How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I’ve been in the wine industry since my arrival in Napa Valley from Mexico in 1967. I began working in the vineyards alongside my parents when I was 12 years old, and I continued throughout my college years. I’ve been President & CEO of Ceja Vineyards since 1999.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
My family and I purchased our first property in Carneros in Napa Valley in 1983, and we planted Pinot Noir grapes in 1986. Our first harvest was in 1988 and it was perfect! I love Pinot Noir and I knew then that eventually we’d launch our brand under the Ceja Vineyards name.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
There are many aspects of my job that are rewarding, such as watching the growth cycle of the vines and then gently processing the grapes into stellar wine. I’m also a chef and I love pairing unexpected dishes with wine like salmon ceviche and Pinot Noir or popcorn and Chardonnay. I love introducing wine novices and connoisseurs alike to the magic of wine with food.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
I’ve had to deal with three types of prejudices: I’m an immigrant woman of color! But I grew up in a matriarchal household in Mexico and it prepared me to tackle all the obstacles I’ve faced in the wine industry. Typically, Mexican women work the vineyards— they don’t own them nor do they have their own wine brands, and I do. Also before Ceja Vineyards, there were no discussions about Mexican, Asian, nor Latin American cuisine paired with wine, and we’ve changed that narrative.
Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and often are harder/more judgmental of other women as a result. How can we as women become more aware of our own prejudice towards each and change that behavior?
Fortunately, I was influenced by the matriarch of my village – my maternal grandmother – Mamá Chepa. She raised me to be confident with deep respect for others, both women and men. We must always cheer and support each other’s success – there’s more power in numbers.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
Women’s ability to multitask is a necessity in the wine industry in both the vineyards and in the cellar. The process of grape growing and winemaking often require accurate prompt responses.
What changes do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
Currently, there are as many women as there are men studying viticulture and enology in universities. However, only 10% of winemakers are female. I’m hoping more women are hired as viticulturists and winemakers as they’re equally qualified as men. And I hope more women will launch their own wine brand.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Women wanting to enter the wine profession must learn the industry from every angle and seek internships and mentors. There are many opportunities for fulfilling jobs in marketing, sales, human resources, public relations, grape growing, winemaking and much more.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Sadly, there’s still a gender gap in the wine industry even though there are women who are as equally qualified women as men. Why? Because it’s run mostly by white men. The contribution of women must be acknowledged and hiring practices must change: More women need to be in hiring positions in order to change the existing culture.
What ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
At Ceja Vineyards, the assistant winemaker is a young woman who’ll eventually move to head winemaker, and the sales and marketing director is a woman too. Also, all our wine club managers have been women, except one. And we train our team to educate all our guests about the contribution of women to the wine industry in the vineyards and in the cellar.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
A wonder woman of wine is relentless in her pursuit of growing the best grapes and turning them into the most balanced wine. She’s edgy and not afraid to do things outside the box.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
Dr. Ann Noble is a sensory chemist and retired professor from the University of California, Davis. During her time at the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, she invented the ‘Aroma Wheel’ which is credited with enhancing the public understanding of wine tasting and terminology. Merry Edwards earned a Master’s degree in Food Science with an emphasis on Enology at UC Davis in 1973. For her thesis, she devised a method for the analysis of lead in wine and her findings caused the industry to discontinue the production and use of lead in capsules. She has also produced excellent Pinot Noir, was inducted into the Culinary Institute of America Hall of Fame, and she’s won the coveted James Beard Award for Best Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional in the United States. Alejandra Cordero is the head winemaker at Tres Raices in Mexico in the state of Guanajuato. The 30-year-old Cordero came from a chemistry background and she planned to become a pharmacist, but while studying, she was drawn to the challenges of enology. I’ve never met Alejandra. I learned about her in an article and I’m looking forward to visiting Tres Raices, meeting Alejandra and tasting her wines.