’ve received recognitions and awards, and they’re cool. But when I share my story with students who are going through what I went through, that’s empowering. When people say that you have changed their life by being a role model, that’s my most proud moment.

DW: What is your favorite thing in your office?
AMC: Our cat, Dulce Beso [Sweet Kiss]. She adopted us back in 2009, and she’s such a quirky personality. She loves to be petted, and she’s very playful. She’s part of our hospitality team. She welcomes everyone.

DW: What book are you reading now?
AMC: M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster. She used to live in Sonoma. I’ve read it a couple of times, but I’m currently rereading a lot of it. It’s not just about food. It’s about life. DW

Kimberly Olson is DW’s managing editor.

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