The grape doesn’t fall far from the bunch at Ceja Vineyards, where the family-owned and operated business is headed by an enterprising and inspiring mother-daughter duo: Amelia Moran Ceja and Dalia Ceja Swedelson. Twenty years ago, the Jalisco-born Amelia became the first Mexican-American woman to have ever been named president of a vineyard, having risen the ranks from the fields to become the head of the company. Amelia’s legacy is still expanding; it’s tangible in the mark that her daughter Dalia is leaving on the family business as a passionate and deft leader, a representative of the next generation of Ceja Vineyards.
Founded in 1999 by Amelia, her husband Pedro, and her brother-in-law Armando, Ceja Vineyards is located in the cool and breezy Carneros Valley of Northern California, tucked between Sonoma and Napa wine country. The Cejas first found their way to the storied wine region in the 1960s in the same way that many Mexicans did (and still do), filling the critical positions of campesinos that were created as the wine industry took off.
Dalia and Amelia had a conversation about their family’s winemaking origins for NBC News a couple of years ago, sharing how different it is now to be a Latina in the wine industry compared to when Amelia first arrived from Jalisco, joining her father in the fields of Napa. “At that time, very few families that came to work in their vineyards brought their families,” she explained to her daughter in the video. “Now nearly 40 percent of the population in Napa Valley is Latino; in the late ‘60s, .001 percent came from Mexico.” And yet, young Amelia had already made up her mind, announcing to her father that she wanted to run her own vineyard. “I didn’t speak a word of English, but he said ‘Of course, mija, you will.’”
“Presidente” has proven to be a role that suits Amelia well: In 2005, only a few years after being elected president of Ceja Vineyards, she was named “Woman of the Year” by the California state legislature for her achievements in the wine industry. Her daughter Dalia has also received praise for breaking the glass ceiling in her own right, honored by the Napa Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as “Woman of the Year” in 2011. (Like I said, the grape doesn’t fall far from the bunch.) Ameila attributed her unwavering run-the-world confidence as a businesswoman to her hometown, a place that Dalia described to me as “a tiny village in Las Flores, Jalisco, where there was no running water or electricity.”
Though Dalia herself was born and raised in California, this village has made a significant imprint on her too, transcending space and time. “The stories [my mom] has shared with me highlight her humble upbringing in Mexico and how those experiences, while being raised by her mom and great grandmother made her into the person she is today.” She acknowledged how her own abuelitas Mama Juana and Mama Quica — as well as her mom Amelia, of course — have given her all the support and inspiration she’s needed to get to where she is today as a representative of her community and as the face of the next generation of her family’s business. “I watched my family overcome all obstacles and break all barriers to go from vineyard workers, to vineyard owners, to winery owners in less than 50 years. They taught me that you can accomplish your dreams by having a vision, an education and by being passionate about life. This is our definition of the American dream.”
Dalia emphasized the influence that her own family’s origin story has had on how she and her mother operate their business in general. “Having a platform in this industry to educate and inspire consumers about the wine industry is important to our philosophies because that is how our family was introduced to the wine industry,” she explained. They not only produce wine for us to enjoy, but they also have made their Mexican-American heritage a big part of their brand’s identity; after all, they connected to wine in the very same way, learning it from the ground up without all of the pomp and circumstance that can surround premium wines. If you happen to follow the Cejas on social media, you’ll get the sense that food, family, and history are inextricably tied to their bottles, that they are excited to share with us the ways that their own friends and loved ones enjoy Ceja wines.
For instance, on YouTube you can follow along with Amelia’s recipe for classic Mexican elotes. It’s more than a recipe, though; she sprinkles in a bit of agricultural and personal history about corn, reminiscing on how she and her grandmother would prepare hundreds of ears of corn at a time, cooking them overnight so that the family could eat them for breakfast the next day. Bringing you right back to the present, she suggests you pair the humble street food staple with a glorious glass of Ceja chardonnay, a pairing that heightens the sweetness of fresh corn and does the wine plenty of justice.
Beyond the pleasures of wine, the Cejas have always made a point to highlight how integral their skilled fieldworkers are to their livelihood. Dalia credits the campesinos as being the true artisans behind not just the wines that are produced by Ceja Vineyards, but behind the entire wine industry. “We are fortunate to have a tight working team at Ceja Vineyards,” she says. “Without them, there wouldn’t be a wine industry, let alone an agriculture industry in the United States.” (She’s not exaggerating, either. Mother Jones recently cited a federal survey that found that 9 out of 10 farmworkers in California are immigrants, a majority of whom were born in Mexico.)
The Cejas also play an active role in their greater Latinx community. As a member of MAVA, the Mexican-American Vintners Association, they take every opportunity to support and be supported by other Mexican-American winemakers in their region. It’s an organization that fulfills the role that a village might have for this group of first- and second-generation immigrants and winemakers, but its impact radiates beyond its membership; MAVA leverages its collective influence to effect positive change on underserved members of the surrounding Latinx community.
Midway through this month, Ceja Vineyards and 15 other MAVA members from around the Napa and Sonoma Valleys are taking part in La Cosecha Wine Harvest Festival on Saturday, August 17th, a ticketed festival whose proceeds will go toward The Dominguez Dream. The Dominguez Dream is a regional non-profit organization that supports literacy, parental engagement, and education to empower children in underserved communities. (In case you were wondering, the event is open to the public and will consist of an afternoon of wine tastings as well as a sit-down dinner alongside the winemakers themselves.) MAVA is constantly doing the necessary work of lifting up its neighbors, demonstrating how to operate as inclusive leaders of their community.
Dalia has fully embraced her role as a leader. She was fortunate to have the opportunity to build upon her family’s experience and stake in the wine industry by pursuing a formal education in her field, a skillset that she is no doubt tapping into as Ceja Vineyards expands beyond wine production in a very big way in the near future. The family will be breaking ground soon to build what Dalia described as a “Mission-inspired production facility and hospitality center” that will integrate sustainability into the expansion’s overall design and programming. Go ahead, let yourself fantasize about the farm to table dinners composed of authentic Mexican dishes, the music, the language, the wine…
It’s an exciting development that Dalia feels will amplify the company’s Mexican-American identity, an ambitious next step that seems only like a natural progression of the Ceja family legacy. It’s a sort of intergenerational fruit that has been begging to be harvested, and we can’t wait to see what these leading Latinas of Ceja Vineyards have in store.