News and Notes from the World of Wine

Cejas Release Wines Under Their Own Label
Former Winery Workers
Achieve the American Dream

Until she was 12 years old, Amelia Ceja lived in the small Mexican village of Las Flores—population 60—about 350 miles northwest of Mexico City. There was no electricity or running water. "We took our water from the river," Ceja, now 46, recalls.

Today, she and her family are part of the American dream. As immigrants, they arrived in the United States with little more than a strong work ethic. But after three decades, they own some 100 acres of valuable vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties as well as a new wine label, Ceja Vineyards.

"Wine was introduced to the Americas through Mexico," Ceja reminds us in her perfect, but slightly accented English. "The oldest winery [in the New World] is in Parras, [Mexico]. Parras means vines, and the winery is 400 years old. It still makes wine today."

Any visitor to California wine country is quick to notice the importance of the Hispanic community to the wine industry. Hispanics provide the backbone for much of the agricultural work that’s done in this area, yet relatively few Mexicans have become vintners. The Ceja family is putting a new spin on the changing face of California wine.

"All of our parents came to work in the vineyards," Ceja explains. "As children, we worked alongside them. At first, we didn’t speak English, but later, when we did, we chose to continue working among the vines, especially during our school vacations."

Amelia’s father was employed as a mechanic by grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer, and her mother was a vineyard laborer. The vintner’s parents-in-law—Pablo and Juanita Ceja—were also vineyard and winery workers.

Pablo and Juanita Ceja encouraged their two sons, Armando and Pedro (who is Amelia’s husband), to go to the University of California, Davis. At Davis, they learned the viticulture, enology and engineering skills that have enabled them to run their vineyards and budding wine business. Amelia also attended the University of California, San Diego and worked at various wineries in marketing prior to her full time commitment to Ceja Vineyards.

But the path to a family vineyard was not a straight one. Both Amelia and Pedro originally chose other careers after college. The couple lived in the Bay Area with their young children; Pedro Ceja was working as an engineer. But he and his mom, Juanita, always wanted to buy some land.

In 1983, the family found a 15-acre plot of open pasture with a home in the Carneros region. "We pooled our resources and bought it," Ceja remembers. And if ever there were a family compound, this was it. "Pedro’s parents moved into the home, and two years later we built a home for ourselves on the property. We lived with Pedro’s parents while we built our house."

During that time, Amelia’s brother-in-law, Armando, worked at Domaine Chandon. The young enologist brokered a deal with the sparkling wine estate that would make it possible for his family to build up its own business. Chandon agreed to plant the Ceja property and required payment only after the vineyard began bearing grapes three years later. In return, the Cejas pledged to sell their grapes exclusively to Chandon.

"It was very generous of Chandon," Amelia states. "We believe in good karma. We have always worked hard, and many people have been helpful to us. But we still had to keep our day jobs to pay the bills."

After seven years, the Cejas began to see a profit off their vines. In the early 1990s, Armando found another 20 acres to purchase and plant. "We had to borrow money," Amelia says, "but we had the cash flow to support the loan." Soon afterward, an eight-acre purchase followed. The family continued to sell its grapes to Domaine Chandon as well as to other new clients in the area.

Then, in 1997, the Cejas closed on a 65-acre parcel in Sonoma Valley. Fittingly, it lies very close to some of the county’s earliest vineyards, planted by Mexico’s General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in the mid-19th century. The vineyard began bearing a commercial crop in 2001 and brought the family’s total holdings to 113 acres. In today’s market, that’s worth something between $5 million and $10 million, including the family’s several homes.

"Whatever it’s worth," Amelia comments, "it’s worth more than money. It represents our journey, our history and our passion. We received our vision from our parents, and that can’t be quantified. It is priceless."

In 1998, Armando added the title of winemaker to his vineyard manager moniker. Ceja Vineyards’ first wines are 1998 and 1999 vintages of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The winery will release a Cabernet Sauvignon later this year.
Reviews of Ceja Vineyards’ wines will appear in a future issue.

—Jeff Morgan







Port Producers Declare Vintage Year

Just when we thought millennium fever was over, here it comes again. This time it takes the form of vintage Port 2000. All the major Port shippers have come together to make the first general vintage declaration since 1997.

"The 2000s are deep, brooding wines, very massive and intense," said Paul Symington, whose family produces Graham, Dow and Warre Ports, as well as Quinta do Vesuvio, all of which are being declared. "We are very pleased. I really think these are among the best wines we have made for a long time."

Another top house to declare is Fladgate Partnership, the new name for the company whose Ports include Taylor Fladgate and Fonseca, along with Croft and Delaforce, which were both acquired last year. Adrian Bridge, the managing director, said, "we have made some excellent wines that will have great ability to age." He plans to release vintage Ports from Croft and Delaforce at a price that should make them 15 percent less expensive than Taylor and Fonseca. "In real terms that is a fall in price for both Croft and Delaforce vintage from the 1997 vintage," says Bridge. Prices for Taylor and Fonseca will rise by 7 percent.

Sophia Bergqvist, whose family’s Quinta de la Rosa has also been declared, said "people are talking up the 2000s and I have tasted some spectacular wines. If they are anything to go on, then we are in for a great declaration."

Producers, however, warn that quantities are even less than for 1997. Yields were 30 to 50 percent below average in 2000 after a cold, wet spell in late spring.

The wines will be available for purchase later this summer, and will be shipped in 2003. Although his prices have not yet been announced, Paul Symington says that "our prices will likely be around 5 percent higher than 1997’s, which we think is a very modest increase."

By Roger Voss

New AVA "Rocks" Sonoma County

California’s newest American Viticultural Area was born on April 29, 2002, the date that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms permitted the Rockpile Viticultural Area to go into effect.

The 15,400-acre appellation is located in northwestern Sonoma County, and overlaps part of the Dry Creek Valley AVA. Rockpile is also the second appellation in the U.S. (after Mendocino Ridge) to be based on elevation, rather than simple geographic boundaries. It includes 11 vineyards, with a total of about 160 acres of vines, all of which are at or above 800 feet above sea level (some property is as high as 1,900 feet). The area has been called "Rockpile" since at least 1858, and once was known as "La Roca Monte Rancho,” or Rocky Mountain Ranch.

According to Jack Florence, a local grapegrower who was instrumental in petitioning the BATF to grant the appellation, temperatures in the hills vary considerably from those down below in the valleys. Springtime days are cooler, while summertime temperatures are warmer because the ridges are above the usual valley fog. During the crucial grape ripening period of September to early October. Rockpile is generally warmer and drier than lower elevations.

The main grape varieties grown are Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Several wineries buy these varieties, most notably Rosenblum, who uses Florence’s grapes to bottle a Zin and a Petite Sirah with "Rockpile Road Vineyard" designations.

Besides pride of place, Florence says he’s hoping that the Rockpile AVA will drive his grape prices upward. He expects to have a "higher demand for the grapes, maybe better prices, because being part of a small AVA creates a higher interest."

—Steve Heimoff

BATF Ends Censorship of
Nudity on Wine Labels

The naked question of nudes on wine label art is rearing its head again, this time with an Italian artist who owns a winery in Montalcino.

The transavantgarde artist Sandro Chia, who lives in New York and in Montalcino, put a new work, a male frontal nude image, on the label of his Castello Romitorio 1997 Brunello di Montalcino. Wine buyers outside the U.S. can buy it, but for the American market, he substituted a painting he did in 1984 of a clothed man, a glass of wine and a loaf of bread.

This wouldn’t be news except that the wine-nudity police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), says it no longer censors nude labels as long as the work is a legitimate work of art.

Whether Chia submitted the nude label or not is unclear. His winery public relations director, Fiorella Ciaffarafa, initially said he did not submit the nude label but after a further query she said the label was submitted and denied, twice. The BATF says it doesn’t have a record of approval; the bureau does not comment on the labels it rejects among the 60,000 submitted each year.

"In the past we have rejected some [nude] labels and, to be honest, we rejected some innocent labels," said Jim Crandall, spokesman for the BATF. "In the pre-1990s, where we turned down such labels, most were resubmitted and approved."

Crandall says that "while we would probably discourage any label that was a work of art with full-frontal nudity, we would have no recourse but to approve it," because, in most cases, "if [the artist or the winery] took [the BATF] to court, they would win."

The whole issue of nude art is rooted in the government’s attempt to offer consumer protection. The 1935 Federal Alcohol Administration Act prohibits any alcohol statement that is obscene or indecent. "I don’t think anybody considered the possibility that a wine producer would slap a nude on the label. Maybe that was obscene in 1935, but it isn’t now," Crandall said.

Though still operating under the 1935 act, the big shift away from BATF’s role as the wine-nudity police came three years ago when Susan Stuart, chief of the alcohol labeling and formulation division, announced that the department no longer requires the producer to clothe controversial images.

While nude label examples aren’t everywhere, they are memorable. The 1998 Clos Pegase label featuring Jean DeBuffet’s Bedecked Nude, Kenwood’s 1997 Artist Series label with David Goines’s reclining nude, and the Leo Wyatt sketch of the Petel sculpture of the three graces on Clos du Val’s label are only a few of the "racy" images that won BATF approval after first being rejected by the bureau.

But, apparently, word about the lifting of the ban hasn’t gotten out. Americans still show up at the Château Mouton Rothschild tasting room in Bordeaux asking to purchase the "banned" 1993 bottling with Balthus’s nude young woman on the label. Mouton’s first export to the U.S. market featured a blank label; when the chateau successfully appealed the ruling, the 1993 vintage—young woman and all—was at last shipped across the Atlantic.

If wine is bought as an investment, controversial, rare bottlings are obviously most valuable. If wine is bought just to drink, the bottle may end up in the recycling bin anyway—who cares what the label looks like?

Published on June 1, 2002