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Sonoma County winery looks for synergy with beer

Amelia Moran Ceja is the president and owner of Ceja Vineyards at their new tasting room located next to the Carneros Brewing Company in Sonoma, California on Tuesday, October 28, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

BILL SWINDELL, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Along a small stretch of Highway 12 in the Carneros region of Sonoma County, there will soon be an interesting test case of how Wine Country handles the changing consumer preferences in the growing market of craft beer, cider and spirits.

Ceja Vineyards, one of the most notable Latino-owned wineries in the area, will open its tasting room Nov. 7 in a small complex near its vineyards after recently closing its Napa store.

While the opening of a new tasting room is a regular occurrence in Napa and Sonoma counties, the move is especially interesting because Ceja Vineyards is moving right next door to its sister company, Carneros Brewing Co., which is rapidly growing a strong reputation in the craft beer community for its quality low-alcohol selections that are different from most of the hoppy beers around the North Coast.

Amelia Morán Ceja, president of Ceja Vineyards, said the move was an easy decision given that the winery wanted to move back to its Carneros roots, and that as much as two-thirds of its Napa visitors would later visit the Carneros brewpub based on her staff’s recommendation.

“You should have heard (customers) talk daily: ‘But my husband likes beer and we’re looking for it because we are tired of just drinking wine,’” Ceja said.

The winery produces about 8,000 cases per year and has plans to eventually grow to 20,000 cases along with building a new mission-style tasting room at its Napa County property.

The Carneros property already has a beer garden complete with hop trellises and a barbecue pit, and Ceja noted the possibility of having gourmet taco trucks as well to serve food. In addition, the family may have another future tenant, Hanson of Sonoma Organic Vodka.

Ceja said the mix reminded her of a vacation she took to Nantucket two years ago where a winery, brewpub and spirits facility were located around gourmet food trucks, making for an eclectic mix of crowds and tastes. “I was very impressed and intrigued when I saw that concept,” she said.

The move is also noteworthy as the wine industry faces an increasingly competitive marketplace in alcoholic beverages and a millennial demographic that is less brand-loyal and seeks interesting experiences. During the first six months of this year, the U.S. wine market increased 1.5 percent. By comparison, craft beer grew by 18 percent and cider jumped 69 percent during the same period.

From a business perspective, wine and beer have not traditionally mixed on a scale outside of large multinationals that allow them to operate independently, such as Constellation Brands Inc., which distributes Mexican beers in the United States and owns local wineries such as Robert Mondavi and Simi.

For example, Benziger Family Winery in early 1999 closed down its Sonoma Mountain Brewery due to lack of profits. In fact, a Benziger executive cautioned the Cejas not to go into the beer business, said Armando Ceja, the winemaker for Ceja Vineyards, who also founded Carneros Brewing Co. with his brothers Manuel, Jesus and Pedro, Amelia’s husband, and their families.

“Just because you can make wine doesn’t mean you can make beer. … Just because you sell wine doesn’t mean you sell beer,” said Rob McMillan, executive vice president of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. “They’re very different products.”

But there is increasing synergy on a smaller scale. For example, within walking distance in Windsor, a visitor could potentially go to the Tilted Shed Ciderworks tasting room, then to St. Florian’s Brewery and the tasting room at Colagrassi Wines and end up at Sonoma Brothers Distilling.

“We all like each other. We are already in the early stages where we can all cross-promote and work together,” said Ellen Cavalli, co-owner of Tilted Shed.

At St. Clair Brown Winery in Napa, winemaker Elaine St. Clair also brews beers. She hopes to offer up that choice of drink at the beginning of next year, which could be paired with food served in its garden eatery.

St. Clair said she is even surprised by the potential that the beer-and-wine combination could offer, citing a recent idea from a group of Australian visitors. “They were suggesting the beer as a palate cleanser between the wines,” she said. “It was very interesting to see what may come together.”

The Cejas concede they had some advantages going into the beer business, most notably Jesus, who was a staff brewmaster for Anheuser-Busch InBev for 14 years and had considerable experience in the industry. His academic credentials also are impressive: a bachelor’s degree in food biochemistry and master brewer certificate from UC Davis as well as a master’s in business administration from Webster University in Missouri.

Jesus Ceja said he believes the Benziger timing was too early, as his brewery, which produces 5,000 barrels annually, is now at a perfect place given the growth in craft brewing. Carneros Brewing recently got a new bottling line and has plans to go into the retail market.

“If you at look at this movement, and the growth the craft beer industry is taking in as well, it is amazing,” he said.

And like the winery, the brewery wants to highlight that its beer also works well with food pairings, though there are no immediate plans to have a restaurant on the property.

“Food will be a destination as part of this, and people can come and enjoy,” Jesus Ceja said.

Amelia Ceja said the new location can help bring in new customers, especially younger ones that her boutique winery has been courting through an aggressive social media effort, such as videos featuring Amelia and her daughter, Dalia, director of sales and marketing, showing recipes for meals that can be paired with Ceja wines.

“I think the wine industry has placed too many obstacles for the simple appreciation of wine,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.