Pillars of the Valley: Changing the Game – Ariel Ceja

We are pleased to debut Pillars of the Valley: Changing the Game, a series of wine country profiles that will explore the new millennium face of the wine industry.  Our hope is to highlight the multi-faceted components of the industry. From winemakers, to restaurateurs, to hoteliers, to sales professionals, to brand geniuses, and more, we aim to capture the many elements that compose the fabric of this industry.  We will do this by focusing on the innovative faces of the industry; those who are forging new and fresh inroads throughout the globe.  Some have suggested that we label these profiles with a catchy title (something to the extent of The Top 40 Under 40), but we don’t want to be stymied by such definitions.  The words “young” and “fresh perspective” have an extensive array of iterations (if you choose to look beyond the literal definitions); our hope is that we’re able to capture a variety of these throughout the course of these profiles.

We welcome suggestions for future profiles.  Please send any such feedback to strada (at) lifeandwine (dot) com.

Ariel Ceja

Restaurateur, Vintner and Social Media Maverick

Bistro Sabor, Ceja Vineyards and salud! napa

Napa, California, USA

Ariel Ceja in his downtown Napa restaurant, Bistro Sabor.

Ariel Ceja is an unassuming young man.  With a slight build, a wavy crop of dark hair and an affable smile, he exudes quiet confidence and self-assuredness well beyond his years.  He likes to joke that his appearance is that of a young boy; many of his elderly patrons assume that he’s the local busboy.  The fact that he is the proprietor of a well-regarded Napa dining establishment seems to escape them.

Ceja is a Napa native, through and through.  Born in the East Bay in 1983, he moved here in 1985.  Save for a four-year stint in Los Angeles to complete his undergraduate studies, he has been here ever since.  His story is unique unto the legions of Napa Valley residents.  Although the son of winery owners, his story is not of crystal chandeliers and generational trust funds.  Instead, his family’s history cultivates the truest sense of the American dream; of arriving here with little financial freedom, of diligently working every job imaginable for four decades, and of finally carving out a niche market to hone their many talents and interests.

A Winery is Born

The Ceja family’s Napa roots date back to the 1950’s in Jalisco, Mexico.  It was during this time that Ceja’s maternal grandfather, Felipe Morán, started traveling annually to California for stints of eight to nine months to fulfill harvest and other agricultural jobs.  Returning for only a few months every year, his family was sustained by the funds he wired home, as well as the unrelenting faith that he would eventually return.  Some years he did; others he did not.  His longest separation was for twelve years, between 1955 and 1967.  It was during this time that Ariel’s mother, Amelia, was born.  Despite Felipe’s prolonged absence, the family continued to wait with the utmost faith and confidence that he would someday return.  And just like that, somehow after the many years apart, he eventually did.  It was 1967 and Amelia was 12.  Her father, while familiar in name, was a stranger to her.  However, supported by the infinite trust and faith of previous generations, when Felipe showed up at the bus stop one day, her mother ushered Amelia to his side and sent her north.  North to the hope of a better future, better financial success, and better educational achievement.

Returning to California, Felipe assumed the role of a foreman at Robert Mondavi Winery.  Eager to get his daughter involved in the family’s newfound trade, he soon had Amelia working the vineyards and picking grapes.  It was during the course of picking the Merlot harvest that Amelia met her future husband, Pedro.  Both young adolescents, they were wide-eyed and optimistic about the future.  It was only a matter of time before they formed a formidable union.

The Ceja Label

As Amelia and Pedro grew older, their dreams grew bigger. Their long-term goal:  land ownership.  This, they saw, as a ticket to a better life.  Tirelessly working together, their optimism propelled them through countless more harvests, until 1983 when, as a family, they cobbled together enough money to purchase 15 acres of pristine, unplanted land in the Carneros AVA.  One of their partners was Pedro’s brother, Armando.  Having worked for Duckhorn Winery for some time, Armando had received a scholarship from Duckhorn to attend the University of California at Davis.  His specialty?  Winemaking.  The recipe for success seemed inevitable.

However, as is often the case, the rewards were not immediate.  After the initial elation of purchasing the land, the Cejas had a gut-check:  were they going to be able to cover the monthly payments?  Concerned they wouldn’t have enough capital to cover the mortgage payments in addition to the start-up vineyard costs, they put the land back on the market.  For a year, it sat there.  Unused.  Unplanted.  Ultimately, fear turned into innovation and they struck a plan.  Through creative negotiations, they sold grape futures to Domaine Chandon who, in turn, agreed to pay the interest on the loan.  Ceja Vineyards was born.  Newly motivated, their first vines were planted in 1986; by 1988, they had reaped their first harvest and by 1999 they were bottling their first vintage.  As far as their deal with Chandon, they were debt-free after just three harvests.  Their plan had, quite simply, worked.

Since those early lean days, the Cejas have acquired more land across both Napa and Sonoma Counties.  Amelia is winery President, Armando is the winemaker, and the other family members round out the sales, marketing, and operating crews.  Although still a small production winery (capping production at 8,000 cases annually), they are well-respected by both industry and consumers, alike.  As a family, they have come a long way from their backbreaking days of picking grapes.  However, the work ethic instilled in them early-on has not been erased.

A Son Returns Home

Bistro Sabor

It was against this backdrop that Ceja was raised.  Humility, respect, hard work, confidence, and vision became central tenets to his identity.  He knows the legacy of his ancestry, but also has a deep affinity for innovation and creation.  Entrepreneurial spirits run deep, as does the desire to carve out an authentic identity in this valley.  There is pride in this.

Returning home to Napa after majoring in film, his one desire was to write.  And so, just like the legions of writers before him, he started waiting tables to pay his bills.  After some time in one of Napa’s famous restaurants, he was invited to join the team at Ceja Vineyards.  For three years he assumed a multi-disciplinary role at the winery, helping grow the production from 3,500 to 8,000 cases.  It was during his tenure at the winery that he started to develop his concept for salud! napa a website “dedicated to the celebration of good food and good wine.”  Combining recipes, wines and engaging talent, the website’s videos and content bring to life delicious food, vibrant personalities and good fun.

From 2008 to 2009, Ceja further evolved this website, going so far as to develop a social media platform for it.  It was in 2009 that the idea to start a restaurant became a logical extension of the website.

“All I knew that I wanted to do was to serve my mom’s food.”

Once the idea was formed, things happened quickly.  In November 2009, he met his chef, Jeff Murphy.  In January 2010, he found the location that would ultimately turn into Bistro Sabor, a downtown Napa restaurant that serves “contemporary expressions of Latin America’s favorite street food and snacks.”  (Think Salmon Ceviche Tostadas, Dungeness Crab Quesadilla, Lomo Saltado, and Asparagus, Mushroom, Squash, and Pasilla Chile.)  Set in a nondescript location on First Street, the exterior gives nothing away.  Most tourists will likely walk past the storefront, wondering why there is a constant stream of locals walking in and out.  That’s the thing with Bistro Sabor.  To an outsider, it might not like anything special, but to those who dine in the valley on a regular basis, it has become an oasis for comfort food, low-key ease, and familiar faces.

Decor at Ceja’s downtown Napa eatery.

What’s more is that Ceja has a vision for Napa.  Whereas others may be stuck in the present, he sees five years into the future.  He sees Napa’s potential.  In this vein, to help attract younger crowds, he’s opened up his restaurant on weekends, offering live DJ and dancing on Friday nights and a robust Salsa dancing crowd on Saturday nights.  Three years ago, the concept of such nightlife options was nonexistent, but with Ceja’s relentless pursuit to bring the full experience to his customers and neighbors, he’s slowly seeing a change in the community.  Other nightlife options are now springing up and more people are frequenting downtown.  But more than that is the overall changing face of downtown Napa.  Initially a slow revolution, it is now picking up speed, with more and more acquisitions and transitions forecasted in the immediate future.

“Hospitality is in our blood.  Napa is in a special position because of its multi-cultural heritage and its socially diverse population.  We are blessed with the best.  It’s one of the coolest places in the world.  It has so much to offer.  The scope is huge.  People are so proud of their community.”

He sees downtown Napa as a destination location.  Five years ago, this was not the case, but things have changed.  In the heart of these ever-evolving transformations is Ceja.  He already envisions a new model for Bistro Sabor.  His next project is to get into beer production, thus creating a brew-pub model, while maintaining Sabor’s current menu.  Additionally, he envisions a new location where his restaurant will be a destination spot.

His mantra during these big decisions?  Keep it simple.

Ultimately, for Ceja, it all comes down to his deep appreciation for good food and good wine.

“The concept of enjoying wine is second nature to me.  A lot of time, people who are new to wine are intimidated by it as a luxury product and the marketing machine that is Robert Parker, Wine Spectator, and others.  We look at it more simply than that.  If you sit down for a meal and don’t have wine, something is missing.  Wine elevates the experience.  There are thousands of wines at the $15 to $20 price point that are delicious.  Once you truly give wine a chance, you will fall in love with it.  Eventually, once you learn the stories behind it, you will learn that it’s an intricate product and much more than just what is in the glass.”

There is something deeply engaging about Ceja.  His presence is both comforting and earnest.  His enthusiasm is tangible and it’s easy to see his vision materialize as he speaks animatedly about plans.  With such individuals as the new generation and stewards of the valley, there should be great excitement about the future possibilities of this industry.

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