REVIEW: Ceja Vineyards

We visited the Napa valley and Sonoma this week and were very fortunate to be invited along to a private tasting at Ceja Vineyards. Being English, we had not previously come across this small, but perfectly formed boutique winery, in the sunny region of Carneros, but we soon learned that not only was the Ceja family taking the wine world by storm, but they would actually be appearing in this week’s Wall Street Journal. High praise indeed. It was also not five minutes before we were presented with a copy of that day’s Napa Valley Register, featuring a full two page article on the Vineyards and their small business success. We realised that this was no common or garden tasting that we would experience.

Ceja Vineyards was founded in 1999 and is dedicated to ‘sustainable agriculture and the gentle handling of the grapes in the cellar’.

Ceja vineyard at Carnero

We were enthusiastically welcomed by Amelia Moran Ceja, one of the three founders and directors of the Vineyard. Amelia is a small, but seemingly boundlessly enthusiastic woman, talking with equal fondness about her grapes, her property and her marketing ventures. Taking us round the cool, simply decorated building she talks about the future plans to make a great winery building, with a fifty foot tower, reminiscient of that depicted in the artwork on the walls. Amelia is part of a line of great Mexican immigrant entrepeneurs, coming to America with little in their pockets and then truly making good by having a great idea and being bold enough to roll up their sleeves and work hard to achieve it.

Amelia Ceja: our gracious host

I am struck by her enthusiasm and the great number of projects that Amelia is personally involved with. In particular, the future plan to commit an acre of land to an organic garden, which will not only provide food to complement the wine tastings but also give local communities an opportunity to learn more about gardening and food production, educating generations of local children about where food comes from. Truly, this is the sort of endeavour that I have to whole heartedly support.

I also love the idea of Amelia’s family online cooking show. I am looking forward to spending some time at home checking back over her videos about how to cook great food on Salud Napa. I am sure that someone who taught me so much in just a few short hours about wine could do great things to my culinary understanding. I certainly would like to learn to cook more authentically with Mexican flavours so I think I couldn’t go to a better source for this information.

We tasted a large number of wines, but here are a few notes about some of my favourites:

2008 Ceja Chardonnay (Napa Valley, Carneros)
We tasted two white wines, the other being the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, but the Chardonnay was definitely my favourite. It was crisp and fruity, having an almost apple-like taste to it. It has a creamy mouth feel, without being buttery like a standard Chardonnay. I am reliably informed by Lindsay Huntsman, of El Dorado Kitchen, Sonoma that this is because this wine has been fermented in the barrel with no moloatic fermentation. Due to this, it was possible (and indeed delicious) for us to taste this wine at room temperature. I know! It was delicious, but not chilled. I have never before experienced a white wine that could hold its own in these conditions.

2008 Ceja Vino de Casa – Red (Napa Valley)
This was the cheapest of the wines that we tasted, but I have to admit, one of my favourites. It had quite a deep red fruit feel but is still relatively light on the palate. With an alcohol content of 13.6%, like all the Ceja wines we tasted it matches really well with Latino spiced food, including fish, vegetable and pork dishes. It is light enough to go with these sort of non-red meat dishes but has a complex enough flavour that I think it would match with lighter beef dishes, like tacos rather than steak.

The outdoor kitchen for food matching

We went through all the wines, with Amelia closing her eyes and checking the quality of each one before pouring a taste into a Ceja Vineyard glass for us all to sample. I was fascinated to detect a very slight smokey notes in one of the 2008 reds, which was confirmed to me by Amelia as a consequence of the 2008 fires in that area. Because the grapes were still growing at this time, the smokey flavour penetrated the soft skins and can just be detected in the finished wine. It’s little details like this that makes me want to know more about wine.

After we had finished, she invited us all to go outside to the outdoor kitchen, where we were served the same wines but this time with Mexican foods, to see how the wine complemented the delicate spiciness of the shrimp cocktail and the robustness of aubergine, beans or carnitas on tostadas. This was a really incredible experience that not only added to my understanding of how a lower alcohol wine (under 14%) can really be used in great harmony with spicier meals, but also gave us all a chance to sit around and chat further with Amelia about life, wine and everything.

Extreme Housewife meets wine tasting

She was really interested to find out everyone in the group’s story and enjoyed finding out about my mosaics when that came up. I can only hope that the kernel of an idea about a wine-based mosaic comes to fruition when their great winery building is completed and launched. Seeing the ethos of Ceja, coupled with the hard work and passion of its directors, makes it really feel like a place where I could spend time. Plus the vineyard party stories sound legendary!


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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