From Grape Picker to Winery Wonder Woman
As flames lashed the Napa and Sonoma Valley wine regions in October, vineyard owner Amelia Ceja was speaking up for the workers she saw cultivating smoky vineyards without protective masks. Amelia is a Mexican immigrant who built a multi-million dollar wine business, and she was once a grape picker herself.
“Many of the workers are undocumented, and they are voiceless because of their status. They are afraid of being deported, so a lot of injustices are never reported,” says Amelia, whose vineyard worker father was vocal about social justice and who helped Cesar Chavez organize for farm workers’ rights.
On the Postcard Academy podcast, Amelia shares her journey, from moving to America without knowing English to becoming the first Mexican-American woman ever elected president of a winery. We talk about pairing wine and Mexican cuisine; helping the Smithsonian tell a more diverse story, and more. Subscribe to the podcast to hear the whole story. Highlights are captured here.
You have been in Napa Valley since you were 12. Tell us, where did you move from, and how did you end up in California?
I moved from Las Flores, Jalisco, Mexico. The capital of Jalisco is Guadalajara. My father was a vineyard worker, here in Napa Valley. So, he had wanted to bring his family for many years, and in 1967, he brought my sister, my mother and me here to the Napa Valley.
And you moved to America without speaking English. That must have been pretty tough.
It was. The school that my father had registered me in, Robert Louis Stevenson in St. Helena, didn’t know what to do with me, because I was the only- well, there was another boy, who is now my husband, Pedro. He had just arrived here from Michoacán, and neither of us spoke English, so they placed both of us in a special ed class.
A lot of people would feel defeated at that, but you had such higher ambitions. Where did that confidence come from?
My grandmother instilled in me great confidence because she just loved me so unconditionally, and she allowed me to do a lot of things on my own, to be pretty independent. She was this matriarch of this village, and she really wanted her girls to be independent. And she believed in education. So, not speaking English and being placed in a special ed class, upset me a bit, but not really, because within three months I spoke English, and I was placed in a regular Seventh Grade class.
Could you talk a little bit about what California’s vineyards were like in the 1960s, and what it was like to work in them?
In the 1960s, vineyards in Napa Valley were a minority. Napa Valley consisted of orchards of plums, pears, walnuts, some apples, and even some cherries. The number of acres that were planted to vines in 1967 were actually just a very small part of the total land in Napa. It was a very bucolic, quiet valley, as opposed to its world recognition today. There were very few Latinos, at that time. Most of the people that came to work in Napa Valley, they didn’t stay here. They were migrant farm workers. So, there were very few Latino families that had established homes here. We were one of the first.
Even at 12 years old, you were telling your dad, ‘Someday, I’m going to own my own vineyard.’
Within the very first week, after arriving from Mexico, I was introduced to grape growing. And I made my first $3, which for me was a fortune, because I was translating those $3 into pesos. But I can close my eyes, and I can still feel the-, almost the sweetness, and the tasty grapes, the very first ones that I harvested. And I knew that it was a really lovely fruit, and that I wanted to be a part of it.
How has your background picking grapes yourself shaped the way you do business?
It goes back to my upbringing in Mexico, because all of the farming that was done at my grandparents’ farm, it was all organic. And the fruit just tastes so much better. But, equally important is protecting the people that are working in those fields. Picking grapes, it’s backbreaking work. And typically, the people that get all the recognition are the winemakers and the wineries that produce these world-renowned wines. Understand that behind every wine label in wine country, there are thousands of people that allow that one label to thrive.
I love how food and wine are always intertwined with you. I think that led to your involvement with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Could you tell me a little bit more about your relationship with them?
Our relationship with the Smithsonian began nearly 10 years ago. The National Museum of American History did not have a lot diversity. About 10 to 15 years ago, there were some Latino curators that were hired to remedy that. And one of them was Steve Velasquez, who was born here, but his family hails from Central America. And he started pursuing Latinos that had contributed to the rich history of this country. He started focusing on food and wine, and so he reached out to me. He was recording a vocal history of immigrants that had come to Napa.
Finally, five years ago, there was an exhibit – it’s still going on – of the history of food up to the 2000s. So, we’re actually in the Smithsonian, and it’s really cool, because it’s on the same floor, and about 100 feet from where Julia Child’s kitchen is.
Three years ago, the National Museum of American History started a series of winemakers’ dinners. It was decided they needed to honour now some of the workers that had started as vineyard workers, but now had their own brands. We all were able to speak, the vintners that were invited, and we were asked what food should pair with the wine. And so, our Pinot Noir was selected for the winemakers’ dinner, and I suggested this lamb dish from my childhood. I have to tell you that, my birria de cordero with our Pinot Noir was by far the best pairing.
And I think some of your recipes were added to the museum’s café?
Yes! I did a cooking demo, oh, and by the way, it’s the only museum in the United States that has a demonstration kitchen. And I became friends with many of the curators, and specifically Paula, who has been there for, like, oh my gosh, over three decades, and she had wanted to have a kitchen there, because food from the United States...it’s a fusion of all the contributions of cuisines from all over the world. It’s unique in the world. It’s fantastic. And so, she had wanted, and she had asked, to have a kitchen there, and it took 30 years. I was one of the very first chefs to be invited, and it was fantastic. I did chilaquiles, because I wanted to profile an ingredient that is native to the Americas, solely native to the Americas. Corn. And, actually, it was domesticated in Mexcio, which very few people know.
Who taught you how to cook. It was your grandmother?
Yes, my grandmother taught me how to cook. She used only fresh ingredients. Well, there was no option. It was local, seasonal and organic, all grown or raised, all the house chickens, goats, sheep, everything came from her farm. And she had an outdoor oven, made out of adobe, so she did a lot of different types of breads from freshly harvested corn, and lots of different, like, birrias, braised meats.
You have said that too many obstacles have been purposefully placed in the enjoyment of wine. What did you mean by that, and how is Ceja Vineyards helping to change this?
Well, there are countless magazines and shows and wine connoisseurs that, for decades, have stated that wine can only be enjoyed with northern European cuisine. French, Italian, Spanish. It’s a myth, because if wine is balanced with moderate alcohol, and nice, light acidity, wine also pairs well with food from many other spice components. Or that may be lighter, fresher, and bolder flavours.
One of my favourite articles ever…it was written by The San Francisco Chronicle, by Carol Ness, I invited her to dinner, to dine at our house, with Pedro and me, and her tagline is “an authentic Mexican meal, and there was not a margarita or a Dos Equis in sight.” And that really started to change the conversation about wine with food.
Where can we buy wine from Ceja Vineyards?
Well, most of our wine is sold directly to consumers. We ship wine pretty much across the USA, with the exception of a few states. So, people that are wine loving fans of family-produced wines from estate-grown grapes that are sustainably grown, can go to our website, www.cejavineyards.com, call us at 707-255-3954 or email us. And also check out our social media sites, on our YouTube channel, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.
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