At the age of five, Dalia Ceja remembers walking behind her father, uncles and other vineyard workers, picking up fallen grape clusters and putting them back in the harvest bins. As a second generation leader in one of the first Mexican-American wineries in Napa Valley, Ceja Vineyards, Ceja is currently the SVP of Marketing & Sales, and is looking forward to taking the family winery to the next level. In honor of International Women’s History Month, the story of Dalia Ceja and the other strong female leaders in her family, lends inspiration to other women trying to build new companies and dynasties.
“I want to pay homage to my Mexican-American culture, and use my voice as a platform to inspire women and minorities,” says Ceja. In the male dominated wine industry, she wants to encourage other women to achieve leadership positions. “Only about 10% of winemakers in California are women, and there are only around 25 wineries in the U.S. owned by Mexican-Americans,” she reports. “Things are getting better, but there is room for everyone at the table.
Ceja Wine – From the Vineyards to the White House
Dalia Ceja’s parents, Amelia Morán and Pedro Ceja, immigrated from Mexico to Napa Valley in the mid 1960’s when they were both 12-years old. Their fathers were members of the Bracero Program were Mexican men worked legally in the US to help alleviate a labor shortage from 1942 to 1964. Amelia and Pedro met while working in the famous vineyard of To Kalon, owned by Robert Mondavi, and eventually married.
After saving money for years, in 1983 they combined forces with relatives, Armando, Martha, Juanita and Pablo Ceja, to make a down payment on 20 acres of land in the Carneros AVA of Napa Valley. There they planted chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot grapes, which they sold to other wineries. In 1999 they had accumulated enough money to launch a winery, Ceja Vineyards.
“My mother, Amelia, was named President of Ceja Vineyards,” says Dalia. “There are many strong women in our family, including my two grandmothers, and Dolores Huerta. Dolores was a close family friend, and was the right-hand woman for Caesar Chavez. It is just coming to light about all of the work she did for social justice and helping Mexican-American families.”
The matriarchal strength that ran through the family paid off in a relatively short time, because the Ceja’s started winning awards for their ultra-premium wines, and by 2009 their wines were served at the White House under the Obama administration. They were written up in a Harvard Business School case study for their success in moving from the vineyard to the boardroom. In 2017, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History honored them for their contributions to the California wine industry, along with several other Mexican-American wineries. The family also worked with other Mexican-American wineries to found MAVA, the Mexican American Vintners Association.
Propelling Ceja Winery to the Next Level
Today, as Dalia Ceja moves into a more prominent leadership role at the winery, she describes some of the challenges she has encountered and overcome. After college graduation and a 7-month back-packing trip through South America, Ceja returned home to help launch the winery’s digital marketing and social media strategy. She started the Ceja YouTube channel, which features hundreds of videos showing how to prepare Mexican food and pair it with wine.
Ceja also went on the road to assist with wine sales, “but I found that many people didn’t take me seriously.” It was then that she decided to obtain an Executive Wine MBA from Sonoma State University, “which gave me the credibility that I needed, along with business tools, mentors, and relationships.”
Next Ceja began to serve in leadership positions on association boards, such as the Next Generation in Wine Association. Now she is assisting her family with their dream of growing the company and eventually building a winery and hospitality center. The vineyards are also thriving, having increased from the original 20 acres to 115 estate acres over the years.
“My goal is to help take Ceja winery to the next level,” she reports, “but we plan to have healthy gradual growth.” She gestures to the architectural model of a large mission style winery, complete with a central plaza and small chapel. “The new winery is designed to look like a mission, because wine was introduced to California through the missionaries who came from Mexico. My dad, Pedro Ceja, is the artist of our grounds and to see his architectural vision come to life will be so special.”
With all of this on her plate, Ceja is also juggling winery work with being a new mother. “It was challenging giving birth during the Covid epidemic,” she says. “Luna was born in June of 2020 and at one point, the hospital wasn’t sure if they would allow my husband in the delivery room.”
As the SVP for Sales & Marketing, she was also responsible for finding a way to maintain wine sales when the tasting room was shut down for months during the worst of the pandemic. “My mother and I launched Taco Tuesdays, with the help of my brother, Ariel, who is now in charge of video productions. Each Tuesday from 6 to 7pm for over 40 weeks, we prepared a different Mexican recipe and paired it with one of our wines.” The series paid off, because sales of Ceja wine, which are now 99% direct to consumer, boomed during Covid.
Strong Ceja Women and Delicious Mexican Food/Wine Pairings
For Dalia Ceja the bond with her mother and other strong Mexican-American female role models is of constant support. “My entrepreneurial daughter Dalia Ceja was one year old when we planted our first vineyard in Napa Valley,” reports current President & CEO, Amelia Morán Ceja, “and she helped her uncle plant the very first vine. There are few women in the wine industry and even less Latinas, and I knew she would thrive and contribute a new perspective. I’m proud of Dalia’s leadership role within our industry and community.”
When asked about some of their favorite Mexican food and wine pairings, Dalia Ceja says that all of the recipes are on their YouTube Channel. “But I am particularly proud of our molé poblano chicken paired with our Bordeaux blend, along with our lobster tamale with salsa verde that pairs very well with our chardonnay.”
Indeed the lobster pairing is so popular that the Ceja’s will be featuring it at their 21st winery anniversary party in Napa Valley this August, where they are having a Lobster and Wine Fiesta to celebrate with their many customers.
Video of Dalia and Amelia Ceja Matching Mexican Food to Wine