New Crop of Family Winemakers in Bloom

The cycle of life in the vineyards of California’s wine country repeats itself in the lives of the people who work the land and create the wines that consumers all over the world enjoy.

One vintage ends and another begins. One generation starts the story and it continues with the next generation and then the next.

Famous and Not-So-Famous

Famous wine families like Mondavi and Martini immediately come to mind, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Growing the grapes, making the wine, and handling the business end of things often are often handled by people with the same last name.

Immigrants from Italy, France, Germany and Spain laid the cornerstone for today’s wine family empires that now include more names with a Mexican heritage.

Viva Ceja

Ceja Vineyards is a case in point.

The Ceja family, whose patriarch (Pablo) first worked the vineyards as a seasonal laborer, immigrated from Mexico to St. Helena in 1967.

Pablo and his wife, Juanita, had six children at the time. That number would later grow to 10 as the large family settled into the community and began the journey that would lead to starting a wine business of their own.

Amelia Ceja

The family venture gained speed with the purchase of 15 acres of land in the Carneros district in 1983.

They harvested their first crop of pinot noir in 1986.

Today, Ceja Vineyards has 115 acres in vines and a modern tasting room in downtown Napa. Plans are in the works to build their own production facility.

Pedro Ceja, Pablo’s son, is an owner/founder. His wife, Amelia, is president. Amelia’s daughter, Celia, is head of marketing and Pablo’s brother, Armando, is the winemaker.

I met Amelia at the Next Generation tasting in St. Helena earlier this week as part of the Premiere Napa Valley celebration that includes a charity auction on Saturday (Feb. 25) of one-of-a-kind lots of wine donated by 200 wineries.
A number of good wines were poured, including the Ceja 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). With a vein of spicy oak on the nose, the Ceja wine provided lovely red currant and plum fruit on top of a balanced tannic base. It really shone when paired with a hunk of creamy Humboldt Blue Fog cheese.

More Family Favorites

I enjoyed the entire lineup of reds from Frazier Family Estate, especially the 2008 Memento ($110).

This reserve-style wine  comes from the family estate in the Coombsville District. Aged for 27 months in new French oak, it features rich red fruit and is silky smooth with no hard edges.

The 2008 Charles Krug Napa Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon ($27) is another wine with a rich family background.

The winery is owned by another branch of the Mondavi clan, so it’s no surprise this wine is approachable with balanced tannins, nice red fruit and a hint of cocoa on the finish.

Best Bargain, Again

The best bargain at the tasting was a repeat from last year, when I first discovered Spelletich Family Wine Co.

-Timothy and Barbara Spelletich are husband-and-wife partners whose winery produces a  reliable lineup of wines under their namesake label.

I was especially drawn to the $20 Severed Head Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot from Napa bottled under their second label (SPELLwine ) created by the couple’s daughter, Kristen.

This is an approachable bottle with generous, ripe plum flavors that are lip-smacking good.

“I like to make wines that shake people up,” Kristen replied, when I asked her about the odd name.

It turns out to be a reference to an illustration on the family crest that  is featured on the label of Spelletich’s first-rank wines.

Early Signs of Vintage 2012

Driving South on Highway 29  through the Napa Valley after the tasting, I passed vineyard after vineyard deep in hibernation.

A new moon rose overhead, showing a sliver of a smile.

The cycle of growth was changing again. This time, turning inevitably toward regeneration.

Soon, green leaves will sprout.

Tiny buds will emerge and begin the journey that will transform them into grape clusters, heavy with juice destined for your glass or mine.

I can’t wait to see how the next vintage — and the next generation — performs.

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