For Amelia Morán Ceja, of Ceja Vineyards, food is love. Born in Las Flores, Jalisco, an agricultural village in Mexico, Ceja said her happiest memories go back to the kitchen on the family farm, helping her grandmother prepare meals.
“We’d go out and pick everything fresh,” she said. “We had chickens, cows and other farm animals. I remember she would point to a turkey and say ‘That’s today’s mole!’ and sure enough it was the most delicious, delectable mole that evening.
“I would help Mamá Chepa grind the curds from the goat’s milk to make fresh goat cheese and make fresh tortillas with her. Everything was made with so much love.
When I moved to Napa Valley in the late ’60s I missed my family, friends and the village but I think I missed the food the most. Everything was always made fresh that day — not yesterday.”
Ceja was 12 when her family moved to the Napa Valley where her father and mother both worked at a local vineyard-management company, her father as a mechanic and her mother as a farm worker.
During summers and Christmas break, Amelia worked in the vineyards as well, already realizing she wanted to learn about the culture and production of wine from the ground up. She met her future business partners, Pedro and Armando Ceja, in 1967 when they were picking grapes in Oakville and found they shared the same vision. Shortly after she finished her history and literature studies at UC San Diego she and Pedro were married. In 1983, they pooled their resources with her parents, Pedro’s parents and Armando to buy their first parcel in the Carneros. It was planted to pinot noir in 1986 and from the first harvest they always made a barrel of wine for family and friends.
In 1999, Ceja Vineyards was incorporated and Amelia Morán Ceja became the first Mexican-American woman to be president of a winery.
“From the beginning we had a plan that our wines would be made to complement food,” Ceja said. “We like balanced acidity, well-integrated tannins moderate alcohols. All of our wines are under 14 percent alcohol and some are under 13 percent. We knew that we were going to do things differently — that we were going to incorporate our culture of food, our heritage, our history with our brand and bring awareness of not only our contribution to the wine industry but that of the Mexican labor force because without them there wouldn’t be a wine industry.”
Today, they own 113 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. Armando, who studied viticulture and enology at UC Davis, makes the wine and Pedro, an engineer, is overseeing the construction of their new winery.
In 2005, Ceja was named “Woman of the Year” by the California Legislature. “Amelia is a great role model for the next generation of Latinos,” said State Sen. Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata). “She has not only broken the glass ceiling in a very competitive business but has earned respect throughout the wine industry.”
When it comes to the kitchen, Ceja prefers simplicity. Her philosophy: “Cook with what’s there. When I helped my grandmother cook, all of the ingredients, even the meat, came from our farm or from the village and everything was fresh. We didn’t think of it as gourmet or as a philosophy, it was just the way we lived and it’s the way we prefer to live, as much as possible, now.”
What made you decide to pair this recipe with the pinot noir?
Ceja: “I was experimenting. I love pinot noir with seafood so I added some to the broth and when I tasted the broth with the pinot it was just perfect, an ‘ah-ha’ moment. Pairing is so personal, I believe in exploration, using your instinct and trial and error.”
You have the longaniza sausage and a couple of different chiles. Conventional wisdom is that hot food doesn’t go with red wine, especially if it has a substantial alcohol. What do you think creates the balance here?
Ceja: “The dish more savory than hot. There’s heat but it’s not in your face. And we harvest the pinot noir early so the alcohol is moderate and it doesn’t exaggerate the heat of food. We like ripe, rich flavors but not raisiny fruit. The bright acidity is like lime; it offsets the heat. The wine is also subtly spicy and makes a good match.”
What’s your philosophy when it comes to pairing food with wine?
Ceja: “People should be carefree and not intimidated or scared. They should try wines that appeal to them and be careful that the alcohol isn’t too high. For me, personally, when the wine is being prepped for bottling I start thinking about what food flavors I want for it. Sometimes the wine dictates the food and sometimes the food decides the wine.
“Most people have never considered pairing Mexican cuisine with wine but there’s room at the table for wine, regardless of what the meal is, as long as it’s balanced — that’s the key. We make our wine to complement French and Mediterranean food but for us it’s even sweeter that our wines have been paired with amazing Mexican cuisine.”
You make a Carneros and a Sonoma Coast pinot. Do you have a favorite for this particular dish?
“Yes, I prefer the subtle flavors of the Carneros pinot noir with this dish. It’s a little lighter than the Sonoma Coast and has a tea component, hibiscus and earth that I like with the dish. The Sonoma Coast is a tad fruitier and bigger.”
What other styles of wine might be good with this dish?
Ceja: “Rosé would go well with this dish, too; rosé goes with almost anything. Ours is under 13 percent alcohol and the flavors are so bright.”
What kinds of foods, in general, go well with pinot noir?
Ceja: “Salmon ceviche. Any salmon dish and pinot noir. They’re great together, period. It just works; I love it. Pozole, a traditional Latin American soup made with hominy, is great with pinot noir, especially when you use mushrooms. I love the earthy flavors and used to forage as a girl.”
Any advice for wine to go with a traditional Thanksgiving dinner?
Ceja: “Sparkling wine and rosé are so versatile and go with anything. Pinot noir is lovely with turkey especially when you incorporate dried fruit like cranberry in the stuffing. If shellfish is part of the menu then sauvignon blanc is perfect. Pears are coming in season and I like to poach them in sauvignon blanc with vanilla bean and cinnamon stick. I reduce it to a caramel-like sauce and it’s wonderful with late-harvest wine.”
Mussels in Spicy Pinot Noir Broth with Mexican Longaniza (Mexican Sausage)
Amelia Morán Ceja
1 pound Mexican longaniza, cut in large pieces
5 pounds mussels, well cleaned
1/4 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
8 finely chopped garlic cloves
8 tomatoes finely diced
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. Mexican oregano
5 dried California chiles
5 dried ancho chiles
5 garlic cloves
1/4 tsp. cloves
4 quarts nonfat chicken broth
1 cup pinot noir
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 to burn them, because if this happens it makes the dish taste bitter. Place roasted chiles in a bowl with 2 cups chicken stock and let stand until softened. In a blender, liquefy with 5 garlic cloves and 1/4 teaspoon cloves. Set aside.
Add olive oil to a 10-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 and Mexican oregano 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. Discard any mussels that don’t open.
Serve with crusty bread — and Ceja pinot noir.
You can see a video of this recipe being made on Ceja’s website, cejavineyards.com/Recipes.