Ariel Ceja reflects on history, social justice as he helps with the family vineyard

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Ariel Ceja grew up among the vines in the Carneros with a pet deer who thought he was a dog. Ceja lived in a small country home with 13 people ­— three generations — who shared cramped quarters, but he never knew they were struggling.

“We were happy kids playing in the vineyard, and we’d run off to the creek,” Ceja said. “I just knew everyone was working, working, working. Most of the adults had two jobs. The work ethic of my entire family was a big hustle. We got to experience that. You realized it at a young age.”

Now 35, Ceja, the son of Ceja Vineyards’ founders Pedro and Amelia Moran, is the winery’s consultant. He helps his parents develop the brand and streamline operations for efficiency. The growers turned vintners, with their first harvest in 1988, have a tasting room in Sonoma. The boutique winery produces about 7,000 cases a year,

When Ariel reflects on his childhood he smiles, remembering the lesson his immigrant grandfather Pablo taught him and all his cousins.

“We’d say ‘we don’t want to go to school tomorrow,’ and Pablo would say, ‘OK, come with me tomorrow.’”

“We’d reluctantly get up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and by the end of the day we’d say, ‘We want to go to school tomorrow; thanks for the lesson.’ He’d say, ‘OK, well focus on your education and get good grades.’”

Ariel Ceja said the lesson wasn’t lost on them that most of the fieldworkers they saw were Latino, that it was this population that was doing the backbreaking work in the vineyards.

“We’d talk about social injustices, that we have the ability to go after the American dream but some people have it harder,” he said. “A lot of laborers are paid little with no benefits, without the safety net of social services.”

What’s more, Ceja said, these Latinos had to work in vineyards heavily sprayed with chemicals in the 1960s and 1970s. He said there are still some vineyards deluged with chemicals even today.

“We learned that you can go for the American dream, but you have to fight injustices along the way,” Ceja said. “I went to Vintage High School in Napa, and I joined Amnesty International. It shed light on injustices.”

Education, Ceja said, is the great equalizer, and there was no question about it. His parents made it clear that he and his siblings would be going to college.

Ceja said neither he nor his siblings were pressured to go into the family business. In fact, Ceja graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a film degree in 2006. But when he returned to the area after college, his mother asked him if he wanted to help them develop the brand.

“What began as a three-month project became a three-year post,” Ceja said, laughing.

The consultant took a leave of absence in 2009 when he launched Bistro Sabor, his restaurant in downtown Napa that featured Mexican street food. But Ceja came back to the fold in 2013 when he could no longer lease the building because of the Archer Hotel development. Although he’s developing the side business dancepapi.com, which offers online lessons in salsa and percussion, consulting is his mainstay.

Ceja’s siblings also are involved in running the winery. His 37-year old brother, Navek Ceja, oversees the Ceja Vineyards tasting room at 22989 Burndale Road in Sonoma. Meanwhile, his 33-year old sister, Dalia Ceja-Swedelson, is the director of sales and marketing.

The siblings — these first-generation Americans — said they also were heavily inspired by their mother, Amelia. She was the first Mexican-American woman to be elected president of a winery. Arie Ceja said he considers her his hero, a 5-foot powerhouse of resilience.

Amelia immigrated to America with a green card when she was 12 and she didn’t know a word of English. It was 1967, and she joined her father, a farmworker who toiled in the California vineyards.

Amelia met her husband-to-be, Pedro, during their first pick in a Napa Valley vineyard. They married in 1980, and in 1982 they founded their first vineyards on Las Amigas Road in the Carneros.

Amelia said her journey as a Latina immigrant hasn’t been easy. She spoke at a Press Democrat Women in Conversation event in 2016 and told the crowd: “I had three things working against me. But I’ve always seen them as advantages.”

Labels and stereotypes, Amelia said, don’t matter. What does matter is how you move forward with your life. Her checkmate move was tapping into the 40 million Hispanics that the census bureau revealed weren’t drinking wine.

“The only one who can stop you is you,” Amelia said.

Ariel Ceja said his mother is unstoppable and embodies the American dream.

“My parents are great examples of having their children live a better life,” he said. “My parents knew education would bring us justice and it would allow us to live a better life. We are very, very fortunate.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

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