That first taste of the merlot grapes was succulent. Amelia Ceja was 12. It was 1967, and she had just immigrated to the Napa Valley from Jalisco, Mexico. Her father, who had come to the United States several years earlier in search of a better life, had sent his family a postcard inviting them to join him.
During that first weekend, Ceja wanted to see what her father did, and so she went out to the fields to pick grapes.
It was back-breaking work. Harvesting grapes started early in the morning and lasted for hours in the heat of the sun. When Ceja helped out, she used a bucket instead of the standard grape-picking bin, which was almost the size of her small frame. To pick the grapes required crawling beneath heavy vines where mosquitos stung her arms and legs and insects got under her clothing. Soon she was hot and sticky from picking the ripe fruit. But their taste made it all worthwile.
Winemaking grapes have thick skins and are full of seeds. Smaller in diameter, the ratio of sugar content to acid makes their taste far more complex than table grapes, which Ceja dismisses as “basically flavorless.” ”It’s like biting into a fruit that’s so sweet and succulent, but also when you bite into the seeds you can detect other flavors, like astringency,” she says.
Later Ceja’s husband, Pedro, whom she met that very first day in the fields, would joke that for the first two hours picking grapes, all she did was eat them. Her father remembers a different detail—her proclamation in the field that she would one day open a vineyard of her own.
In the 1960s, there were no such vineyards in the United States. Until World War II, Americans did most of the fieldwork in the vineyards, but as the draft and war preparations got underway, worker shortages threatened the industry. Seeking new sources of labor, the U.S. government established the the Crop Corps, the Women’s Land Army and, especially, the Bracero program.
The Bracero program, which ran from 1942 to 1964, was a series of laws and agreements between the United States and Mexico, which brought 4.6 million contract laborers into the U.S. The agreement led to an influx of Mexican laborers, like Ceja’s father, the invisible hands that shaped California’s wine industry.
“The itinerant field workers, their history, and their legacy reflect a little-known American experience and illustrate the significant impact of migrants to the United States,” writes curator L. Stephen Velasquez of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Velasquez has made it a personal mission to record the oral histories of these braceros and their families, documenting the many inroads and influences they have brought to the American wine industry.
Earlier this summer, the museum toasted Ceja, along with four other acclaimed Mexican-American winemakers, whose family-owned wineries are changing the conversation of wine industry.
They’ve come a long way. When Ceja first came to Napa, the United Farm Workers Union was just gearing up to represent workers in the Northern California wine country. In the early 1970s, the workers organized unions. Ceja remembers the activists and labor leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta staying at their house. When the pair visited, they would talk with her parents over the kitchen table, normally, Ceja recalls, around a lot of food. She listened, and from an early age was aware of profound social injustices around her.
In 1980, Ceja left Napa on an academic scholarship to attend the University of California, San Diego. There she got an education in history and literature, but also on food and wine pairings.
Unwilling to stomach the dorm food, she started cooking for herself. Soon, her roommates wanted in and before long, they were collecting money from other students in exchange for home-cooked meals, which she paired with wine her father sent from Napa. She experimented, fusing Mexican and Asian cuisines, and artfully pairing wines for her dorm guests. These early food and wine pairings—sometimes combinations as simple as beans and wine, were radically different than what was being served at the tasting tables of Napa in the 1980s.
After graduation, Ceja and Pedro pooled all their resources with her siblings Armando, Pablo and their mother, Juanita to buy 15 acres of land in the cool, Pinot Noir-friendly soils of Los Carneros. As Ceja admits freely, they had no business plan when they started out on their own—and at one especially rough financial point, they had to put the property up for sale before they made a contract with another family winery Domaine Carneros, which kept the property afloat.
But Ceja wanted her own label. In 2001, this time business plan in hand, they founded Ceja Vineyards and Ceja became the first and only Mexican American woman in the history of the industry to head a wine production company. Its mission was a focus on food-friendly wines—“Wines not just enjoyed with the same cuisine that every other winery was touting: French, Italian, Mediterranean. How about Mexican? How about Asian? How about Middle Eastern?” says Ceja.
Ceja credits reporter Carol Ness of the San Francisco Chronicle for the vineyard’s windfall moment—Ness opened her 2003 article with an enticing scene of the family’s Mexican fiesta and the preparation of the authentic cuisine, Longaniza sausage frying up in the pan and Serrano chiles being sliced for guacamole and, as Ness reported, “not a margarita nor Dos Equis in sight.”
“That started changing the dialogue about food and wine, period,” says Ceja, who believes it was the first article ever written about Mexican food and wine pairings. The article went on to explain how the vineyard’s wines, harvested earlier in the season have a lower pH and acidity to compliment the heat from Latin American cuisine—”undeniable proof” for delicious flavor pairings.
The piece caught the attention of Macy’s department store, which soon forged a partnership with Ceja for a San Francisco-based Cellar Kitchen cooking demonstration. For the event, Ceja selected three recipes and paired them with her wines.
The posters of Ceja for the event might be the first advertisements of its kind, and Velasquez later collected them for display in the American History Museum’s permanent exhibition, “FOOD: Transforming the American Table,” which opened in 2012.
The company now operates on 113 acres in Carneros, where Ceja lives, and in other parts of Napa and Sonoma. The boutique winery is also tapping into a new consumer—the 40 million Hispanics that weren’t drinking wine, according to the 2000 census.
“Getting rid of the elitism that exists in the wine industry is the number one step,” says Ceja. “Too many obstacles have been placed purposefully in the enjoyment of wine,” she says, especially for people of color. “It’s a beverage that needs to be accessible. It’s not rocket science to enjoy a glass of wine.”
Ceja Vineyards has specifically targeted these new customers, and they’re seeing results. The label has grown from its initial release of 750 cases in 2001 to just under 10,000 cases. Today, more Mexican-American wineries have joined the fold, and this year the Mexican-American Vintners Association, which counts 15 members, is marking its sixth year.
In 2009, Ceja launched her own Youtube Channel. In one of her cooking videos, she beams at the camera lens as she deliberates on the merits of serving the classic Menudo with a glass of Red Vino De Casa, a medium-bodied blend with hints of black currant and tobacco. Though she stands just 5 feet tall, her energy and enthusiasm for Mexican cuisine and wine pairings in the videos can’t help but recall a giant of the culinary world—Julia Child.
Recently, Ceja returned from an Alaskan cruise, traveling with members of the Ceja Vineyards Wine Club. Aboard ship, she and her guests enjoyed pairings like salmon ceviche and Pinot Noir—“It could almost make you cry how lovely it is together,” she enthused.
The club’s membership, she says, is more than 50 percent Latino—a statistic worth toasting with a raised glass and one Ceja’s favorite words: “¡Salud!”