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Vineyards of Dreams

By Bob Cooper

Amelia Moran Ceja and daughter Dalia, who serves as Ceja Vineyards’ marketing director, sample the fruits of the family business.

When the number of Napa wineries multiplied in the ’70s and ’80s, workers were needed for the harvest, and Mexican American immigrants began filling that need. Many who came from Mexico to pick grapes as teenagers settled in the Napa Valley and now have grandchildren. A few eventually opened their own family wineries. But none have more dramatically catapulted themselves from underpaid teenage pickers to wine producers, driven by a passion for viticulture, than Amelia and Pedro Ceja, Rolando Herrera and Bulmaro Montes. Here are the stories of how they willed their American dreams, against all odds, into existence.

Ceja Vineyards

Amelia Moran Ceja was raised to dream big, so it came as no surprise to her dad, Felipe Moran, when she made a bold declaration while they worked in a Napa Valley vineyard.

“One day I will have a vineyard,” she told him, to which he replied, without a hint of condescension, “Of course you will.” Now 92 and still living in Napa, Felipe had marched with Cesar Chavez and later headed the United Farm Workers. He embraced the union’s unofficial slogan, Sí, Se Puede (“Yes, it can be done”). Like father, like daughter, as young, ambitious Amelia would eventually get that vineyard and much more.

It was around this time in the vineyards that Amelia again showed her determination when a fellow 12-year-old immigrant from Mexico, Pedro Ceja, offered to lend a hand. “I was there with my mom and sisters, and I saw this short girl trying so hard to dump her grapes into the gondola [tractor-pulled trailer],” recalls Pedro, his sun-weathered face creased in a smile. “She let me know that she did not want my help.” She didn’t hold the chivalrous act against him, however, and continued to notice the quiet, handsome young campesino in the Merlot vineyards and middle-school hallways.

Time passed. Amelia returned to Mexico for two years, then attended U.C. San Diego on a full scholarship. But during a summer at home between terms, spent planting vines and working as a server, she bumped into Pedro again. He asked her to slip away to Lake Berryessa for a picnic, she agreed, and five years later they were married in Yountville.

Amelia became a winery consultant and Pedro an electrical engineer — surely a success story for two kids whose first 11 years were spent in Mexican towns while their fathers sent money home from California harvest jobs. But Amelia’s vineyard vision tugged at her, and it soon became shared by Pedro and their parents and siblings.

“We wanted to grow our own grapes,” says Pedro, whose nine brothers and sisters also immigrated to the Napa Valley. “My brother Armando was getting his enology degree, my father worked as a foreman for Robert Mondavi, and Amelia knew everything about the wine business, so we had all the fundamentals. We just needed land.”

It was Pedro’s mother, Juanita, who spotted the For Sale sign on a quiet road in the Carneros region in 1983. Savings were pooled, and the 20-acre lot was purchased. It was five years before the first harvest came in, with the grapes sold to Domaine Chandon, then 11 more years before Amelia was able to launch Ceja Vineyards. She was the first Mexican American woman to be president of a U.S. winery, and Ceja would soon become the first California winery to pair Mexican food with wines — Amelia’s idea, now a common practice. “The wine industry, which wouldn’t exist without Latinos, ignored people of color,” she says, “so I saw an opportunity.” Half of Ceja wine club members today are Latinos.

Channeling her father’s activism, Amelia doesn’t merely talk politics. She attended President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, where Ceja wines were poured in the White House, and her lobbying contributed to the passage of a 2015 law that keeps minors out of the fields when harmful pesticides are used. “Unfortunately, the current administration is trying to overturn it,” she laments.

Pedro’s parents, Juanita and Pablo, now live in a house on the vineyard property, where grandchildren come often to visit and to help out in the Ceja Vineyards offices. Pedro’s daughter, Dalia, an MBA graduate, now serves as Ceja’s marketing director; sons Ariel and Navek consult on business operations and manage Ceja’s tasting room near Sonoma, respectively; their uncle, Armando Ceja, is Ceja’s winemaker and viticulturist, and his daughter, Belen, is director of wine production.

“I’m convinced these kids will take it to the next level,” says Pedro. If so, it will be at splashy new digs. A chapel built on the Carneros spread is the first stage of a 9,000-square-foot, mission-style hospitality center that will include a plaza, small museum, and spacious tasting room and demonstration kitchen for food-and-wine experiences. The complex should open in three years. Sí, se puede.

Mi Sueño

Rolando and Lorena Herrera pose with their six children, for whom they’ve named six of their vibrant wines. After a stint at Stags’ Leap, Rolando opened the family’s winery, Mi Sueño, or “My Dream,” more than 20 years ago.

The name of the winery says it all: Mi Sueño. “My Dream.” Rolando Herrera was advised against using the name that naysayers deemed unpronounceable to Americans, but he wouldn’t back down. “Mi Sueño connected with my passion for what I do,” he explains. The dream has since branched out like one of his well-tended grapevines to enter the minds of his wife and six children, whose names adorn seven Herrera wines (Mi Sueño’s premium label).

“I named each wine after their personality traits,” he says. “So Rebecca, my oldest, is a mature, consistent wine [served at Obama’s first state dinner]; Rolando Jr. is a strong, monster cab named for my athletic son; Esmeralda is a mischievous, flirty pinot; Victoria is a temperamental malbec; Perla is a vibrant white wine named for her pearly white skin, and Valeria is a confident, stubborn petit verdot. And then there’s Lorena, named after my wife — a stable, warm, beautiful Bordeaux blend.”

The robust, bearded winemaker, whose powerful handshake is forged by a life of physical work, sits at an outdoor table behind the barrel room, recounting his circuitous journey. “I lived in St. Helena from 8 to 13, sometimes working in the vineyards after school, and then the family returned to Mexico. But I wanted to come back, so when I was 15, I returned with my 17-year-old brother.”

While living in a plant nursery and then a one-bedroom apartment shared by 18 people, he attended high school and worked in restaurants, orchards and vineyards. But his dream took shape when he began working the 3-to-midnight shift at Stags’ Leap, the same day that senior-year classes started at his high school. “The vineyards and the barrels smelled like paradise to me,” he says. “I knew from that day that that’s what I wanted the rest of my life.”

A series of wine industry jobs followed, often demanding 10- to 16-hour workdays. While taking U.C. Davis viticulture classes, he became one of the first Latinos to work in a Napa Valley cellar, at Stags’ Leap. In 1997, he married longtime sweetheart Lorena, also the progeny of vineyard workers, and used all of his savings and credit to produce the first 200 cases of Mi Sueño wines.

Flash-forward to 2019: Rolando’s wife, two brothers and two oldest children all work for Mi Sueño, and everyone in the family helps out during busy times. “You should see us during harvest and bottling,” says 20-year-old Rolando Jr. “We’re all busy, even Valeria [age 12]. I’ve shown my sisters how to prune, and we each take a row.” He’s helped bring in the harvest for most of his life.

Rolando Sr. is a baseball fan, and Mi Sueño is filled with the framed autographed jerseys of major leaguers who have visited, including former Giants Barry Bonds, Chili Davis and Rich Aurilia. His wines have also been sipped by former Mexican president Vicente Fox and former first lady Barbara Bush at a White House state dinner in 2001, with Barbara liking it well enough to order an extra case. Rolando Sr. wants everyone to partake and to follow their dreams. “Dreaming is free,” he is fond of saying, “so dream big!”

Marita’s Vineyard

Bulmaro and Sara Montes enjoy a glass of cabernet sauvignon at Marita’s Vineyard.

Tucked away on a quiet road in the hills of Coombsville, Napa Valley’s newest wine appellation, Marita’s Vineyard is atypically unpretentious. The sign outside is smaller than a real estate agent’s and the tasting room is inside Bulmaro and Sara Montes’ home. Only the 2.6 acres of vineyards that surround the ranch-style property make it evident that this is not just another house on North Avenue.

When Bulmaro arrived in Rutherford from Oaxaca at 16 to join his father and older brother, they had already been working the vineyards since the 1950s. But field work didn’t satisfy the teen, so in his spare time he began educating himself by learning English and devouring books about viticulture. “My father told me that one day we’d have a vineyard and make wine, so I wanted to learn how to grow the best grapes,” he says. By the time he was 23 in 1973 — the same year he first met his wife Sara at night school — he was already working at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which began producing acclaimed Insignia wines the following year. Bulmaro would travel to France to soak in more wine knowledge and eventually become vice president of operations at Joseph Phelps.

Only after decades of working for winemakers did Bulmaro realize he still hadn’t made good on his dad’s declaration. It was now or never, so, in 2001, he emptied his life savings and retirement money to purchase the Coombsville land and began planting. “I did it for my family,” he says. The first batch of Marita’s wine was bottled in 2005.

The harvests have been good to him. His daughters, Mara and Sophia, assist him when they can, even though both have full-time finance jobs outside the wine industry, and his wife assists during group and wine-club pairings at a long tasting table overlooking the vineyards. But only Bulmaro, 70, and his brother Manuel, 79, tend to the 5,000 vines, using no pesticides.

“We have no help except during harvest and bottling,” he says. Harvest serves as an annual family reunion, with his daughters and five grandchildren all pitching in.

Marita’s sells only three wines, all cabernet sauvignons. The pricing at $125 to $300 per bottle reflects the unique Coombsville terroir, French oak barrel aging, and the care the two septuagenarian brothers put into coddling the vines. Their finest wine, the Legacy, features an image of Bulmaro’s granddaughters, Chloe and Lily, frolicking through the vineyards; all three wine labels display the shield of Huajuapan de Leon, his original hometown. It’s a tribute to his family roots, which run as deep as the rich volcanic soil of his small but fecund vineyards.

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