In 1967, a young couple named Pablo and Juanita Ceja left their small village in Michoacan, Mexico, for a new life in the United States. Like many migrants, they wound up in California's Napa Valley, where they found jobs picking grapes in the local vineyards. The days were long, often lasting from before dawn until well after sunset. But Pablo and Juanita believed that the opportunities that awaited their six children, including young sons Pedro and Armando, would be unlike anything they could expect in Mexico. They were right. In 2004, Ceja Vineyards -- run by Armando, Pedro, and their wives -- shipped nearly 6,000 cases of Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir to retailers and restaurants around the world. It was the vineyard's best year yet, up 600% from three years ago. The two sons, who picked grapes alongside their parents after school and on weekends, now oversee 113 acres of grapes.
It's a uniquely American story -- but one that is seldom seen in California's wine country, where young vineyards are far more likely to be the next project of a Silicon Valley millionaire than the decades-long dream of a grape picker. "These are people who have worked their way through every position in the industry," says Paul Wagner, president of Balzac Communications, a large wine marketing firm in Napa. "These folks know every single thing about the wine business and it makes them very powerful."
"If you work the land, you want it to be yours. It's the sweat connection."
-Armando Ceja (left), co-founder of Ceja Wines
With the support of his parents, Armando made his first barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon when he was 17 and went on to study winemaking at U.C. Davis. In 1981, three members of the family -- which had been diligently saving every extra dollar since arriving here -- sold their homes and purchased their first 15 acres of land. Slowly adding to their holdings, they finally harvested their first grapes in 1988, which they sold to other winemakers. They began producing wines under the Ceja label in 2001, selling them mostly in California. A year later, Ceja was named best new winery by San Francisco's Wine Appreciation Guild. The company is now embarking on new markets. If all goes according to plan, the vineyard will post its first profit in 2005.
The rags-to-riches story has garnered the family lots of attention, including a front-page story in The New York Times. But Armando Ceja shrugs it off. He says the family is simply following through with the dream his parents, who are investors in the company, had when they immigrated more than three decades ago. "It's the American dream," he says. "If you work the land, you want it to be yours. It's that sweat connection. We have that. That desire in the family is pretty strong."