You've picked out a good Cabernet. What should you serve with it? Beans -- Mexican beans. That's what Amelia Morán Ceja would do. Ceja is the first Mexican-American woman to head a wine production company, Ceja Vineyards. "People never thought to pair wine with Mexican food until we came along," she says.
Why beans? "Because they have the most perfect protein," she says, when eaten with accompaniments such as cheese and corn tortillas. In that way, they compare to meat, the usual Cabernet partner.
Ceja is used to making waves, with food or wine. Tiny, spunky and outspoken, she was picked by the Ceja family to head their business "because I was the best," she says. This put her on a level with the "middle-aged Northern European men" who dominate the wine industry. "It is very gratifying to me to have penetrated an industry that is not easily penetrated," she says.
Under her watch, Ceja has grown from an initial release of 750 cases in 2001 to just under 10,000 cases today. The company has 113 acres in Carneros, where Ceja lives, and in other parts of Napa and Sonoma. "I have gone from picking grapes to having a brand that is highly regarded in the United States," she says.
Ceja was born in Las Flores, Jalisco, a village of 50 inhabitants and 15 homes. In 1967, the family joined her father, Felipe Morán, who was in the Napa Valley picking grapes. "I remember it so clearly," she says of her first day. "We were there at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. For the first hour, I basically ate all the grapes." That day she earned $3.50. She was 12. The place was Robert Mondavi's Tokalon Vineyard
Pedro Ceja had arrived with his family a few days earlier. Thirteen years later they were married. In 1983, Pedro, Amelia, his brother Armando and their parents bought a few acres in Carneros. "We started with nothing but a desire to learn and a drive to work," Ceja says.
Along with her daughter Dalia, sales and marketing director, Ceja was here to take part in the Ultimate Wine Festival at Shade Hotel in Manhattan Beach. They poured a 2008 Carneros Chardonnay and a 2007 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.
Talking about food and wine pairings, Ceja said the key is to choose a wine that is balanced, with good acidity and moderate alcohol. "The high-alcohol fruit bombs don't pair well with anything," she says.
Ceja would serve the Pinot Noir with salmon ceviche, a dish on the menu at Bistro Sabor, a Latin restaurant in downtown Napa run by her son Ariel. "I invented this dish," she says. "Salmon is firm. It's oily and doesn't break down in ceviche."
The Chardonnay might go with quesadillas filled with prawns and arugula or with a fire-roasted tomatillo salsa. "It (the salsa) is lovely with a sur lies, non-malolactic Chardonnay," she says. "I don't like buttery Chardonnays. They make everything buttery and leave a film on your tongue."
She'd serve a red blend with pozole or chilaquiles, a Merlot with birria and a Syrah with mole. "There's something so beautiful, so ethereal about mole with Syrah," she says. "It's one of my favorite pairings. Mole is one of the loveliest sauces on the planet."
With Dulce Beso, a sweet late harvest wine, she would offer fresh figs filled with longaniza and cheese and drizzled with honey. Or else pears poached with Sauvignon Blanc, topped with mascarpone blended with some of the poaching liquid and sprinkled with spicy-sweet toasted pepitas. "It's stunning," she says of that combination.
Her choice for fish tacos is a Sauvignon Blanc, an "amazing" pairing, she says. Ceja's demonstration of that dish has just been filmed and is going up on the Ceja YouTube channel, along with about 140 other cooking demos, some featuring Dalia. The videographer is her son Navek.
Most of the recipes are from her village or else her own creations. "I started cooking along with my grandmother when I was 4," she says. "I was eating gourmet food since I was born, but I didn't know that it was gourmet." All the food was fresh, from her grandparents' farm. Because there was no electricity, salsas were ground in a molcajete, corn on a metate. Cheese was homemade.
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At about 14, Ceja was sent from Napa to a prep school in Aguascalientes. There, she volunteered to help in the kitchen. "My passion for the Mexican cuisine began then," she says.
Today, Ceja keeps her kitchen prepped with ready-to-cook ingredients in case someone drops by. The food is always Mexican, made with produce from her garden and paired with Ceja wines. "Mexican cuisine is as sophisticated as French food," she says. "It's never in-your-face hot but has layers and layers of flavor, like fine wine."
Read more from Barbara Hansen at www.eatmx.com, www.tableconversation.com, @foodandwinegal and Facebook.