Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Visit to Ceja Winery, Carneros (April 08)
A recommendation from a good friend, and the close proximity to another winery at which I’d scheduled a visit, brought me to one of my favorite wine tasting experiences. Meeting Amelia Ceja, gracious hostess and passionate wine maker of Ceja Vineyards, was the main reason this was a fun and informational visit. Amelia and Pedro Ceja are a wonderful wine and success story. Their story begins in the mid-60’s, much like other pioneers in Napa’s dynamic history. They staked all they had on a belief in their wine making skill and more, making it their way. I know, sounds like a song, but in this case it rings true.
My wife and I were treated to a fascinating story of their quest for the good life – translated as farming the land, growing grapes and a family, and then making a style of wine that reflects both the value of traditions and lessons learned since. Their philosophy puts them squarely among the believers in the effect of terroir on a wine. That includes the choices of grapes, how and when to use oak, quality oak, and when to let the grapes speak for themselves. Always a good balancing act, one I have to say, they have done with every one of their wines. In case you didn’t realize it, that doesn’t happen often.
Terroir has many meanings for many people, some believe only a particular area will produce wines of a distinctive nature, and that the qualities of the soil, sandy, loam, clay-like will influence the flavors found in the wine. Others believe that other regions with similar, if not exact qualities including the weather, longitude will produce similar wines of a high quality. At its most basic, a particular terroir will dictate what grapes will grow best and show their best qualities.
Partly, this goes back to the adage, “great wine is made in the vineyard”, which also has its interpreters. Very little in the wine world is as simple as it seems. The Carneros viticultural region receives its maritime influence from being at the top of San Francisco Bay, and spreads on either side of Highway 37, which skirts the upper bay. Pinot Noir does extremely well here, as do Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
We started with the Sauvignon Blanc, which is a very popular and awarded wine. It was easy to tell that from the nose even before tasting. Lots of fruit, neutral oak for the aging, wonderful acidity, mouth feel from creamy notes – not buttery. In short you have the kind of body often provided by Semillon, but with citrus notes common to the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
We put the wine to the test at dinner that evening at Celadon restaurant in the town of Napa, also suggested by our friend, Judy Diaz. Considering Judy’s hit ratio I was willing to take stock tips from her. I had the Sea Bass, something rare in New Mexico, resting on a bed of forbidden rice, which is even rarer. I later learned the rice came from one spot in Japan and received its black color from the squid that populated that coastal enclave. True or not, it made a great story. The fish did better than melt in my mouth with rich flavors bursting through. The Ceja wine tracked every bite and every flavor. I couldn’t have chosen better. What I loved was that when I had the crème brulee with caramelized banana, the wine paired like it was made for desserts. How’d they do that? Oops, should I have given you a food-alert warning on this?
Their Chardonnay was one of the few non-French version I knew would be a good food wine, something most buttery, malolactic fermentation, heavily-oaked chardonnays cannot be. There is nothing wrong with the style as long as you aren’t trying to pair them with a wide range of foods.
It just got better with the reds. Since you should check this out on your own, I’ll only mention one, the 2005 Ceja Vino de Casa Red, a blend of Pinot Noir and Syrah. This is their gateway wine into the Ceja reds, and priced very well. If you don’t have any food to pair with this wine, not to worry, this wine is food. Both grapes in this wine are also offered separately, and both excel, which is why the blend works so well. How many times do you get a smile on your face after sampling the wine’s nose? Well, get ready. I only wish I could have had a separate meal to test drive this red, but definitely, next time.
Check out their website at it is very well done with lots of information on their wines and wine philosophy. And if you don’t think they’re a winemaking family, check out the family photos. Their traditions should be copied by many of the other wineries in Napa. Salut!

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