Ξ January 16th, 2009 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Wine News, Wineries |
I have long wanted to do a post on Ceja Vineyards. The Ceja family is the ideal fulfillment of America’s promise. Theirs is a story of thrift, perseverance, of sacrifice, of love, but most importantly, of hard work. Such an immigrant family’s history is today easily mistaken for literature, so rare has it become. So, as a writer of a simple wine blog, for me some subjects are simply too big, the personalities too vibrant to be done justice in a few hundred lines. I tucked the story ambition away, hoping an opportunity might appear. And finally it did.
When organizing a December 6th wine event in San Francisco featuring Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV fame, I called Ceja Vineyards, invited them to pour. I spoke with a young man by the name of Ariel, son of Amelia and Pedro Ceja. He apologized that the winery could not attend, notice was too short, my fault, but he just happened to mention a project he was working on, a project using the Web 2.0 tools Mr. Vaynerchuk has so famously employed. Ariel agreed to an interview somewhere down the line.
Today, January 15, I called him. He is a very charming fellow, well spoken, wise beyond his years. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation, as will the reader.
He is a rising internet presence. One to watch.
Admin Would you say a little about yourself and your current position at Ceja Vineyards?
Ariel Ceja Yes. My name is Ariel Ceja. I am 25 years old. I am the General Manager at Ceja Vineyards. And I came on board in 2006 after a four-year stint where I studied Film Production at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Just afterwards I worked for a year at Domaine Chandon as a server at the restaurant Étoile and then decided to jump on board with the family to help out my mother and the rest of the team here at Ceja Vineyards.
You studied Film?
AC Film Production. It was more theory than production, actually, as the program there was somewhat limited. I wanted to go to a smaller Liberal Arts college, and Occi, having the mix of students, its location kind of being in the heart of L.A. and also next to Hollywood as I knew I wanted to do internships there. It was perfect for my studies.
It was a great four years! But mainly for the social studies I wanted, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology. The film study was kind of on the side. The department had the smallest budget of any program in the school. We were a little stuck doing mainly theory and philosophy, things other than actually getting out and shooting movies with high-end equipment. But it was still a great learning experience.
There are a number of very nice little films on Ceja’s website.
AC Yes! I shot those about a year ago. The one of the chardonnay bottling line was shot this past harvest. Yeah, those are just me out there reconnecting myself with the camera. I haven’t touched one in about four years. I shot them in about a half-hour, edited them in an hour, uploaded them…. Now I’m getting more into learning about compression and what’s the best quality for video on the web and all that stuff; relearning the entire editing process, and shooting process, for that matter. It’s good practice for the Big League, for me at least, which will be Salud Napa that we aim to launch April 6th, my birthday! It’s a Monday, it’s a good day.
How is business, by the way? Has the recession hit you folks?
AC It is said that in an economic recession wine consumption actually goes up. I wish I could say the same for us. I mean, we’re staying steady, but our foot traffic has decreased dramatically, particularly at our downtown wine store. But here in Carneros we’re still doing very well. The weekdays have slipped, but weekends are still very, very busy. A lot of limousine companies love to bring their clients here because they get a very intimate, relaxed tasting experience. It makes them want to sign up for the wine club, become part of the family and to tell their friends about us.
In downtown Napa I think everybody is hurting a little bit over there. I know a lot of the restaurants are doing quite well but some retail outlets are struggling a little. We’re making ends meet but it could always be better. Through the cooking show and other brand awareness things I think we will start to pick up again.
And the Salsa dancing!
AC Yes. We’re starting a Young Professional’s Society, me and some of the young guys at Merrill Lynch. We had a meeting on Tuesday and 100 young professionals showed up! Very few were not in the industry. We had bankers, engineers, brokers, they all came to learn, network, mingle, and we inform them of the Salsa dancing, of course, which we have on Saturdays, the first class is complementary followed be a dance party which goes until 10:30-11:00. The dancing has been wonderfully embraced by the community. It’s a very chill crowd. We serve tapas as well, foods to compliment our wines.
People want something that’s alive, a bit more vibrant, in downtown Napa. In our own little way we’re able to give them that.
You guys are never short of ideas!
AC (laughs) We keep on our toes! My thinking was, what would be something cool in downtown Napa that I myself would like to attend, well, it would be a salsa, wine salonish place, and I think we’ve established that. And other people feel the same way.
Would you tell my readers about your new project at Ceja?
AC Yes. About a year ago my mother, Amelia Ceja and I started discussing, well, she kind of came up with the idea, of starting our own special network. I didn’t really have a focus at the time, but I loved the concept and saw how the likes of MySpace, Facebook, how all these guys, among many others, have taken off. So to do something as a pet project, in addition to my responsibilities here at Ceja, I thought why not integrate a community, in particular the wine club members, into a more interactive setting. And I figured a social networking site was the way to go.
And at the same time my mom had been told the idea that we needed to start a cooking show. She is pretty well known throughout the valley as a phenomenal chef. Wine club members and the Ceja family can attest to that. She can cook anything! So we thought why not use those talents in a community-driven way to promote, I guess ourselves and the business, the Ceja Vineyards, that is. So we decided to hammer out some details. And she had been going over this idea of a cooking show for quite a long time. In fact, when she told me about it she already had a couple of names in mind! She came up with an acronym of our family’s names. She put in order my sister’s name, Dalia, my older brother, Navek, Ariel, myself, Pedro, my father, Amelia, my mother; it spells out DNAPA, or in Spanish, De Napa, ‘from Napa’. We thought this was perfect!
I asked my mom did she purposely name us that way so that we’d have a name for some crazy, wacky idea 25 years later?! (laughter)
So we had this name down and a cool concept. But now, how the heck are we going to set about doing it? The next thing was to establish the name of the show. D’NAPA is going to be set up as a parent company, but we want to have a lot of subsidiaries. And one of them is to be Salud Napa which is now the name of the on-line cooking show and web portal. It is a bilingual, bicultural word. Everybody knows what salud means, it’s to your health, cheers. and then Napa. We wanted a strong word to let people know this is where we come from, this is where we live, this is a life style that anyone can have.
Once we had the name I set out to find a company who could carry out our vision of creating a cooking show featuring my mom’s cuisine which, again, is everything. At first we knew we were going to focus on Mexican cuisine but if this thing really took off we wanted to add everything, every kind of culture, every kind of cuisine featured on our show. And as I set about looking for a company I started thinking that this could be a good way to integrate the social networking aspect that I wanted to do anyway. So we set out to create a cooking show that also had this Web 2.0 ideology behind it. It’s not just a cooking show anymore; it’s a social community where you, as a member, can log in and participate not only with our show but also with our blogs we’ll have, blogs covering a variety of topics, not just food and wine but politics, art, music, culture, everything!
As we delved into it more we asked, what else can we do to build a strong community where the users really get to dictate the content? That’s what I’m most interested in producing. The catalyst will be the show, our featured bloggers, a variety of video segments that we’ll do for restaurants and that kind of stuff. But the biggest thing will be community-driven content, that is the way of the future. Look at Wikipedia.
If you let people create something over time, they will do it well and do it right. We asked why not let every member have the ability to have a blog, have a diary, upload their own photos, their own cooking shows, participate in what we are doing, lifestyle? Actually, our tag line that my sister, Dalia, thought up is Taste the Lifestyle. That encompasses everything.
We’ve been in pre-production with a company based out of Canada for our cooking show, Salud Napa. Now we’re working out the kinks, the design phase, making sure all the buttons work, we’re still progressing. We’ll launch in a couple of phases, just to get it out there. I figured April 6th. I still have to shoot and edit a show. It’s going to be a nightmare of work! I haven’t handled a camera in a while other than the two video segments I did on the Ceja website. I might as well start the next stage of my life, the next quarter century off with a bang! (laughter)
In March I’ve invited a lot of local colleges, Golden Gate University is one of them, to literally test and try to break the website. I want them to tinker as much as they can to ensure that when we go live, that we get a lot of great press, some of which we’ve already lined up to take a look and, we hope, write big things. So the website has to be top notch!
Once we go live we’ll ask the members for feedback. There’ll be a feedback button on every page. ‘What recipe do you suggest?’ There will be portals for everything. ‘What is the next show do you want us to shoot?’ There will be raffles where if you get chosen you get to come and hang out for maybe two nights. We’ll set you up, and you can cook on the show, participate in this family venture.
At the end of the day it’s wine, food, family, culture, art with a community promoting us to the world. We get to show people how to eat healthy and drink right. It’s a win-win for all.
This is very ambitious!
AC Sometimes we sit back and wonder whether we have any idea of what the heck we’re doing! And it’s all self-funded. It has cost a bit to set everything up, the trademark registration and so on. But I really believe in it! This is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. I’m just going to jump for it.
And it is great to work with the family. It is tough at times. No family business is easy. But we do all get along quite well. This will make us stronger. We get to hang out! Everyone gets lost in the work schedule but now we get to work and play together, a benefit of the show, quality time with the family. Living life the way we like to, surrounded by good food and wine.
I’m putting my heart and soul into this. I’m in the process of forming a board of directors, among other things. I’m trying to set this up and monetize it in a way so that it will be self-sufficient. I want to do other things. I want to own a restaurant based on the recipes we feature on the show. That’s just the tip of the ice burg.
I know this has to happen! This is the one promise to myself. Why not start a Salsa Club? Why not do a café? Why not do all the things that have a relationship with Salud Napa? Reinforcing our brand in as many ways as we can. And do it with organic food, locally sourced, and in an environmentally friendly way.
And I think that will only help us do more. People will say, “Hey, these guys are creating business, they’re creating opportunities, but they’re doing it in a sound way, environmentally, financially.”
And that reflects well on us as immigrants, as people who have overcome adversity; it inspires others, not just Latinos but everyone. I think that is the reason my mom was voted Woman of the Year by the California State Legislature. Inc. Magazine, a lot of hispanic publications have named her such as well. She’s tireless. People have seen what my family has been able to do coming from abject poverty to now: an award-winning winery. It’s pretty special.
And in not that long of a time. They came here in ‘67, my parent literally picking grapes at Mondavi’s house; and then turning that drive, that passion, with education along the way, and obviously hard work, into something very beautiful. A lot of people, regardless of race color or creed, can latch onto that and be proud, too. And I want to carry that tradition forward, adding new things like using Web 2.0 tools.
I think that if Salud Napa is embraced it has the potential to be big because, again, all the shows I shoot in English I’ll also shoot in Spanish. Right there is a huge undervalued market we’re going to tap into, Spanish-speaking people. And then eventually we’ll translate everything into French, Mandarin, Cantonese, a variety of languages to be able to become, literally, a global web portal.
The splash page should be up the second week of February. It will be called SaludNapa.com. [2/27 update. The splash page is now active-Admin.] The splash page is just going to have the template, the design of the whole page. You won’t be able to click through anything but I will have an updated blog and a ticker, the countdown, letting people know it’s coming, that this is something we’re working on. I’d also like to put videos up there to show people what were working on leading up to the launch date April 6th.
Your next challenge will be to run for Governor of California?
AC (laughs) In my own little way I want to be the vehicle for change, whatever that means. Right now it’s wine and food, and ripping apart the notion that authentic Mexican food does not go well with wine. I think that’s crazy. Authentic Mexican food, which this state doesn’t really have, is just as nuanced and is just as complex as, say, French, Italian, Korean, whatever, and it pairs beautifully with wine. I’d like to throw such notions out the door and allow people to dictate their own palate, their own taste.
If SaludNapa takes off financially, I mentioned being a vehicle for change, I’d like to start a non-profit, about education, health care, or even banking. I’m interested in turning every for-profit business that is a human right, and I consider banking one of those, into a non-profit. It is what this country should do. And I will spend the rest of my life doing that.
Are you thinking of something like a small lender practice between individuals?
AC Yes! Where you do low interest loans to anyone who has a passionate dream to start their own business, their own organization, but also a system where there’s always support where it is needed. I think our health care system is a mess, greed always gets in the way…. But I’m getting ahead of myself! I’m talking years, years, years down the line.
There are a lot of things I’d like to do. I’m taking baby steps. The cooking show is one. Then we’ll work on the rest.
Extraordinary. Ariel, you’re a remarkable young man. You give me hope! It’s been a great pleasure speaking with you.
AC Well, you’ve got to be a guest chef on our show! Cook up your culinary magic here on our little stage.
By the way, will you use a lighting grid?
AC No. We have lights but a lot of it will be shot on the fly. You look a the internet superstars, Gary Vaynerchuk and all the other guys, the production values are not necessarily the greatest, but the passion, the content, is why people love to go back. We’ll have a very high production value look but I’m going to focus much more on the content and the creativity of my mom.
Thank you for considering our project. Please come visit when you get the chance.
March 3rd update: Ariel informs me that the launch date has been advanced to Monday, June 1st. Many more new features will be added to the SaludNapa.com site. Creativity takes time!