The inspiring story of the Ceja family is one of pulling themselves up from farmworkers to being pioneers in wine entrepreneurship.
Amelia Ceja is president of Ceja Vineyards, a boutique winery in the Carneros winegrowing region stradling southern Sonoma and Napa counties. Her passion for introducing U.S. palates to fresh-cooked Mexican dishes and the family’s work to craft food-friendly wines has helped the company gain traction for wine lovers inside and outside the Latino community. Another family member also runs a vineyard-management company.
The family started Carneros Brewing Company in 2011 and currently produces around 1,000 barrels per year. However, the microbrewery has the capacity to increase production to 5,000 barrels or more, as demand warrants. With it’s first bottling line recently up and running and a deal jelling for distribution to a major beverage-alcohol chain, the brewery has demand frothing. About 15 percent of the brewery’s hops needs come from what’s grown on the property.
Ceja is set to be part of the diversification panel at the Business Journal’s Wine Industry Conference on April 28. She talked with the Journal about the inspiration for the brewery and how both businesses work together.
Where did the microbrewery come from?
AMELIA CEJA: My brother-in-law Jesus Ceja is the brewmaster. He was a global brewmaster for Anheuser-Busch for nearly 17 years. When InBev purchased Anheuser-Busch, he was done with the corporate world. He decided to move from St. Louis, Mo., back to California.
That’s when the idea of having a microbrewery started. It’s not like we’re pulling something out of a hat. My husband is one of 10 children who are highly talented and educated. Armando Ceja, our winemaker, went to U.C. Davis and studied oenology, and our brewmaster went to UC Davis as well and studied food science and organic chemistry. His whole life he’s worked in the beer industry, and he also has an executive MBA.
Our whole family loves beer, and we know that it takes a lot of beer to also make great wine. We combined both of our loves.
In Sonoma County at one point there were a lot of hops grown there, and in Mendocino County there is a city called Hopland.
Both wine and beer pair well with food. Why not capture the growing trend in the beverage industry with gem wineries and microbreweries.
The microbrewery and winery missions are to make beers and wines that pair well with food, not just quench thirst on a hot day. So the brews are not the heavy, high-octane beers that are almost port-like. I was on the East Coast recently, and there are 20-ounce bombers with 18 percent alcohol like a port.
We grow some of the hops there on the property at the corner of Verndale and Highway 12. Both grapes and hops are harvested in the fall and you don’t have to replant them every year. The feeling you get from imbibing either just makes life better.
How large is the beer brand?
CEJA: We just had a bottling line made for Carneros Brewing Company and will soon be offering six-packs, etc. Right now, we just have bombers and what we have on tap. The line was installed last fall, but it was used for the first time this year.