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Napa’s Festival La Onda embracing wine and Mexican food

Napa County’s inaugural Latin music festival, La Onda, is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday and will feature all Latino-owned wineries and authentic food, allowing festivalgoers to merge both worlds.

A Tostada de tinga de rez, paired with a Ceja wine. (Submitted Photo)

For decades, vintner culture shunned the pairing of Mexican food with wine, according to Amelia Ceja, founder of Ceja Vineyards, one of the first Mexican-American-owned wineries in the Napa Valley.

As the first Latina elected president of a winery, she, along with other Latino winemakers in the late 1990s, refused to accept the exclusionary ideals set by more prominent European wine brands and enthusiasts — a cultural shift that stands today.

Napa County’s inaugural Latin music festival, La Onda, is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday and will feature all Latino-owned wineries and authentic food, allowing festivalgoers to merge both worlds.

Also dubbed “BottleRock’s Latin sister,” the new festival will bring prominent multigenerational and multi-genre artists onto the same local stages at this scale for the first time. The Mexican-American vintners coming to the Napa Valley Expo will be embracing a relatively new status quo — the notion that Mexican food and wine can and should be paired.

The wine industry is steeped in traditions dating back hundreds of years, according to Ceja, who began picking grapes as a 12-year-old and now runs a vineyard spanning 133 acres.

“There are a lot of gatekeepers and elitism in the industry that we need to get rid of,” she said. “So many supposed experts will say that wine is great with Mediterranean cuisine. Well, what about other foods?

“Wine exploration is personal, so why should we listen to anyone’s palate?”

When the Ceja family launched their brand in 2001, she said, they were willing to be “ridiculed” because they felt strongly about making wine pairing accessible to all cultures.

Events like La Onda, Ceja added, contribute to dismantling “arrogant” ideals within the wine industry. “Wine generally pairs delicious with chilaquiles, menudo, and anything one enjoys,” she said.

From picker to vintner: Pedro Ceja, Amelia Ceja’s husband, harvesting grapes in 1982 (left) and today. The family-owned Ceja Vineyards is one of 10 Latino-owned wineries to be showcased at the inaugural Festival La Onda in Napa. (Submitted photo)

Spanish-language music, which became a billion-dollar industry two years ago, will be at the heart of the festival, fueled by wine tastings at the La Onda Stage and Verizon Stage.

Fernando Frias, president of Frias Family Vineyard, looks forward to the particular instance when “people can pair tacos with wine and pretty much what they feel is right.”

A Sauvignon Blanc or Rose, he said, is ideal and refreshing for warmer days like the ones expected during the festival, near the cusp of summer.

Until now, the Bay Area and specifically Napa, despite its growing Latino population, did not have a large-scale festival catering to Latino music and culture.

The 10 featured wineries La Onda are all members of the Mexican American Vintners Association, a group that promotes Latino-produced wines and provides educational sponsorships to local youth.

Everardo Robledo, CEO of Robledo Family Winery, recommends a Pinot Noir wine for those who are beginning their wine exploration journeys at La Onda.

“The gastronomy of Mexico pairs really well with California wines,” said the Michoacan native. “You can't go wrong.”

No one should be intimated by wine, Robledo added.

“Wine is for everybody. The more we taste it, the more we evolve as tasters and the more interesting it gets,” he said.

Tequila and beer, however, Frias added, are in an arm-wrestle with wine in the Latin community.

“Everything starts at home where you have your first tortilla, salsa or drink,” he said. “But as generations progress, wine is also becoming a staple in Latino households.”

Frias calls on festivalgoers “to get out of their comfort zone” and explore the fine wines made by Latinos.

La Onda is expected to draw 70,000 festivalgoers to the Expo over its two-day span, compared to the 150,000 attendees projected for BottleRock’s three-day schedule the previous weekend. Both festivals are sold out, according to Dave Graham, chief executive of Latitude 38 Entertainment and one of three partners in the company.

Husband and wife Juan Puentes and Miriam Puentes-Ramirez run their family-owned winery, Honrama Cellars, and sponsor a professional Mexican rodeo team, “Charros de Honrama. Pictured from left to right are two of the couple's three children: Andres Puentes, Paula Valentina Puentes and Juan Puentes. (Submitted Photo)

“It’s a huge deal that we finally have a big festival catering to the Latino population,” said Miriam Puentes-Ramirez, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico and a founder of Honrama Cellars. “We’ve been craving this, and seeing it is finally coming to fruition is exciting.