Cejas tap family wine, beer expertise to capture more palates

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.

Total Wine & More, which knows us for our wines, is interested in getting samples for carrying our microbrews in 130 stores. That's going to increase our production right away leading up to summer.

We purposely stayed small so we could build demand for the microbrews. Right now production is small, because we didn't have a lot of accounts. With Total Wine & More distribution and the bottling line, that will take off.

How different is the startup process for a brewery vs. a winery?

CEJA: It's a lot easier to start a microbrewery than to start a winery. If you're going to be an estate winery, you're going to have to have land. That can take up to four years to have any grapes. The initial investment for a winery is substantially higher than for a brewery. You can be a negociant and buy bulk wine and put your name on it.

For beer, it's a very quick process. You use great ingredients, but a lot of it is in the water. You can start brewing a batch today and within days you can have beer. If you age it in barrels it can be up to a year. It doesn't require the same investment at all.

You still have to have the same knowledge. You have to be an expert, because what is going to separate your microbrew from the thousands in the country and others coming from around the world?

Ceja Vineyards has emphasized wine that pairs well with food. What's the interplay between wine, beer and food?

CEJA: Wines with 15 percent to 17 percent alcohol aren't going to pair well with food. Likewise, beers that are 8 percent-10 percent or up to 18 percent alcohol really aren't going to pair with food.

But the fresh beers that Jesus is brewing that are 5 percent-7 percent alcohol are pairing well. There are a lot of flavor profiles that can be found in foods that can be found in beer and in wine.

That we're really into food has played a major role in crafting the styles of the wines and beer that pairs well.

What's the difference in the approach to marketing beer vs. wine?

CEJA: There is actually a crossover. We market our wine to be enjoyed by itself or with food and because we're small can reach those who are seeking their own experience, rather than what's dictated by a magazine or wine critics. We haven't had to reinvent the wheel. We have it because of our marketing of wine.

In parties that come to our tasting salon, sometimes the husbands prefer to go next door to our microbrewery, and the wives come for the wines. But these days, it can be vice versa, as more women enjoy microbrews as much as men are.

Now we're able to promote the microbrews with Total Wine & More and with distributors. Our distributor in Colorado is able to do microbrews now, and that state is a center for microbrews.

How is Carneros Brewing capturing the palates of your wine consumers?

CEJA: Many of our wine club members also own a growler. They come pick up their wine and then go refill their growler.

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