Feast of the Senses

Feast of the Senses

Amelia Ceja of Ceja Vineyards proves that teamwork, timing and a tipple along the way are the keys to throwing a memorable holiday party.

There is probably no more compelling seasonal image than a festively decorated table groaning under an array of food and wine and ringed with upbeat revelers. The holidays typically take center stage for any gourmand worthy of the title; it’s an opportunity to bring family and friends together for a show-stopping array of special dishes and coveted sips from the cellar.

Great hosts know that the key to pulling off a big holiday party is planning: When the parts are in place in advance, both the hosts and guests can enjoy the evening without feeling pressured. But teamwork is equally important, and creates a community bond that invests everyone in the event.

No one knows this better than Amelia Ceja, president of Napa Valley’s Ceja Vineyards since 1999. Named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc Magazine in 2004 and honored as Woman of the Year by the California State Legislature in 2005, Ceja is also a party hostess powerhouse whose culinary prowess is legendary in wine country and beyond. She is currently developing a TV show that focuses on cooking, culture and the arts. Whether throwing an intimate party for wine club members or celebrating the holidays in grand style with her three-generation brood, Ceja is all about planning, but also having fun and being in the moment.

Case in point: A recent Ceja family holiday gathering. Inside is the choreographed chaos that characterizes a kitchen on countdown for a big party. This one involves six simmering stovetop burners and three generations of the Ceja (pronounced SAY-ha) family—amplified by miscellaneous friends who have become like family—in the process of slicing, dicing, puréeing, and sautéing. The scene resembles a cross between an elimination round on Top Chef and a NASA launch. At the vortex stands a petite, dark-haired woman calmly stirring eggs and potatoes in a skillet, soft yellow curds that will ultimately solidify into delicious destiny as a Spanish tortilla de patata (potato omelette).

“This is action . . .this is real . . .this is where the magic begins,” says Amelia, smiling. “Are you ready for a glass of wine?” Hardly the words of a harried hostess.

Entertaining entwines with everyday life for the Cejas, Mexican-Americans who in one generation have blossomed from migrant vineyard workers to major vintners in the Napa Valley. In 1983, the Cejas pooled their resources and bought 15 acres that they planted with Pinot Noir; today, they own 113 planted acres in Napa and Sonoma counties that produce 9,000 cases of wine annually. Frequent parties are thrown in the renovated 90-year-old cottage on the vineyard property, and in keeping with the Ceja nuestra casa es su casa—”our house is your house”—tradition, the stucco villa looks more like a home than a tasting room. At its heart, the largest space holds not the tasting room, but the dining area and granite-countered kitchen.

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Plan and prepare ahead with teamwork

The first secret to Amelia’s seemingly seamless parties is that the preparation is part of the party—not backstage.

Family and friends mingle as they cook and then linger over dinner. “I love to invite the entire family to be part of the cooking; we all get to hang out together,” Amelia comments. “It’s a great opportunity to find out what’s new with each other.” For the holiday party preparation, everyone is at work: making quesadillas and whiz-washing pots; chopping pasilla peppers for the green rice; searing lamb shanks—the room is humming with conversation and the clang and clank of a working kitchen.

Effortlessly, Amelia manages to chat and finish the mussel broth with an ample pour of Pinot Noir (“Of course I use the good stuff.”) She also supervises the entire prep group.  How can a host do so many things at one time? “I only think about one thing at a time but I know what needs to happen in the future. Besides,” she grins, “When I wanted tortillas as a kid, I first had to go out, pick corn, and then grind it myself. For me now, cooking is easy.”

One by one each dish for this evening’s dinner gets prepped and ready. By 5 p.m., calm and cleanliness reign in the kitchen. Amelia whips off her apron (pristine and unstained after a three-hour cooking spree)  another timesaving strategy and stands fresh and elegant in a beige satin suit.

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Simple, personalized décor as a food and wine backdrop

The décor is simple but captures the spirit of the season: The tablecloth, with its bronze-gauze overlay, echoes the grapevines outside that are shedding russet leaves before their winter nap. Deep-red in color—the hue recalls Cabernet Sauvignon—the napkins are woven with names of California varieties and appellations. “I bought the fabrics and had a seamstress make the tablecloth and napkins. I couldn’t find anything like them already made up in stores,” says Amelia, emphasizing another key to a stylish holiday party—personal touches.

The simplicity of the setting also showcases the food and wine. Each place setting holds a white plate nested on a golden charger. “White plates make the food pop,” Amelia adds. “These are from Dudson, a restaurant supply company. They’re strong—they can go in the dishwasher.” (Post-party plus.) To the floral centerpieces featuring white mums and snowberries, Amelia has added olive-tree branches and the last red roses from her garden.

In keeping with Mexican tradition, Christmas celebrations remain simple, “For me Christmas is about having all my kids and their kids gather at my house and sharing meals with our friends,” says Juanita Ceja, Amelia’s mother-in-law.

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Conversation is key
The Ceja immediate family—parents, siblings and spouses, children and grandchildren—numbers nearly 50 people.

This particular dinner brings together eight Cejas plus two outside visitors. As you would expect from a family of vintners in the Napa Valley, much of the conversation focuses on wine—the growing, making and drinking thereof.

“At these family dinners we get to enjoy the literal fruits of our labors—our wines,” says Armando Ceja, Amelia’s brother-in-law and the winemaker, who was up before dawn to oversee the harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon. “We’re a family—we should be passionate about what we do. And for us Cejas, that means our wine,” adds Ariel, Amelia’s son.

In the kitchen, the community effort continues as family members wrangle about who gets to cook the spicy shrimp. Amelia’s daughter Dalia wins stovetop dominance, but cousin Ariel insists on splashing some white wine into the skillet. As she sautés the shrimp, Dalia remarks, “I’ve been helping my mother and grandmother cook ever since I was little. I started when I was about five as ‘the mixing person’—my mom stood me on a stool so I could reach the counter.” Amelia looks at her and then gazes at Mama Juanita, (as her family calls her) who is grilling quesadillas. “Look what a beautiful circle cooking makes . . . here we have three generations in the kitchen.”

Pay attention to the pairings, but don’t obsess
At last it’s time for the meal. Counterpoised by tomato broth studded with longaniza (a Mexican sausage similar to Portuguese linguica) the mussels reveal sweet succulence—especially when paired with the same Ceja Pinot Noir that enriches the sauce. With layers of Oaxacan string cheese, sautéed mushrooms and fresh baby arugula, the quesadillas convey lush earthiness. Guests return to the kitchen to admire as Amelia serves out the cilantro-infused rice and lamb shanks—so tender that the meat swoons off the bones. The seasonings—a mix of smokiness and piquant spice—balance the flavors of rhubarb and white pepper in the 2004 Ceja Syrah. Next Amelia serves a simple medley of Marcona almonds, fresh figs and Stilton cheese along with the late harvest Dolce Beso dessert wine that entices with intense flavors of apricot and tropical fruit. Somehow everyone finds room to eat and drink.

“Wine exploration is an intimate sensual experience,” Amelia says. “People should drink whatever pleases their palates. We all experience our senses differently—why should some supposed expert tell you what you should like or dislike?”

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People are paramount
The evening draws to a close. “Food speaks of where it comes from. Every dish we ate today was touched by the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” says Amelia, who has managed to keep her eye on the prize and focus more on the people at her party than worrying about every logistic. It’s the little details, not the compulsive ones, that can catapult a holiday gathering from standard to truly special. It’s how Juanita added a bit of her special sauce to each enchilada. The heirloom tomatoes in the lamb were picked by Amelia’s husband Pedro—the last ones from our garden. A dish or a wine becomes even more magical when you realize who has made it.

“Entertaining is so simple: Just open the door to your house and your heart,” Amelia concludes, “and allow people to come in.”

For more information about Ceja Vineyards and their line of wines, go to www.cejavineyards.com.

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Wine Basics for the Savvy Host

Decanter. A decanter is a beautiful way to present a wine, even if the wine itself does not require decanting. A gorgeous decorating touch, at least, a beautiful decanter adds formal panache to your holiday gathering.

Stemware. For a dinner on the formal side, and one during which you will serve a different wine for each course, a different glass for each wine is ideal. If it’s a more informal affair and if you do not have enough stemware to place three in front of each guest, we recommend a pour bucket and pitchers of water: Your guests can sample as many wines as they like, trying small pours of each, and then pour the unwanted wine into the bucket and rinse their glass with water from the pitcher. This may sound like chaos, but it’s great fun.

Water. Always be sure to have plenty of water on hand when serving wine. A glass of water for each glass of wine will help keep your guests on an even keel.

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7 Secrets for Holiday Entertaining

Make the preparations part of your party. Too often hosts separate the cooking of the meal from the connection with their guests. When entertaining family or good friends, invite them to come early and help prepare the dinner. You’ll have more time to discuss what’s going on in your lives and create new memories together.

Be organized. Bookmark or print out the recipes you need. Make a complete list of your menu and which wine to serve with each course so you don’t forget to serve something. Create a “culinary countdown”: record the estimated times you should do everything from putting the turkey in the oven to whipping cream for dessert.

Have a fetish for freshness. “Everything must be fresh, fresh, fresh—if you really want the flavors to pop,” states Amelia, who purchased the meats, seafood and vegetables for her dinner that morning. Less perishable ingredients (flour, soup stocks, resilient veggies) can be purchased in advance to reduce last-minute mayhem.

Prepare food in advance. An offshoot of the freshness mantra above, this means figuring out which dishes you can cook or prep ahead of time—good candidates include stews, casseroles and cranberry sauces. Other items such as seafood or rice need to be cooked just prior to serving.

Be your own best sous chef. “If I’m cooking by myself I have all the ingredients separated out and ready to go. That way the actual cooking goes really fast,” advises Amelia. Also know what recipes you can prepare while something else cooks, and use any spare time to clean up.

Encourage kids to get into kitchen. “Children are thrilled to be involved in the cooking process,” Amelia notes. “They love seeing the different ingredients, watching them being sliced, and seeing how they come together when cooked.” She recommends starting off young children as “blenders” and “stirrers.”

Make it your own. Decorate tables and rooms with family heirlooms. Add foliage from your garden or favorite ornaments to store-bought floral arrangements. If you see beautiful or fun materials in a fabric store, have them made up by a tailor or seamstress into tablecloths or napkins.

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Sautéed shrimp with shallots, garlic, cayenne pepper and paprika
From Amelia Morán Ceja’s kitchen.

3 pounds unpeeled shrimp (16-20 shrimp/pound)
8 firm shallots, thinly sliced crosswise
8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced crosswise
1/3 cup light olive oil plus 1 tablespoon
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt
½ lime

  • Rinse shrimp in ice-cold water.
  • Pat dry with clean cloth and cut completely in half lengthwise—place in glass bowl.
  • Mix together sliced shallots, sliced garlic, 1/3 cup olive oil and salt.
  • Stir shallots mixture into shrimp, coating completely.
  • Add cayenne pepper and paprika to shrimp mixture and mix well.
  • Refrigerate 1 hour.
  • Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to a non-stick pan and heat medium to high temperature—add shrimp mixture and sauté until shrimp turn pink (about 3 minutes). Taste for desired tenderness.
  • Squeeze lime juice and stir—serve immediately.Serves 10.Suggested pairings: Ceja recommends her Vino de Casa Blanco to cut through the spice in this dish; the Ceja Chardonnay’s creaminess adds richness to the dish; Ceja’s Pinot Noir brings out the shrimps sweetness; the Ceja Vino de Casa Tinto beautifully integrates flavor components in shrimp dish.

    3 cups long grain rice, rinsed twice
    6 cups chicken broth (nonfat or low sodium)
    1 medium white onion
    2 bunches of cilantro, stems removed and rinsed
    2 fresh pasilla peppers ,seeded and membranes removed
    4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
    3/4 cup extra light olive oil

  • In an 8 quart pot, sautéed the rice with the olive oil until the rice turns opaque and slightly golden. Drain the excess oil and blend the chopped garlic with the rice.
  • In a blender, add 2 cups chicken broth, coarsely chopped pasilla peppers, onion and cilantro. Liquefy for one minute at high speed. Add mixture to rice, gently stir and add salt to taste (cook at medium heat until boiling, then cover and gently simmer until liquid is absorbed—about 15 minutes).
  • Let it sit for 10 minutes and then fluff with a fork.
  • Serve as a side dish with lamb birria, chicken mole, enchiladas, grilled arrachera or your favorite entrée, although, I like the rice by itself! Serves 12.

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    For the guacamole:
    2 avocados
    3 tomatoes
    Small yellow onion, finely chopped
    Serrano pepper, chopped
    ¼ cup finely chopped cilantro
    1 tablespoon jalapeño vinegar
    Juice of a lime
    Salt and pepper to taste

    For the quesadillas:
    10 small corn tortillas
    Oaxacan string cheese, grated (can substitute mozzarella)
    Baby arugula
    Crimini mushrooms, sautéed

    To make the guacamole:

  • Cut the avocados and tomatoes into small cubes. Add the yellow onion, Serrano pepper, jalapeño, cilantro, jalapeño vinegar, the juice of one lime and salt and pepper to taste. Gently mix all ingredients.To make the quesadillas:
  • Heat two tablespoons of extra light olive in a sauté pan. Add the sliced Crimini mushrooms. Stir and cook for 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of Pinot Noir, a pinch of salt and pepper, and continue cooking for two minutes and set aside.
  • Warm the tortillas on a hot griddle or pan. Shred cheese or cut in small pieces.
  • Spread 3 tablespoons of cheese and wait until it melts halfway. Then add 3 tablespoons of mushroom mixture and a small handful of the baby arugula to tortilla and fold in half. Wait one minute and then flip to other side and cook for one more minute or until cheese melts.
  • Serve immediately with fresh guacamole. Serves 10.Suggested pairings: Ceja suggests pairing this dish with a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Merlot.


    For the marinade:
    12 dried Ancho chilies, stemmed and seeded
    12 Guajillo chilies, stemmed and seeded ½ cup apple cider vinegar
    1 tablespoon salt
    2 teaspoons dried crushed oregano leaves
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    ½ teaspoon ground pepper
    ½ teaspoon ground cumin
    ½ teaspoon ground coriander
    2 pinches ground cloves
    2 cups chicken stock

    For the lamb shanks:
    12 shanks
    Salt and pepper as needed
    ½ cup olive oil
    2 yellow onions, chopped
    4 pounds fresh tomatoes, cored and chopped
    8 cloves garlic, chopped
    2 bay leaves
    ½ bunch fresh thyme
    1 tablespoon ground cumin
    1 tablespoon Mexican oregano
    3 cups marinating sauce
    2 cups fresh orange juice
    2 teaspoons salt
    2 teaspoons ground pepper
    24 corn tortillas

    For the garnish:
    Red onion, chopped
    Avocado, chopped
    Cilantro leaves
    Lime wedges

    For the marinade:

  • Over medium heat, toast chilies in dry skillet pressing flat with spatula for about 15 seconds on each side until aromatic.
  • Place roasted chilies in a bowl with chicken stock and let stand until softened. In blender, combine chilies, garlic, vinegar, salt, oregano, cinnamon, pepper, cumin, coriander and cloves. Blend to a smooth consistency.For the lamb:
  • Season lamb shanks generously with salt and pepper. In large frying pan heat the oil over medium high heat.
  • Add the lamb shanks and sear on all sides until evenly browned. Transfer to a large roasting pan and keep warm.
  • Add onions and tomatoes and sauté until soft. Add garlic, bay leaves, thyme, cumin and oregano and sauté for 2 minutes.
  • Stir in marinating sauce and orange juice and bring to a boil. Add sauce to lamb shanks, tightly cover with aluminum foil and braise in 350°F oven for about 2 hours or until lamb is falling off the bone.To serve:
  • Pull the lamb off the bone and arrange it with the sauce in individual soup dishes and sprinkle chopped with onion, avocado, cilantro leaves and the juice of one lime wedge.
  • Warm tortillas on grill and keep warm in towel. If you wish, spoon the birria with sauce on top of a tortilla and fold to create a taco. Serves 12.


    1 pound Mexican Longaniza or Chorizo, cut in large pieces
    5 pounds mussels, well cleaned
    ¼ cup olive oil
    2 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
    1 sweet Maya onion (or any sweet onion), thinly sliced
    2 leeks thinly sliced crosswise
    1 pound cleaned and sliced Crimini mushrooms
    4 finely chopped garlic cloves
    8 tomatoes finely diced
    ¼ cup fresh basil leaves
    ¼ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
    1 bay leaf
    ½ teaspoon Mexican oregano
    5 dried California chilies
    5 dried Ancho chilies
    5 garlic cloves
    ¼ teaspoon cloves
    4 quarts nonfat chicken broth
    1 cup Ceja Pinot Noir
    Salt to taste

  • In a frying pan, brown the Longaniza for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Drain excess fat and set aside.
  • Briefly toast the peppers on a skillet or hot pan. Be careful not burn them, because if this happens it makes the dish taste bitter. Place roasted chilies in a bowl with 2 cups chicken stock and let stand until softened. In a blender, liquefy with 5 garlic cloves and ¼ teaspoon cloves. Set aside.
  • Add olive oil to a 12 quart pot, sauté the coarsely chopped red bell peppers, onion, leeks, mushrooms and chopped garlic for 5 minutes. Add the diced tomatoes, basil leaves and chopped cilantro and continue cooking for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the chicken broth, the red pepper sauce, the Pinot Noir wine, bay leaf, Mexican oregano and salt to taste and bring to a boil. Simmer gently for 10 minutes. Add the well cleaned mussels, mix well and turn off the stove. Add cooked Longaniza and stir. All mussels should be open. Serve with crusty bread.Serves 12.Suggested pairing: Serve with a glass of Ceja Pinot Noir.


    Eleven years ago, we hosted Rosa Valdecantos Nieto, an exchange student from Spain, and the rest is history. She introduced us to Spain, its people, its wine and its exquisite eclectic food. Rosa’s mother, a pharmacist and an accomplished chef, has insisted that we taste the best regional Spanish cuisine, and we have gladly accepted. The following is my favorite recipe with a twist:

    5 medium russet potatoes
    5 eggs
    1 large onion
    2 Serrano peppers (optional); lightly sautéed asparagus tips or fava beans may be substituted
    Olive oil

  • Peel the potatoes and cut in six equal wedges lengthwise.
  • Slice each wedge crosswise into thin triangles.
  • Finely chop the onion and the Serrano peppers
  • Mix sliced potatoes, chopped onion and Serrano peppers
  • Add salt
  • Preheat ½ inch of olive oil in a medium pan
  • Add potato mixture and cook in olive oil until tender. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking of potatoes to pan.
  • Drain cooked potato mixture and save excess oil.
  • In a bowl, lightly beat eggs then add cooked potato mixture and salt to taste.
  • Add asparagus tips or fava beans (optional) to egg mixture
  • Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a preheated medium pan. Add egg and potato mixture and stir until almost set. Allow mixture to set.
  • Cover pan with a light and slightly larger plate than its opening. Turn pan upside down, while holding the plate tightly to its opening. The tortilla will end on the plate, inverted.
  • Place the tortilla back on the pan, uncooked side down, and cook for 3-4 minutes.
  • Return tortilla to plate and serve immediately. Although, cold is delicious too! Go to the top of the pageSuggested pairings: Ceja suggests the following wines would work well with this dish: Ceja Carneros Chardonnay, Ceja Carneros Pinot Noir, Ceja Carneros Merlot and Ceja Vino de Casa.More Online Exclusive articles:
Published on January 1, 2008
Topics: Holiday EntertainingPairingsRecipes